Archive for June, 2012

June 18, 2012

French River is one of Ontario’s jewels

french-river-ontario

Recollet Falls, the rapids of French River, were a major hazard for explorers ferrying down the Fur Trade Highway centuries ago. (Julia Pelish photo)

[First published in Vacay.ca earlier in June, 2012]

ALBAN, ONTARIO — Brian O’Rawe blames it on the Glenfiddich. The scotch went down easy and took with it any inhibitions he had about buying the Sand Beach Lodge more than five years ago.

“I went to bed that night and woke up in the morning and told my wife, ‘I think I just bought this place,’” O’Rawe says with a storyteller’s bemused expression while sitting on the same bar stool where the deal was struck. It’s a warm day in early June when we talk and outside a boat grrrrs past, carrying a quartet of fishermen down the 105-kilometre-long French River that historians have nicknamed the Fur Trade Highway. The Voyageurs, those French explorers and trappers sent out first by Samuel de Champlain in 1615 to discover what stirred in this giant country, trekked down the river and back to Quebec, hauling pelts of beaver, wolf, and elk — and stories of aboriginal encounters and unforgiving land. Despite the dangers, the Voyageurs kept coming and coming, for more than 200 years until the merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company in 1821 shifted the trade route north.

A Scotsman, O’Rawe has latched onto the spirit of those adventurous men. He visited the lodge many times after moving to Toronto about a decade ago, and realized he was happier spending his days in the pristine wilderness setting of French River Provincial Park than in the bustle of Canada’s largest metropolis. O’Rawe also knew a good thing when he saw it. A former consultant for international hotel companies, including Mandarin Oriental, O’Rawe was convinced the lodge and its setting would be a draw.

Once you’ve gazed on French River, you’ll be convinced it was his business savvy not the scotch that steered him to purchase the property that was built by the Seagram whiskey clan in the 1920s as a family retreat. French River is quintessential Canada: big, empty, beautiful, welcoming, and calm.

“If this was in Europe, cars would be lined up for days to get here,” O’Rawe says. “You just don’t find nature like this over there.”

It’s not just Europeans who should be making their way to discover French River. Canadians will appreciate a visit too, especially those who are seeking the solitude and natural beauty that commercialization has taken from parts of Ontario’s most popular cottage destination. One hour north ofMuskoka, French River gives you the kind of escape many Ontarians now feel they must fly away to enjoy.

When I make the three-hour drive from Toronto, I find the summer rush has yet to come. Except for a few visiting journalists, the only guests at Sand Beach Lodge are a couple from Michigan who happened to show up only because the French River Visitor Centre directed them to O’Rawe’s spot.

“We asked for a nice place with good food and this was where they recommended. We’re very lucky. This is a beautiful lodge,” Barbara Taylor said.

The lodge has had its starring moment, hosting a Disney crew during the filming of the Jonas Brothers’ teen flick “Camp Rock 2″ (the brothers, though, didn’t stay at the lodge because the movie’s security staff believed the river presented too many opportunities for crazed teenage girls to make a mad attempt at invasion, O’Rawe informs with a laugh). Sand Beach’s usual clientele includes families, couples, fishing groups, and corporate types looking for group getaways. Retention rates are exceptionally high, O’Rawe says, noting that guests return time and again, including a German family that has been coming back for four generations.

Although it’s a fishing lodge, many Sand Beach guests arrive aiming to escape the pace of urban life and to indulge in chef Ryan Trotter’s cuisine. Dinners include four courses that are all delightful, making you wonder how food so good can be found so far from a big city.

“We try to be as local as we can be, but it’s hard out here. So we will go out and get the best products in Canada we can find,” says Trotter, whose beef tenderloin is a thick cut from Alberta, served peppery and flavourful.

June 14, 2012

Friday Night Live at the ROM is a Toronto sensation

ROM-friday-night-live-toronto

The popular Friday Night Live series wraps ups at the ROM on June 22, 2012. (Julia Pelish photo)

[First published in Vacay.ca in May]

TORONTO, ONTARIO — Before this year, JT Stevenson hadn’t walked into the Royal Ontario Museum since he was 13. Back then, he had to leap to reach the hook to hang his coat. These days, Stevenson is grown up and back at the ROM every Friday night. The hooks he’s concerned about are the ones his DJs spin during the museum’s immensely popular Friday Night Live series, a weekly mashup of food, music, drink and some of the most valuable artwork in the country.

“I think it’s brought a lot of people back into the museum who haven’t been here since they were kids,” said Stevenson, who helps to run ElectriCITY, an event management company whose DJs spin around Toronto. “I think it’s fabulous and we’ve been here every week, we can see it getting bigger each time.”

Stevenson was at a recent event that coincided with the CONTACT photography festival. Along with the DJs, pop-up food eateries such as Jamie Kennedy’s Frites, an Asian noodle shop from c5 and popular Cuban sandwich company Fidel Gastro set up stations in the corners of the museum’s main lounge area.

A bar in the lobby pours out wine, beer and spirits, while tellers sell ROM Bucks, which look like strips of amusement-park tickets. They have to be used to purchase food and beverages because the food stations and bar aren’t stocked with change. The chefs also have restrictions on what they can serve.

“I can’t have an open flame,” said Matt Basile, owner of Fidel Gastro, “so there are quite a few sandwiches I’m not able to serve that I normally would.”

That limitation hasn’t hurt Basile, though. Lineups for the three sandwiches he does offer at the ROM — including a mac-and-cheese with pork and a delicious shredded butter chicken number — stretch into the dozens and he said he was sold out by 9 pm during the May 4 event.

Friday Night Live starts at 6 pm and runs until 11 pm, 90 minutes after the museum’s doors close.

The concept of turning museum space into a playground for adults isn’t new. Buenos Aires has held Museum Nights for years, where music and tango dancing take over many of the city’s art spaces, while New York, Rome and Paris have long had evenings where iconic museums morph into something resembling a disco. This type of ongoing series is new for Toronto — and Canada — and it’s been a bona fide hit from the outset. At 8 pm, lineups to enter the ROM look like what you’d find near 11:30 on club night in the Entertainment District.

“You’ll get two or three thousand people in here by 8:30,” Basile said while plating one of his sandwiches a few feet from a medieval-era knight’s armour kept in a glass case, adjacent to another case holding a necklace made by Pablo Picasso’s daughter. “This is a pretty cool place to have a party.”

Those who attend — the demographic is perhaps broader than any event in the city other than the Toronto International Film Festival — get the opportunity to visit the museum’s galleries and exhibits, which continue as they would on any other night, with volunteer guides to answer questions and give information about topics like the eyesight of birds and the blinding effects of tarantula hair. Since the inception of Friday Night Live, the guides have noticed some tipsy patrons and once a stickbug — a tiny insect with delicate appendages — lost two legs while being held by a guest who wasn’t prepared for the crawling creature’s fragility. “But it’s okay, their legs can grow back,” the guide said.

June 3, 2012

A magical Niagara night with Vikram Vij’s exquisite Indian food

Stratus-Vij-lamb-popsicles

The famous Lamb Popsicles from Vij’s in Vancouver were brought to Niagara-on-the-Lake for one special night. (Julia Pelish photo)

[It was a tremendous pleasure to be on hand for Vikram Vij’s appearance in Niagara-on-the-Lake last weekend. Vij’s is among my three or four favourite restaurants in the world and to taste the food that I’ve missed from Vancouver right in Ontario’s glorious wine country, with some of the best reds and whites in the nation at Stratus Vineyards, was a true culinary treat. Here’s the report that first appeared on Vacay.ca]

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO — “It’s the only time you’ll never have to wait for Vij’s food,” Charles Baker told the guests who had gathered at Stratus Vineyards on Saturday night for a meal coordinated by Vikram Vij, the Vancouver-based chef whose restaurant is famous for its hours-long line-up for a table as much as it is for its remarkable food.

The Coast to Coast dining series at Stratus kicked off with Vij overseeing a five-course meal featuring pairings from Stratus, one of the finest wineries in Canada. The undertaking was a feat and not simply because Baker, the winery’s director of marketing and sales, managed to land the services of one of the country’s most acclaimed chefs.

“Getting Vikram here was easy. Figuring how we were going to feed 70 people — that was the tough part.”

The winery has a small kitchen, so the food was prepared at a nearby college with the help of chefs from Niagara-on-the-Lake and culinary school students. Hemant Bhagwani of Toronto’s Amaya pitched in with cooks and an oven to prepare the naan.

“We had chefs sacrificing a Saturday night at their own restaurants to be here,” Baker said. “If you know the restaurant business, you know Saturday nights are the biggest night of the week, so for them to do that is pretty unbelievable.”

Vij gave the chefs a crash course on how to spice his recipes, which are usually prepared by a team of women from Punjab at his flagship restaurant in Vancouver’s South Granville neighbourhood that has operated for 18 years.

“The spices he uses are the Bordeaux of spices, and what he does with them is brilliant. I don’t think I was quite aware of how complex it was to spice Indian food,” said chef Ryan Crawford, who heads the kitchen at Stone Road Grille in this theatre town 90 minutes from downtown Toronto that’s known for its wineries and picturesque view of the Niagara escarpment. It was Crawford’s duty to find the products needed for the dinner. The toughest to find were British Columbia spot prawns, which arrived the night before the feast. Served in a coconut masala curry, the prawns were lobster-like in their tenderness and succulence.

They started off the meal in the Stratus press alley, a long, narrow hall lined with wine barrels and metal vats. Tables were set up end to end to create one long console that looked like something out of an olden-days royal court. After the prawns, came a vegetable curry with asparagus and cauliflower, a chicken curry that diners of Vij’s sister restaurant, Rangoli, will know well, and the chef’s famous lamp popsicles — rack of lamb served with each piece attached to a bone meant to resemble a stick. It’s one of the ways Vij encourages his diners to pick up their food.

“Indian food is meant to be eaten with your hands,” he says, touching his thumbs and fingers together in that passionate way of his.

Prior to the dinner, Vij demonstrated the depth of his knowledge during a discussion about the spices that are so essential to his cooking. Turmeric, cayenne, fenugreek, fennel seeds were among the items laid out in front of guests, who were invited to touch and smell. “Curry shouldn’t make your palate hot,” he told the audience of mostly Caucasian diners. “You should have a little sweat on the back of your shoulders and maybe on your forehead, but it shouldn’t be burning your throat. You can’t enjoy the flavours if you’re constantly drinking water.”

It’s his refined and thoughtful approach to Indian cuisine that has helped set his restaurant apart from every other Indian restaurant in North America, if not the world. Vij is also one of the most vocal proponents of Canadian food and talked about the importance of using local ingredients to help define a national cuisine.

June 2, 2012

Why it’s hip to be in Calgary these days

hotel-arts-calgary

The blown-glass ceiling is a highlight of Hotel Arts in Calgary. (Julia Pelish photo)

[First published in Vacay.ca]

CALGARY, ALBERTA — Ryan Fairweather built a furnace in his backyard garage that heats up to 1,200 degrees Celsius — the same temperature as the corona of the sun. From it, he and his cohorts at Bee Kingdom make glassware that’s gained international attention (Elton John owns a piece, supporters of the company are quick to mention) and turned four guys from art school into magazine cover boys and trendsetters.

There’s lots of, um, buzz around Bee Kingdom and not necessarily because of its product. Although the glassware, made in the rear of the group’s tiny bungalow, is outstanding, the true intrigue about this collective is the fact they can even exist, and flourish, in a city known for a sensational amount of wealth and a vacuum of creativity.

“Being an artist in Calgary, we’ve really had to find our own way. We couldn’t graduate and find a prescribed path because there really wasn’t one. Everything we’re doing we’re kind of doing with trial and error. With that there’s been lots of obstacles, but lots of successes too. Because no one else is really doing what we’re doing, it’s been relatively easy to get some exposure,” Fairweather says, noting that Avenue, a glossy magazine that reports on the city, put Bee Kingdom on the cover and their trademark yellow Converse shoes have gained the attention of the likes of Naheed Nenshi, the popular, 40-year-old mayor who has become a symbol of Calgary’s newfound hipness.

This city of 1.1 million has grown by more than 20 per cent in the past six years as more Canadians from the east, who a generation ago would have stopped in Toronto for work, skip over the nation’s largest city for the draw of big paydays and security in Calgary. Until this year, though, there was little attention paid to Calgary’s efforts in using money made from the oil-and-gas industry — the source of plenty of Alberta’s wealth — to boosting the city’s image as an arts, music and dining hot spot. In 2012, Calgary is one of two Culture Capitals of Canada (Ontario’s Niagara Region is the other) and is receiving more than $3 million in funding from federal, provincial and municipal governments as well as the private sector.

When I ask how the arts scene has changed during her career, Anne Ewen, the Art Gallery of Calgary’s director, says without missing a beat: “There is one.”