Archive for June, 2011

June 29, 2011

Los Lonely Boys bring a Texas flood of sound to 2011 Toronto Jazz Fest

Los Lobos at 2011 Toronto Jazz Fest

Los Lobos played a bluesy show at the 2011 Toronto Jazz Fest. (Julia Pelish photo)

By the time the Brothers Garza were through with their blistering 70 minutes of hard-driving, loud-hollering, ferociously raucous set on Tuesday night, they could’ve owned Toronto. Or at least Metro Square, and they certainly could leave town knowing they’ll command a higher price next time they roll into the Phoenix or the Sound Academy.

The Garzas, aka Los Lonely Boys, tore up the 2011 Toronto Jazz Fest with the sort of tunes that make traditional jazz fans cringe and critics ask, “Why are they here?” Good music is good music, though, and downtown Toronto could do with even more nights similar to the ones provided by this year’s edition of the festival.

No one outside Metro Hall was asking what genre of music Los Lonely Boys were categorized under. They just wanted more of it.

The thousand or so paying fans jammed under the tent and the hundred-plus outside on the lawn gave them a standing ovation — not their first of the night — as they walked off the stage.

June 28, 2011

Why Vienna should be on your must-see list

Rock climbing on Bunker Tower in Vienna

An old WWII bunker tower has been transformed into a rock-climbing attraction in Vienna. (Julia Pelish photo)

[This story was published in the Toronto Star on June 15, 2011. I broke up a stay in Paris with three nights in Vienna in May and the sophisticated Austrian capital ended up becoming my favourite European city.]

VIENNA — Staid, conservative and beautiful in that European way are the perceptions of Vienna, the former seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire known for its classical music, ballgowns and coffeehouses. It’s also a focal point for the modern art movement that began at the turn of the 20th century and that experimental, free-form thinking continues to impact the city in ways far beyond just its design aesthetic.

In his novella “The Third Man,” Graham Greene described Vienna as a “smashed, dreary city” after World War II. It had been divided by the Allies for about a decade. Sixty years later, it’s a bright, friendly place with a flourishing tourism industry.

June 27, 2011

Pic Nic Wine Bar – a Queen Street East charmer

pic nic wine bar

Pic Nic Wine Bar has 25 wines by the glass to choose from.

So last year I put together a list of the five best places to picnic in and around Toronto. I listed the standards — High Park, the island — and a couple of spots outside the city — Belfountain and Kelso Park — and to round it out I had some fun and threw in Pic Nic, the Riverside/Leslieville wine bar that deserves to be recognized as one of the standout places in town.

A couple of months later, I walked in again and the little article was clipped to the restaurant’s front door on 747 Queen Street East, and owner Ian Risdon, when I met him, expressed his gratitude with real thoughtfulness and grace — which doesn’t always happen when you publish articles that praise a place.

Last Monday, I got to know Ian and his girlfriend Seika Gray, who helps run the restaurant, a lot better as I shared dinner with them, along with Sarika Sehgal, a mutual friend who happens to be a talented writer and photographer (you know her as the former CBC and Toronto 1 anchor), CBC arts reporter Jelena Adzic and photographer extraordinaire/significant other Julia Pelish.

On previous visits, I stuck to Pic Nic’s outstanding charcuterie platter, the main draw. One of the places I missed when I moved from Vancouver was Salt, the acclaimed wine bar and charcuterie restaurant that’s helped clean up Blood Alley in Gastown. Discovering Pic Nic filled that void. Like Salt, Pic Nic offers a diverse cheese selection and meat choices that range from chorizo and prosciutto to amazing pates that Seika makes. For $22, you get a large serving that can easily be split between two people.

READ ABOUT THE DRAKE’S NEW DINING ROADSHOW

ian risdon and seika gray of pic nic

Ian Risdon and Seika Gray of Pic Nic keep guests smiling.

Unlike Salt and other charcuterie restaurants, Pic Nic puts plenty of other choices on its menu besides meats and cheeses. On Monday, Ian got us tasting several of them. The crusted prawns ($10), chicken quesadillas ($9, I think) and wonderfully flavourful scallops ($11, best I’ve had in town hands-down) are all delicious. Ian buys the seafood from Daily Seafood in Riverside. He told me the restaurant, which just celebrated its third birthday, is curing more and more of its meats in-house and Seika is also trying to make her own cheese. Chef Christine Vyhnal formerly worked at the Four Seasons Whistler, recently named the only five-diamond CAA hotel in the country.

We rounded it out with two kinds of divine truffles: peppercorn and hazelnut. Plus enough bottles of wine to leave the bicycle rider among us wobbling back to the Danforth.

It was a great evening that has left my objectivity completely compromised as far as Pic Nic goes. So if you don’t believe me (or Sarika or Jelena) when it’s reported that Ian and Seika are terrific people whose wonderful restaurant you will be happy to patron, take it from Paris.

June 26, 2011

Eddie Floyd and Stax! heat up 2011 Toronto Jazz Fest

Eddie Floyd and Stax!

For his birthday, Eddie Floyd gets a dance and Jazz Fest fans get a treat from the Stax! band.

Eddie Floyd celebrated his 74thbirthday on Saturday night. Toronto received the gift.

The long-time bluesman came on stage with the Stax! band midway through their set and absolutely, positively, undisputedly wowed us all. He pulled young ladies out of the audience to dance, played matchmaker by calling up an eager guy to join one of them, displayed a level of showmanship you usually have to pay big bucks to see at the ACC and delivered each classic blues song with a set of lungs that had to have been half as old as the rest of him.

If all is right in the universe, Floyd’s performance outside Metro Hall should guarantee the 2011 Toronto Jazz Fest will have a huge week and go down as the most successful edition yet. Anyone watching Floyd and the outstanding Stax! band, which included guitarist Steve Cropper (an original member of Booker T & the MGs and Floyd’s songwriting partner), drummer Anton Fig (from David Letterman’s band) and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn (an original member — with Cropper — of the Blues Brothers Band), will be tempted to return for the remainder of the Mainstage’s stellar lineup — which includes Robert Cray (Monday), a terrific double bill of Los Lonely Boys and Los Lobos (Tuesday), and an “are you kidding me?” Canada Day treat: The Roots (Friday).

If you haven’t been downtown the last couple of nights, you may not be aware the tunes are floating out from the big tent that’s been set up at Metro Square between King and Wellington Streets. So even if you haven’t paid the $40 or so for a seat, you can grab a spot by the rail or lounge on the lawn or dance it up for free.

June 25, 2011

Letters from you: Hooray for Buffalo

Canoe sculpture at Albright-Knox Art Gallery

The stunning new canoe sculpture by Nancy Rubins, unveiled earlier this month at Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It features 57 canoes. (Julia Pelish photo)

A lot of people love Buffalo — I learned that this week.

And they’re passionate about it — which I discovered last weekend when I was there. The letters and comments have poured in. Most are on the bottom of the article that got everyone fired up enough to express their love for the city, but some came directly to my inbox or to the Toronto Star’s Travel department or on Twitter. Here are a couple of those as well as some of the ones I liked most from the comment feed.

I like to think the outpouring of affection for the city spurred by the article is a testament to the power of the written word. But those words could have just given voice to a sentiment that was long overdue to be expressed. In any case, the piece seems to have served as a conduit for Buffalo to show its civic pride and, hopefully/possibly, for those readers outside the city to think twice before dismissing it as a travel destination.

See everyone in the Queen City on November 11 (if not before)!

GIVING IT A TRY
“I’m glad someone bothered to look past the stereotypes, cheap malls, hockey and wings and actually see the city. I’m not from there nor do I have any agenda. I just like to see places ­­— especially the ones people mark as dangerous, boring or ugly. I enjoy Buffalo every time I go and wish people would at least try.”
– Sabina

CANADIAN MOVING TO BUFFALO
“I was reading your article on Buffalo and wanted to express my interest in it. I currently live in Mississauga and am going to D’youville College in Buffalo in August for graduate school.

I was there a couple of weeks ago looking for a place to live with a lot of hesitation and worry…being a girl. Again, we’ve all heard how bad certain areas of Buffalo are but a landlord who has lived in Buffalo has told me about areas that are gems like you had stated in your article.

It really is a beautiful place but has had some unfortunate stories and reputation as being a bad area. I am hoping to eventually convince my friends that Buffalo isn’t just good for outlet shopping and Walden Galleria. I really hope that Buffalo continues to strive and become more reputable for being a nice town. It has a lot of heritage and potential but is always masked by the bad things.

June 25, 2011

Drake’s Dining Roadshow takes you to school

Malcolm Travis and Cumbrae steak from the Drake

Server (and sax player) Malcolm Travis parades Cumbrae steaks around the newly opened Dining Roadshow.

General manager Bill Simpson and the Drake Hotel staff never stop looking for new ways to introduce their sense of retro fun to the city. Case in point, the overhauled dining room, a space that always seemed a little imposing anyhow — was it part of the lounge or not? — is now called the Drake Dining Roadshow and its décor has been completely revamped.

On Wednesday, Simpson, executive chef Anthony Rose and his team introduced the new concept, which will feature a rotating menu, to invited guests and media. The Drake is billing it as a pop-up restaurant, although that’s not quite accurate. Its physical location will remain in the dining room but the restaurant’s theme and cuisine will change every two or three months. Pop-up restaurants got their name because they moved about, often using social media to tell people where and when the next dinner would take place. In the Drake’s scheme, it’s the cuisine and theme that alters.

The first few months, until September 4, the dining room will be themed around “Summer School,” with menus that arrive in red duotangs (never thought you’d see one of those again, eh), juice boxes with spiked lemonade (very Bart Simpson), and bookshelves with sports trophies and black-and-white class photos. After “Summer School” is out, the Roadshow will take a couple of days to transform again into 1940’s California Chinatown, just in time for TIFF.

“The Drake is very much a never-ending story,” Simpson told me a few months back when I interviewed him. “We call it an ecosystem because we carry out so many aspects of hospitality, and the cultural aspects whether it’s art or music or reading or dining, keep evolving.”

DRAKE HOTEL TRIVIA NIGHT A HIT

As with most things the Drake does, the Dining Roadshow is thick with kitsch. Salt dispensers are shaped like Rubik’s cubes, one cocktail (the $16 Nurse’s Office) is squeezed into your glass through a frightening metallic syringe and a “glee club” (the eight members of Retrocity) appear midway through dinner to sing a cappella tunes from the ’80s.

Such style usually works at the Drake (1150 Queen Street West) in part because the quality of the food and experience is satisfying, so you buy into an aesthetic that somewhere else might make you groan at the campyness. To keep your patrons going along with your vision takes a fine balance, and my impression of the “Summer School” restaurant is that it’s a little hit and miss.

June 20, 2011

How I overcame my prejudice against Buffalo

James at Tempo in Buffalo serves up Maine Lobster Risotto

James at Tempo in Buffalo serves up Maine Lobster Risotto. (Julia Pelish photo)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — “I’m a journalist and I’m writing a travel article about how to spend a weekend in Buffalo.” With those words, I had managed to disarm a U.S. border guard, a young man who immediately stepped back from my car and took a seat on the stool inside his booth. He placed a hand on his shaved head and then swiped it down across his perspiring face.

“You’re going to say good things about the city, right?” he asked without any hint of authority. It was more of a plea.

“I have every intention of being fair,” I answered.

“Have you been to Buffalo before?” He fingered through my passport but didn’t appear all that interested in it.

“Just for hockey games and a couple of concerts a long time ago.”

“What are you going to be doing?” Having collected himself, he stood and once again walked closer to the car.

“The tourism board gave me some suggestions …”

That seemed to worry him. He became more concerned with who the tourism board might be and what potentially lame itinerary they’d set up than with the line of cars waiting to cross the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge on Friday night. “So, where are you going to be staying?”

“The Mansion on Delaware,” I said, totally delighted at this point that I’d found some warmth in a situation that can often be cold and without humanity.

“Good, good, that’s a good start.” He leaned in and tapped a thumb on the roof of the car while I searched for the agenda. “What else? Where’ve they got you going?”

“Dinner at Tempo …”

“Never been there, but heard good things. What else?”

“The Albright-Knox Gallery …”

“Ok, sure. Good. And?”

“A Spirit of Buffalo cruise, Shakespeare in the Park, drinks at some bars.”

“Oh, yeah.” That last bit crossed into familiar terrain for him and he asked, “Which ones?”

“Allen Street Hardware Café …”

“Yeah, so-so, in my opinion. You’re in Allentown, good area, but you should head up to Elmwood and Forest, and try Hertel.”

“Ok.”

“There’s lots to do. I can’t think of anything else off the top of my head right now, though.”

“That’s ok. I’ve got a lot planned.”

“Buffalo doesn’t have a very good reputation.”

“I know.”

“I have to stand up for my city,” he said and handed back my passport. “Have a good time. Write something good about it.”

That ended the best conversation I’ve ever had at a border crossing and began a weekend in Buffalo full of charming encounters such as this.

For those of us in southern Ontario, picking on Buffalo and Buffalonians has been our guilty pleasure. We’ve laughed while fate dumps a torrent of snow on them; we’ve snickered at their failures, exchanging enough “wide right” jokes to keep us going straight on with our bias; and we’ve used their serious misfortunes — high crime rate, low prosperity — to make us feel superior about ourselves and where we live. It’s not very neighbourly, let alone Canadian.

June 20, 2011

Clarence Clemons – thanks for the memories

clarence-clemons-and-springsteen-are-born-to-run

The original Born to Run cover

When a publisher asked me a few years ago to list my favourite albums of all time for a collection of essays from rock critics, the easiest decision was what to put at No. 1. “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” was fun, funky and fantastically listenable. It’s also timeless. I didn’t discover early Bruce Springsteen until the late-80s, when I was a teenager, nearly two decades after the release of “Greetings from Asbury Park”. While that first album gets acclaim for putting Springsteen on a map larger than the Jersey shore and while the third album, “Born to Run,” is what produced his signature tune, it’s the second album that has the most soulfulness, I think. It’s not perfect, meandering at times, and not preciously produced like “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. What “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” has, though, is the exuberance that captures the live E Street Band experience that so many of us not only love, but cherish as some of the best memories of our lives.

Going to see an E Street Band concert is going to church for a lot of us. When I heard “Rosalita” live for the first time in Vancouver four years ago, it was rapturous. Every note swimming through me, uplifting me, making me jump a little lighter. A lot of us are tearful because the passing of Clarence Clemons means we’ll never have such a moment again.

The Big Man’s star turns are on “Born to Run,” with the solo on “Jungleland” and the shout-out from Bruce on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out”. But it’s on “Rosalita” and “Incident on 57th Street” from “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” that we hear it all coming together: The E Street Band before they were officially called so melding into the great outfit they became, and doing so in large part because of Springsteen’s insistence on having a saxophonist at a time when no one else did.