June 16, 2014

A night at Vikram Vij’s new restaurant, My Shanti

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Vikram Vij is eager to welcome diners to his restaurant in the suburbs. (Herman Chor photo)

[This article was originally published on Vacay.ca on June 8, 2014.]

SURREY, BRITISH COLUMBIA — It’s 7 pm on the first Wednesday in June and the lineup at Vij’sis two hours long. Those at the back of the queue may not know it but they could hop in a car and drive 45 minutes to find food prepared by the same cooks as the famous Vancouver Indian restaurant. Not only that, these days they’ll also find Vikram Vij at My Shanti.

The celebrity chef’s newest enterprise opened on June 2 and for the time being it needs its owner’s attention. “It’s like a baby,” he says of the 130-seat restaurant with an exterior so eye-catching you’ll think it belongs in Times Square, not a suburban strip mall.

For 20 years, Vij has spent most of his evenings working the room at Vij’s, making it a destination restaurant unlike any other in Canada. With My Shanti, he sees an opportunity to elevate the food choices in the suburbs. He also indulges in showcasing more of his recipe book, filling the menu at My Shanti with regional dishes from India.

Anyone who has been to Vij’s knows the cuisine is a blend of European technique and Indian flavours. My Shanti is more traditionally Indian. “These are the dishes I’ve wanted to share with people for a while. They are from different regions of India, from places I’ve visited many times over the years,” says Vij, who juggles his time between the restaurants, his packaged food product line and numerous TV appearances, including as an upcoming member of CBC’s “Dragons’ Den.”

Vikram Vij’s Culinary Tour of India

Though the cuisine at My Shanti isn’t the same as Vij’s or Rangoli — the small eatery next door to Vij’s on Granville Street that’s also often packed with diners — some of the experience is unmistakeable. The spices that are so sublimely blended together you don’t realize there are dozens of them in each bite, the texture of perfectly prepared basmati rice, the heat that hits the back of your throat after you’ve enjoyed the other flavours first. Those are all hallmarks of Vij’s food and it’s what you’ll discover in the Indian dishes at My Shanti.

“This really is just like Calcutta fish,” Mariellen Ward, my dining companion, said with both joy and surprise when she bit into the steamed tilapia ($19.50), served with mustard gravy reminiscent of dishes from the capital city of the state of West Bengal. “This is really is like being back in India.”

Ward is an excellent person to gauge the authenticity of My Shanti’s recipes. Her website, BreatheDreamGo.com, has been recognized as a leading authority on travel to India and she has visited the country several times in the past decade. She assured that the menu accomplished Vij’s aim of giving diners a culinary tour of his homeland. Dishes evoke the diverse tastes of the Asian nation. The names on the menu tell diners the origin of the appetizers and entrees.

As good as the food is, the decor is a match — starting with that shimmering exterior. It is made of 4,000 sequins, affixed by hand to tiny hooks attached to a brick wall. The wind ripples through the sequins, causing a lovely wave of silver to streak above your head.

Mysorian vegetable thoran ($15) is a curry mixed with delicious grated coconut; Hydrabadi chicken biryani ($22) is served with Vij’s “3 Mistresses” — spicy sauces that include tamarind and chili concoctions; and Goan Oyster Pakoras ($11.25) are tasty morsels breaded in chick-pea flour and served with a tangy green chili creme fraiche. There are also Bollywood references and colloquial Hindi phrases used on the food and cocktail menu (try the rum-based Dawa Daru, $11). The standout, though, is a flavourful appetizer inspired by South America. The Peruvian/Indian ceviche of fish and shrimp features the seafood dropped into a gol gappa (a thin, crisp, hollow, bite-size bread bowl) and served atop a non-alcoholic shot of tamarind juice. Pop the seafood-stuffed gol gappa into your mouth and throw back the tamarind shot. Unique and incredibly tasty.

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January 12, 2014

Winnipeg museum sure to draw tourists

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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will open in September 2014 in downtown Winnipeg. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[First published on Vacay.ca in December 2013.]

I visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in December. It is immediately the most outstanding tourist-focused building in Canada — and right now there’s nothing in it but construction material. When it is filled with innovative and interactive displays — many of which will showcase the evolution of humanity under the rule of law — the CMHR will herald a new era for a city overdue for a tourism reboot.

Winnipeg’s reputation for too long has languished. Lambasted for its frigid temperatures in winter and buggy conditions in summer, the Manitoba capital has had much to overcome in perception. It has built momentum in recent years, thanks to an under-the-radar dining scene and the return of the city’s beloved NHL team, the Jets, who have stoked Winnipeg with more confidence and pride. Now, this. The CMHR.

The name is boring, the building is astonishing. Designed by New Mexico-based Antoine Predock, the CMHR is 260,123 square feet of whoa. It explodes out of the landscape to grab your eye and break any prejudice you have held toward the city. What is a building like this doing in Winnipeg? That, I’m sure, will be a question many will ask. Once a visitor gains some knowledge about the $351-million facility’s home, the location will make sense.

Truth is, Winnipeg has a history of grandeur that’s largely been forgotten outside of Manitoba. A century ago, it was home to 19 millionaires, more per capita than any other city in Canada, or even New York. Its Main Street is lined with former bank buildings constructed to be palaces of money. Twenty of them were positioned in a row like opulent dominoes. In their prime, they offered a spectacle of gild that would rival modern-day Bay Street in Toronto. Today, those buildings that remain have been converted into offices and restaurants.

The city’s other architecture gem, however, is still serving its original purpose. The province’s capital building, the Manitoba Legislature, was constructed between 1913-20 and was the opus of Masonic devotee Frank Worthington Simon, educated in Paris and fanatical about creating a monument that adhered to the principles of an ancient temple. And no mere millennia-old place of worship either. Simon interjected his version of the Holy of the Holies — with a hidden Ark of the Covenant and all — in the design. The building is perfectly proportioned, the clues to its true purpose deciphered in the book The Hermetic Code by academic Frank Albo. It’s also a fun attraction. A feature in this homage to King Solomon’s Temple is called the “Pool of the Black Star” and it allows whoever stands on its tiles to throw his or her voice toward the heavens with a god-like burst. 

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January 2, 2014

Best of Canadian travel for 2013

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Sonora Resort in the Discovery Islands is surrounded by pristine Pacific scenery. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This is my look back at 2013 travels across Canada, as first published in Vacay.ca on December 30, 2013.]

When I think back to my 2013 travels, one day will dominate my reminiscences — September 21. The last day of summer, the first full day of my return to British Columbia as a resident, and the single most stunning photographic experience of my life. I wasn’t alone in that assessment. On a journey with a half-dozen well-travelled journalists and photographers, I witnessed grizzly bears snatching and chewing salmon within a few strides of where I stood, a school of 150 dolphins propelling through the north Pacific with a pair of full-span rainbows as a backdrop, and an inter-species dance between sea lions and some of those same dolphins in the gloaming of the night.

This experience that was fit for a cinema took place in the Discovery Islands, a place all travellers should endeavour to find themselves one day. That morning and afternoon were captured in an article and photo slideshow published this fall.

Except for a couple of sojourns to the Caribbean, I spent the entire year’s travels within Canada, exploring its abundance of wonders. Although my trip to Sonora Resort stands at the top, it was far from a singular highlight.

DINING

Best dinner: I can never name just one, so here are three: Le Laurie Raphaël in Quebec City presented a happy mix of elegance, playfulness and culinary creativity; Araxi in Whistler showcased chef James Walt’s brilliance and passion for local food; at Sonora Resort, a Relais & Chateaux property, chef Terry Pichor treats diners to a course called “pre-dessert” — one reason why its tasting menu is a must for culinary travellers.

Best dinner enjoyed at a bar: I pulled up a stool at Bar Isabel in Toronto and was wowed by a handful of zesty Spanish dishes that would fit suitably in Iberia. Oh, and the drinks are great, too.

Best dinner enjoyed with a sabre: At Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, the Champagne sabering ritual is something you have to do — read why.

Best lunch: At Annie’s Table in Prince Edward Island, chef Norm Zeledon taught me to shuck oysters (and how to douse them with a shot of the province’s moonshine) and introduced me to the wonders of black garlic. He then cooked up some delicious mussels that we enjoyed in the lovely property that is a converted church. (Runner-up: The Lobster Pound in Sydney, Nova Scotia, where chef Richard Moore isn’t stingy with the portion sizes.)

Best liquid lunch: I had a few of those at Chase, which has one of the premier patios in Toronto and a terrific rum selection.

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December 12, 2013

How travellers can go in search of Nelson Mandela

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A bust of a youthful Nelson Mandela adorns the famous Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Capetown, three kilometres from Robben Island. On Thursday, Mandela passed away at age 95. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on December 5, 2013, the day Nelson Mandela died.]

Naively, I arrived in South Africa three years ago thinking it would be difficult to find anyone in the nation who didn’t love Nelson Mandela. The first person who I interviewed taught me a lesson. “I didn’t like Mandela much,” said the man, a former diplomat who asked not to be identified when he spoke about his political career. He was present with Mandela at numerous high-level meetings in the 1990s, during the leader’s presidency. “Behind closed doors, he had little tolerance for dissent or opposing views. But I do respect him, tremendously. How could anyone not?”

So, I was asking the wrong question. For all the idolatry around him, Mandela was human and susceptible to the range of emotions as everyone else. Rather than inquiring about the ubiquitous of adoration for him, I should have sought a person in the nation who didn’t appreciate what he did for South Africans of all ethnicities. Such a person I didn’t find; however, somewhere there must exist a dissenter, a boorish individual opposed to the ideas of anti-apartheid and the Rainbow Nation. Largely, though, South Africa is a nation of Mandela acolytes, white, brown, and black.

“It’s like meeting an angel,” Sebastien Qweshe, a driver at the posh Michelangelo Hotel in Johannesburg told me about his encounter with the Nobel laureate.

Maria Sekwane, a member of the African National Congress, remembered February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, as a night of unmatched celebration. “We sang and we danced, but we were also expecting that we would soon have to fight,” she recalled. “For days we were collecting money to buy guns and then Mandela said each and every gun must go into the sea. We couldn’t believe it. But he insisted that had to be the way. That we could not look backward and that had to happen for the country to go forward.”

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December 3, 2013

White-water rafting turns out to be more fun than scary

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The Cheakamus River in Squamish provides soft adventure thrills for beginners and families. (Canadian Outback Adventures photo)

[Article first published in Vacay.ca on October 21, 2013]

SQUAMISH, BRITISH COLUMBIA — The guide tells our group, “You are going to fall in the water. Every one of you.” He does it with certainty and in a dead-serious tone of voice that sets me shaking. I don’t like being in water, unless it’s warm, contained, and with a bar I’m able to swim up to. Dropping into cold water that’s racing for Mexico and dotted with jagged rocks whose purpose appears to be to crack the bones of anyone unfortunate or foolish enough to splash into the rapids isn’t my thing and never will be.

As the guide details how he plans to retrieve each of us when we do fall into the chilly Cheakamus River — which he repeats again we are sure to do — I am thinking about hanging up my oar and making for higher ground. But a big part of a travel writer’s job description is attempting things not in one’s comfort zone, so readers like you can know what it’s really like before you set out for the adventure yourself. It’s kind of like the work a proxy would perform for medieval noblemen, tasting their food just to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.

So, for you, I undertook my first white-water rafting trip, a two-hour thrill ride that was far safer than anything I expected and gave me a new appreciation for the soft-core adventures Canada offers.

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September 12, 2013

A stroll along Canada’s No. 1 street

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Visitors enjoy the atmosphere of Old Quebec on Rue du Petit-Champlain. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[This article was originally published in Vacay.ca and the Huffington Post.]

QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC — Eric Vezina can trace his roots to this spot, a cobblestone street that is 12 metres wide and 500 metres long, with a history older than the nation and a devotion to culture that is as fierce as it is endearing. Walking along Rue du Petit-Champlain, Vezina says, “My family goes back 11 generations in Quebec, to 1659. They helped build this street.”

A maintenance worker for the businesses in the area, Vezina speaks proudly of the heritage his ancestors played in establishing this section of Quebec City that dates more than 400 years and of where the street stands today, which is at the head of the nation. Vacay.ca has spent months visiting Canada’s urban centres to determine which streets are the best places for you to spend your time and dollars when touring the country. Rue du Petit-Champlain, lined with shops that belong to an artists’ cooperative, ranks No. 1 among the Top 20 Streets to Visit in Canada (full list to be published on September 17).

The street has boutique shops, artisan galleries, and restaurants, as well as a 200-seat theatre within centuries-old stone walls, a mural that depicts different stages of the city’s history, and a touching memorial to the 20 victims of an 1841 landslide that saw shale from the hill above  tumble down 300 feet. Look up beyond the cross that honours those lost and you will see the city’s greatest landmark, the Château Frontenac, rising tall from atop the Dufferin Terrace. The famed hotel was built in 1893, however, making it relatively modern when compared to the street and district beneath it.

Rue du Petit-Champlain is the oldest commercial street in North America. The Breakneck Stairs that lead down to it from Côte de la Montagne — a winding route that doubles in winter as the course for the annual Red Bull Crashed Ice races — are steep and dramatic. Built in 1635, the staircase has 59 steps that take you to Rue Petit-Champlain and the adjoining streets that make up the Quartier Champlain district.

Beyond the eye-catching scenery, what distinguishes Petit-Champlain from every other street in the nation is its emphasis on local culture in a tourist-heavy location. The street receives one million visitors a year, yet you will not find a Starbucks or McDonald’s here.

“We just say no,” notes Pascale Moisan, director of the Quartier Champlain cooperative. She mentions that Subway recently wanted to open a franchise location on the street but was refused.

Forty-five stores belong to the cooperative, with most owned by artisans and boutique fashion retailers. There are a couple of restaurants and chocolate shops. Not all the stores in Quartier Champlain are part of the cooperative. The one national chain that has a storefront here is LUSH (102 Rue du Petit-Champlain), but Moisan points out that its cosmetic products are handmade and that helps it complement other shops in the district.

In winter, the street is cleared by the cooperative’s members because Petit-Champlain is too narrow for snowploughs. The community also places 40 trees along the street at Christmas and more than 15,000 lightbulbs are used as decorations. It creates a beautiful scene, a winter wonderland that underscores that the street is as much for residents as it is for visitors.

“We have the best of both worlds. We have shops and things to do for the people of Quebec who enjoy the area, and you have stores that have lots of appeal for tourists,” says Monique Zimmermann, proprietor of Brin de Folie (38 Boulevard Champlain, linked to Petit-Champlain by a staircase), a colourful shop with zany gift items.

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August 17, 2013

AGO welcomes Ai Weiwei exhibit to Toronto

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Ai Weiwei’s According to What? exhibit opens Saturday in Toronto. It’s the only Canadian appearance for the showcase. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[Originally published on Vacay.ca on August 15, 2013]

TORONTO, ONTARIO — An earthquake thundered in Sichuan five years ago, unleashing devastation, a gush of tears, and one man’s torrid imagination. Ninety-thousand people died in the Sichuan disaster; 5,212 of them were children, almost all of whom perished in dilapidated schools built by the government. A few weeks after the earthquake, Ai Weiwei travelled approximately 1,500 kilometres from Beijing to the razed province in south-central China.

“I write every day, sometimes two articles a day,” Ai has said. “In Sichuan, I couldn’t write for a week. It was devasting. I was speechless.”

He was far from powerless, however. Ai took photographs and videos of the ruined towns. Most poignantly, he collected hundreds of knapsacks, which had been left strewn in rubble, the most awful kind of litter you could imagine. The knapsacks belonged to the children whose deaths have inspired Ai to change his world through relentless attempts to make the Chinese government more transparent and accountable.

Ai turned the backpacks into a serpent, a black-and-white polyester statement about what he believes is China’s treacherous treatment of its impoverished citizens and government corruption. The serpent is a symbol thick with meaning in China and Ai’s use of it in this context — with the backpacks representing the blood of the Sichuan children — is his way of shouting, “This is what you really are.”

Made from 883 knapsacks, Snake Ceiling has hovered on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario since this spring. The rest of the “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” exhibit begins its only Canadian appearance this weekend at the Toronto museum. It is a thought-provoking showcase of an artist who is affecting the world while in his prime — a rarity. Ai has gone from mischievous rebel who would photograph his upraised middle finger in front of icons such as the White House, Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square to a gutsy critic with a clear focus on doing whatever he can to break China away from its old and anachronistic policies and predilections.

“It’s not often you get to talk about art and the state of the world at the same time,” AGO’s director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum said during a news conference on Wednesday that unveiled the exhibit. “When you can place in front of a community an artist who is struggling to be heard it is an important moment.”

His rebelliousness left Ai under house arrest in Beijing two years ago. That was a bad move by China. Not just for the image of oppression it presents to the world, but for the fact that confining your most outspoken critic to his studio is akin to forcing a teenage hacker to remain locked in his parents’ basement with four desktop computers and unlimited Internet access. Relegated to his studio called 258 Fake, Ai created more provocative art that challenges the Chinese regime he has already embarrassed time and again. The government also detained him for 81 days, citing a range of charges, banned his blog and name from appearing on search engines within China, and confiscated his passport, another act that has served to make a martyr of him. Activists around the world have rallied to raise awareness. A “Free Ai Weiwei” campaign has snaked through the art world and student campuses and into some mainstream outlets. In May, Ai released his first music video, set to the expletive-rich song “Dumbass”that swipes once more at government restrictions.

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August 13, 2013

Chase is on to be Toronto’s best restaurant

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The rooftop patio at Chase is sure to be a hot spot in Toronto. (Julia Pelish photo)

[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on August 12, 2013.]

TORONTO, ONTARIO — Steven Salm has opened 14 restaurants in his career. That would be impressive for anyone in the restaurant business. Consider that Salm is 29 years old and the feat seems astounding. The transplanted New Yorker’s most ambitious and likely finest achievement debuted on a Monday afternoon soaked with sunshine and a champagne sprinkle of rain.

It’s called the Chase and the Chase Fish & Oyster Bar — two restaurants, one building, four floors apart. Anyone would crown the combined 10,000 square feet of dining flair as Toronto’s new “It” spot without even pulling up a chair. The space is that phenomenal. The rooftop, home to the Chase, features lounge chairs on the patio, a wonderfully stocked bar, and lavish decor in the interior that’s bracketed by attractive glass walls.

“This is the most relaxed I’ve been in eight months,” Salm said on opening day, smiling in the way people smile after they’ve finished a marathon — half excited with the achievement and half astonished at what they’ve just put themselves through. “I thought we would do half the size of what we did, but the real estate is so good and the opportunity really excited me.”

New Yorkers Salm and David Chang of Momofuku have invigorated Toronto’s dining scene with culinary ambitions on a massive scale. Momofuku Toronto opened last September in a terrific 6,600-square-foot property adjacent to the Shangri-la Hotel. It features three restaurants, a cocktail lounge, and the recently opened Milk Bar. The Chase restaurants are in the historic Dineen Building, a circa 1897 heritage space.

Executive chef Michael Steh oversees both two restaurants, which have separate chef de cuisines and diverse menus. The oyster restaurant, which debuted four days earlier, flies in fresh seafood from both coasts of Canada. It’s offerings include Oyster Po’boy Sliders ($11), a Lobster “Waldorf” Roll with candied walnuts and apple ($28), and decadent seafood platters ($50 or $110). The upscale rooftop kitchen sources local ingredients and also features some seafood dishes from abroad, including a delicious grilled octopus with pork sausage, salsa verde, and piquillo peppers ($23).

“We want to reset the bar for fine dining in Toronto,” says Steh, who has worked at Splendido and Reds, a favourite spot for bankers in the Financial District. “I think a lot of restaurants get away with things in this city that they wouldn’t in a place like New York. I think competitiveness is something that’s been lacking in Toronto for a long time. Steven has a lot of competitiveness and that is why I jumped aboard. He brings a drive for excellence that’s contagious.”

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