Archive for May, 2011

May 22, 2011

The Daily J.P. Arencibia to Cooperstown Watch, Games 44 and 45: Apocalypse Not

One day after it looked like the end of the world — as far as Jo-Jo Reyes and the Jays might know it — was upon us, Jose Bautista showed the future just could be pretty damn bright.

J-Bop belted a three-run shot in the sixth inning that sparked the Blue Jays to overcome a 4-0 deficit and led them to a 7-5 victory over the Astros at the ’Dome on Saturday, aka “The Rapture.”

We’re all still here. And Bautista is still hammerin’ balls the way those Bible thumpers who think the apocalypse is now smack “the good book.” J-Bop ended the scoring in the ninth with a solo shot, his major league-leading 18th. Yunel Escobar also went yard, plating the winning run with a two-run blast in the seventh that put the Jays ahead 6-4. Escobar was instrumental to J-Bop’s big hit in the sixth when he grounded to shortstop, a ball Houston’s Clint Barmes let slip through his legs. That spelled doom for the ’Stros.

In a way the outcome makes up for Friday night, when the Jays blew a 2-0 lead in the eighth inning, costing the winless Reyes that oh-so-coveted first victory. Jon Rauch blew the lead and Frank Francisco gave up three runs in the ninth to take the 5-2 loss. Thanks to Bautista and Escobar, though, the sting from that one didn’t last so long.

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May 20, 2011

The Drake spins out more fun – Lemonade Stand, Summer School and Trivia

Lemonade Stand at the DrakeThe Drake Hotel is a favourite spot for a lot of us in Toronto — not least of all because it never stands still. For the May long weekend they’ve debuted their Lemonade Stand on the always-fun Sky Yard patio. You can order up a Lavender Lemonade ($11), which includes Sobieski vodka, lavender syrup and lemonade, as part of the “Summer School” program that encourages the sort of behaviour that might have landed you in summer school back in the day. With the weather warming up, sort of, things will be packed up on the second deck as usual. Catch you there over the weekend.

Lavender Lemonade from the Drake

Lavender Lemonade from the Drake

And here’s my story that ran in the Toronto Star a couple of weeks back about the Drake Trivia Night on Wednesdays.


What stumps Toronto’s trivia guy is a question that most pertains to him: How big will his competition grow?

Each Wednesday since August, Terrance Balazo has set up his laptop in a booth at the Drake Hotel reserved for DJs and prepared to unleash 30 or so questions on a suspecting audience. Within the past eight weeks, Trivia Night at the Drake has been sold out three times, with close to 200 people filling the hotel’s lounge restaurant to capacity. A March edition in the middle of Canadian Music Fest brought in the largest audience yet, according to the host. Participants pay $2 each and most play in teams of two to four, answering questions that range from the obscure (what country’s flag is entirely green?) to Balazo’s version of Name That Tune, which will test your sanity as well as your recall, and queries tied to hilarious visual clips (watching William Shatner speaking in Esperanto in a scene from “Incubus” was better comedy than Charlie Sheen provided in Toronto recently).

“I’m surprised how full it is every week,” says Balazo, who is also an actor and the artistic director of Cow Over Moon Children’s Theatre. “I don’t think the kind of night it is is what people go to the Drake for traditionally.”

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May 20, 2011

5 Vienna travel tips

St Stephens Cathedral in Vienna

The 137-metre spire of St. Stephen's Cathedral towers over the old city in Vienna.

VIENNA — The capital of Austria is one gorgeous, well-managed place and it’s easy to get around here. You don’t have to be a seasoned traveler to find Vienna comfortable and accommodating. Here are some tips for your trip that may make it more enjoyable than you expect:

  1. Explore the old and new city. Like just about every European city, Vienna features a beautiful historic centre with spectacular architecture and a towering church spire looming over everything. Still, to really see what makes it special, you’ll want to get away from the crowds outside of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and beyond the Ring Road, which circles the old city. The new part of Vienna is filled with cool stores, innovative restaurants and fantastic bars. Check out Schon Schön, Max and Bar a.m.
  2. Save on transit. Vienna has an expansive and diverse public transit system that includes an underground Metro, buses and streetcar/tram system. There’s a quirk that says you have to pay 2.20 euros if you buy your ticket on a tram or bus, but if you purchase an advance ticket it’s only 1.80 euros. You can get those advance tickets at “Vorverkauf” (“advance tickets”) kiosks in the Metro stations and at some tram stops. Also, if you’re traveling on the transit system for only one or two stops, you can buy a “half-price ticket” for just 1.10 euros. Visitors can purchase unlimited-travel passes for a number of time periods; for 24 hours it costs 5.70 euros and for 72 hours it’s 13.60 euros, and you can even get an eight-day ticket (27.20 euros). Thing is, Vienna is so easy to walk — and walking is always the best way to see a city — that you may not need to take transit more than twice a day, if at all, meaning you can stick to the advance tickets and save, or simply opt to stay on foot. When you want to travel to the outskirts of the city, you can purchase a 24-hour pass that can get you to Schönbrunn Palace and Grinzing in one day.
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May 20, 2011

The Daily J.P. Arencibia to Cooperstown Watch, Game 43: Win one for Ryley

JP Arencibia homers for Ryley James Martin

JP Arencibia homers for Ryley James Martin on Thursday.

J.P. Arencibia not only made his good buddy Ricky Romero a winner on Thursday night, he got us all to remember winning on the diamond isn’t everything. Arencibia and Romero dedicated the Jays’ 3-2 victory over Tampa Bay to Ryley James Martin, a 2½-year-old Oshawa boy who passed away on Wednesday after battling leukemia.

Arencibia and Romero had met Ryley on April 2 for 15 minutes when he had the chance to visit the team in the dugout at the ’Dome. After hitting a two-run, seventh-inning home run off of Tampa Bay starter Wade Davis, Arencibia cried.

“I shed a few tears after that home run because it was for him,” Arencibia told reporters after the game while holding a photo of him and Ryley together. “It’s killing me. I have nieces and nephews, and anytime something like that happens, it’s tough.”

Later, on his Twitter feed, Arencibia kindly and thoughtfully wrote: “Great win but its a game … We played this game for one person tonight RJM! RIP little buddy! Will never forget that smile!”

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May 19, 2011

Death Cab livens up the Phoenix

On the day Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber topped Forbes’ list of the richest and most powerful celebrities, Death Cab for Cutie showed Toronto you can still thrive in the music biz without big money or gimmicks. The Seattle-area quartet put on a no-nonsense, no-frills, no-BS performance at the Phoenix on Wednesday that showcased their stellar musicianship and Ben Gibbard’s flawless vocals.

Kicking off with a lengthy intro to “I Will Possess Your Heart,” Death Cab rolled through a two-hour set that featured several songs from the upcoming “Codes and Keys” album, the band’s seventh and first since the 2008 monster “Narrow Stairs.”

Highlights included Gibbard’s acoustic rendition of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” which turned into a singalong (“You and me have seen everything to see/From Bangkok to Calgary”) and “Soul Meets Body,” which, well, really soared into the atmosphere. Gibbard is one of the rock world’s best male vocalists at the moment, sounding the way you might imagine Morrissey sounding if he were heterosexual.

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May 18, 2011

5 reasons why Paris isn’t so great

Quai Canal Saint Martin in Paris

You'd look away too if you just polished off all those bottles. Canal Saint Martin is a popular spot to hang out and drink in public in Paris. (Julia Pelish Photo)

PARIS — In the travel world it’s blasphemy to suggest Paris isn’t all that. For many people this is the most beautiful city in the world as well as the centre of all things great in cuisine and culture. After my recent stay and, having the fortune to visit some great cities in the past year or so, I found it fell short in some big ways. So, here goes: Five reasons why Paris isn’t as great as people say. [Write in with your disapproval – or agreement.]

Mediocre quality of service. In no other country do we excuse underwhelming performance as much as we do in France, particularly Paris. “Oh, it’s just the French,” is what so many people say when they’ve encountered a surly worker at a Metro information booth or a waiter who spends more time texting on his phone than refilling your water glass. You also run into shopkeepers who seem bothered that you spend a few minutes perusing their selections rather than ordering quickly and letting them go back to their game of Angry Birds. Of course, you’ve got some terrific service and hospitality workers. The Hotel Athenee, where I stayed for seven nights, was terrific and the staff were extremely friendly and helpful. Overall, though, the city’s service industry could use some shine.

The racism is boorish. Several expat Canadians who I met in Paris said the racism is so over the top it’s shocking. They tell me TV commentators are blatantly insulting to people of different races, especially blacks. Some say they end up having to back out of conversations that become too uncomfortable because of the racist language. Paris wants to be thought of as the epitome of cultural sophistication and civility, but you can’t do that when you still have the mentality of a 19th-century colonialist.

The Louvre is disappointing. As one patron of the Louvre told me, “You have an entire floor where you see one painting after another of the same thing painted by an Italian. It’s one version of Madonna and Child, next to another painting of Madonna and Child.” A little hyperbolic, but there’s some truth to the criticism. There is a sameness to some of the wings of the Louvre and there is also the annoyances: The crowds make you just want to get out of there; there aren’t enough washrooms; the food choices are few and they’re weak. And, yes, the Mona Lisa is a disappointment. That’s not to say seeing Winged Victory and the Venus de Milo isn’t a magnificent experience you must have for yourself. It’s just that as far as great museums go, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Met in New York offer more satisfying visits than the Louvre.


The food could be better. A lot of it’s really great. And you can get good food at all price points (more on that in a later article). The “but” here is this: There’s a sameness to the cuisine. You’re going to have difficulty finding great sushi or Indian or Chinese, and as a visitor that’s okay. You’re here to enjoy French food the way the French do it. In this era of globalization, though, there’s got to be some adaptability. It’s happening, but slowly (more on that later too). Of the meals I ate in Paris the best by far was a home-cooked one, made by my friend Anil Murthy. Delicious shrimp biryani, butter chicken with only a pinch of butter (he swears) and homemade raita. Anil’s a damn good cook, so the Paris restaurants shouldn’t be ashamed!

Chez Janou in Paris

Chez Janou is a popular spot in the Marais district of Paris. (Julia Pelish Photo)

The price. In terms of cost, Paris is like London: very expensive. You don’t realize how much so until you leave it. I broke up my stay in Paris with four days in Vienna, where I found the cost of everything from wine and food to clothes to be deeply discounted, in some cases at half the price as in Paris. For travelers, cost is always at the top of mind, and the premium you have to pay in Paris may make you want to look for an alternative.

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May 12, 2011

In a battle of Vienna vs. Vancouver, both win

St. Stephen's CathedralVIENNA — Vienna or Vancouver? What’s the better city? They duel annually for the distinction of the world’s best metropolis to call home. Vienna this year topped the Mercer Index for Top Quality of Life while Vancouver was named The Economist’s Most Liveable City in the world.

I lived in Vancouver for five years (and intend to return to my home there one day) and I just got back from a four-day stay in Vienna. Picking a winner would be difficult. This is Ali vs. Fraser, or Halle vs. J-Lo, or Dom vs. Cristal.

Vancouver wins on scenery, hands-down. Vienna, from what I could tell, comes out on top in standard of living.

Vancouver is a little better on its overall food scene, but Vienna has Steirereck, one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Vancouver has mountains, Vienna palaces. Vancouver has the Shangri-La, Vienna has the new Sofitel, with the hot Le Loft restaurant at the top. Vancouver has Stanley Park, Vienna has the historic village of Grinzig and the forest surrounding it. Vancouver has Granville Island, Vienna the Naschmarkt. And you can go on and on.

When it comes down to it, though, there’s a reason people find these two cities to be so terrific: The atmosphere. In Vancouver, you head to English Bay, Third Beach or the seawall on Coal Harbour and you instantly escape. Vienna relaxes you with its wide streets, friendly people and truly amazing modern art installations, many of which will make you to smile.

Of course, it also has more history than any North American city, with ruins dating to Roman times and churches as old as the 13th century. The art collection from the former Hapsburg empire is loaded with great works, including Vermeers, Rembrandts, Raphaels, van Goghs and Titians. There’s also Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” a treasured painting that holds the viewer’s gaze with its beauty and intricate details. The 103-year-old painting is at Belvedere Palace, which boasts a number of other great works.

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May 11, 2011

Dairy Queen sets one sweet world record in Toronto

Dairy Queen sets Guinness World Record in Toronto
Dundas Square is used to seeing lots of white stuff. Tuesday’s scene had nothing to do with snow or pigeons, though. Dairy Queen set a new Guinness Book of World Records mark for the largest ice cream cake ever. Here are some facts about the sweet feat:

  • 22 DQ workers built and iced the cake
  • It weighed 10,130.35 kilograms (about 22,000 pounds)
  • More than 9,000 kilograms of ice cream was used
  • It was made of 91 kilograms of sponge cake
  • On top was 136 kilograms of icing and crushed Oreo cookies
  • The previous Guinness world record — an almost 8,000 kilogram ice cream cake — was set in 2006 in Beijing
  • Dairy Queen built the cake to celebrate its 30th anniversary; it has made 52 million cakes since 1981.

The cake didn’t last long. It was sliced up and passed around to those watching with tongues wagging. Onlookers were asked to make a donation to Sick Kids Hospital.

Denise Hutton, vice-president of marketing at Dairy Queen Canada, told reporters: “It took nearly 100 people over a year to plan for this record attempt, and we couldn’t be happier with the result.”

[Thanks to Julia for the photo]