Archive for April, 2013

April 16, 2013

Seeing the Ottawa Senators in action is sensational

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Jim O’Brien of the Ottawa Senators goes head over heels during a game against the New York Rangers. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article on my favourite NHL team was a labour of love 🙂 — and was first published on Vacay.ca on April 16, 2013.]

Marc Dupont takes 20 minutes to put on his game-face. It’s thick black paint that the night would envy. When complete, the soft-spoken government worker looks like a menacing warrior ready to terrorize. Along with the paint, Dupont wears a gladiator outfit that cost $1,200 on eBay, carries a plastic sword and sometimes a giant flag with the emblem of his team, the Ottawa Senators.

His outfit is made of metal and hard plastic, with enough bulk that it makes it hard to do anything but stand. Turns out that’s a good thing, because when Dupont and his fellow gladiators — self-professed “Superfans” — go to a game they don’t have a seat anyway.

“We have an agreement with the team that they give us access to the arena and we come to boost up the crowd, add some spirit to the rink,” he said during a recent game against the New York Rangers, which the Senators won at Scotiabank Place.

Dupont and his friend Jesse Jodoin began the ritual of donning gladiator outfits in 2007, the year the Senators went to the Stanley Cup finals, losing in five games to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. They and other gladiators attend about 10 games a year each in costume.

Tips for Seeing the NHL Senators

The Sens’ gladiators have become one of the attractions at the NHL rink that seats 19,153. Along with the kid-friendly mascot, Spartacat, the gladiators pump up a crowd that is regarded as too quiet. When theToronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens play road games in Ottawa, it’s routine to hear fans of the visiting side drown out the home team’s supporters. This year, the Senators asked season-ticket holders to refrain from selling their seats to fans of rival teams, particularly the Leafs and Canadiens. The request was met with snickers from observers around the league, several of whom said the team should focus on getting more out of its own fans rather than thwarting efforts of others trying to reach the rink.

It’s a perplexing situation that has existed since the team’s inception in 1992. Despite the fact the Senators have been one of the NHL’s winningest teams over the past 12 seasons, the rink isn’t always full and it’s not always loud.

One reason is because of location. Scotiabank Place is the only NHL arena in Canada that isn’t within the urban centre of a city. It’s in Kanata, about 20 kilometres from downtown Ottawa, a drive that can be aggravatingly long, which is why most weekday home games start at 7:30 pm rather than 7 o’clock like in other Canadian markets. A downtown rink attracts a boisterous crowd ready to make a night of it, win or lose.

At Scotiabank Place, the overwhelming majority of attendees must drive. That means less drinking, which means less noise — and that’s not a bad thing. Senators fans are among the league’s most polite and respectful. If you’re a fan, you can follow the action without worrying if the hooligan next to you is going to drop his beer on your lap (unless of course your neighbour is wearing a Leafs jersey, in which case you’d be advised to find Dupont or Jodoin to heckle him into an early departure).

Before and after the games, Bert’s is jumping, with live music and sports action on 23 large TV screens. It’s a festive place, with tiki bar decor and other Caribbean touches inspired by Bert’s in Barbados, which Senators owner Eugene Melynk has a stake in. Concession booths at Scotiabank Place are, not surprisingly, overpriced but Bert’s prices and fare are what you would expect to find at any sports bar.

Ottawa Hotel for the NHL Stars

When making your decision on where to stay for the game, your first option should be the Brookstreet Hotel. Besides being extremely comfortable, the Brookstreet is the place where visiting NHL teams choose when they’re in town for a game. The players aren’t off-limits either. I found myself in an elevator with the Rangers’ Rick Nash and dining alongside some of his teammates at Perspectives restaurant.

“All of the teams have very specific menus they want us to create,” chef Clifford Lyness said. “More and more, we’re seeing requests for organic dishes. We work closely with the team’s nutritionists and sometimes the requests can be a challenge, but we always do whatever we can to meet their needs.”

While you likely won’t be eating from the same menu as the NHL stars at the Brookstreet, you’ll still enjoy a good-quality meal and a relaxing atmosphere with a nice view of the property’s golf course in the rear. The jazz lounge features music and local beer on tap, including brews from Ottawa’s Kichesippi Brewing Company and Beau’s.

The rooms are spacious and modern, with outlets for all your gadgets, HDTV, and room-darkening curtains. A minus is the lack of in-room complimentary WiFi (it costs $13.95 for 24 hours), but Options on the lobby level has a connection you can utilize.

Catching the On-Ice Action

The Senators are an admirable team to watch. Under second-year coach Paul MacLean, they compete, stick to their system and move as a unit, limiting the gap between the forward and the defence. (Yes, I’ve watched a few of their games.) With offensive stars Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza injured, they’ve managed to hold down a playoff spot (they’re currently sixth in the Eastern Conference) with strong team defence, outstanding goaltending and timely goals. Put on red jerseys and move them to Detroit and they might resemble some of the Red Wings teams that MacLean coached as an assistant under Mike Babcock.

The Senators have taken advantage of being underestimated this year. They put up an energetic effort, especially at home where they have a 13-3-3 record entering Tuesday night’s game against Carolina. If you want to see an NHL game and find it difficult or too expensive for a game in Montreal or Toronto, the Senators are a terrific third option in the eastern part of the country.

Ever since Scotiabank Place opened in 1996 as the much-cooler-sounding Palladium it has been graced with some of the best sightlines available in any NHL arena. The front rows of the upper deck will put you on top of the action. Like the Bell Centre in Montreal and Air Canada Centre in Toronto, the back rows don’t have any of the intimacy of the older hockey rinks, but that’s a situation fans have to get used to these days.

The lower-bowl views are outstanding. You’ll get a clear view of the action and because of the hush of the crowd be able to hear every scrape, whack and smack that takes place on the ice.

Read more on Vacay.ca.

April 14, 2013

Rene Redzepi speaks from the heart in Toronto

[This article and video were first published on Vacay.ca on April 10, 2013.]

The world knows Rene Redzepi can cook, but who knew he could write?

On Monday afternoon, Redzepi stood in front of 500 attendees at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto and read from a manuscript he prepared especially for the conference. Candidly, he detailed his passion for food, the roots of that passion that go back to his childhood in rural Denmark, how being true to his desires propelled his culinary success, and why losing sight of those desires led to standing on a beach in Mexico and contemplating running away from Noma and the mania surrounding it. His words about the dangers of burning out were a generous gift to chefs in the audience striving to attain what Redzepi has accomplished at his Danish restaurant. They were also extremely well thought out sentences, carefully chosen nouns and verbs that resonated with emotion.

Redzepi spoke about how so many people were advising him to go against the ethic of Noma, which has always been about food and flavours first and foremost. The restaurant, which has topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three straight years, has never had the finest silverware or the most fashionable wait staff, but Redzepi has been encouraged in recent years to add such pretentiousness. Advisors told him to reach for more accolades and that meant more material luxury in his rustic dining space “as if a fucking bowtie would make the food taste better.” On top of those influences was the intense pressure of running a business that has faced more scrutiny in the culinary world than any other restaurant on the planet in the past four years.

“I said, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Redzepi said to the crowd at Terroir, an annual gathering that brings together international food industry professionals to discuss sustainability and better practices.

Afterwards, he told Vacay.ca and other media, “We got very confused at Noma when we first started having success. I went to cooking school to learn to whip a bernaise, not how to deal with the New York Times in a press conference.”

Like many accidental celebrities, Redzepi found himself performing tasks he never endeavoured to perform and, on top of 85-hour work weeks at the restaurant, the demands on his time resulted in a wish to escape. However, his drive to improve overwhelmed any thoughts of quitting. After introspection about how to deal with the stress and what it was doing to him, the 35-year-old said he chose to clutch onto the beliefs that made him so celebrated in the first place.

“I feel more energized than ever,” he said, explaining that any downbeat sentiments in his story were there as a cautionary note to other chefs. He urged them to not lose their vision, or allow it to be circumvented by people who feel they are better at business or public relations or management. “This was a story about memories and also a story about sticking to what you know.”

What Redzepi understands better than just about anyone is how to make the most of the quality of food within your grasp. When speaking about the use of unusual ingredients in his cuisine, he said, “It is all about a search for flavours, it has nothing to do with shock value.”

The ants that he uses in his dishes are “little tiny creatures” that have what he describes as an explosive taste exotic to Scandinavians. “Here we are in cold, grey, shitty, Protestant Denmark with our potatoes and our beet root, and suddenly you have the flavours of ginger and lemongrass to put on your beet root. That is magnificent.”

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April 6, 2013

Lee Harvey Osmond brings on the folk

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Tom Wilson put together a stellar lineup during Lee Harvey Osmond’s recent show in Toronto. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article was originally published on Vacay.ca]

By its nature, roots music makes a statement through understatement. It uses poetry and art and subtlety to snake its way into a groove that listeners find themselves wanting to retrace time and again. If rock ‘n roll and hip hop are the Saturday night club, then roots and folk music are the neighbourhood coffee shop — the place we always wind up when we want to think and gain perspective and sense community.

Tom Wilson may look like Saturday night — and he’s no doubt enjoyed the rock lifestyle — but his songs have always had the elements of folk music, from their melodies to their characters who possess the depth necessary to connect a listener with their struggles.

On “The Folk Sinner,” the sophisticated second album by his Lee Harvey Osmond project, Wilson shows he’s at his finest these days when there is minimal bombast. With the goal of “serving the music first,” Wilson and his bandmates deliver an elegantly produced album with throaty vocals and a touch of First Nations texture in songs like “Big Chief.” It is reminiscent of Robbie Robertson’s brilliant self-titled album from 1987. “The Folk Sinner” also evokes another celebrated Canadian songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot. A cover of his song “Oh Linda” kicks off the album and was a highlight of Friday night’s performance inToronto that featured Wilson and several of his friends, who just happen to be among Canada’s most talented musicians.

Wilson’s Blackie and the Rodeo Kings bandmate Colin Linden performed “Oh Linda” while Michael Timmins of the Cowboy JunkiesOh Susanna, the Skydiggers‘ Andy Maize, and Paul Reddick were also on stage at the Great Hall for a 90-minute set that showed folk songs have no problem turning into rock music when infused with the energy of a live show and Wilson’s showmanship.

“That configuration has never played together before. They’re all friends of mine and have been for a long time. The idea was to serve the music, to put it first and see where it takes us,” Wilson told me on Tuesday.

A charismatic frontman, Wilson keeps audiences engaged with his humour, some of it self-effacing (“I’ve been on a no-wheat diet and I’m trimmed down and feeling good, but before the show I had a burger for the first time in months and I tell you, I owned that bun, man”), and talents, whether with his vocals or his on-stage antics. On “The Folk Sinner,” “Freedom” is a funky foot-tapping number highlighted by horns and slide guitar, but in concert it smoulders. With a riveting and fiery delivery, Wilson urges anyone within earshot to unshackle themselves and move.

Timmins’ sister, Margo, will be making appearances on upcoming tour dates, Wilson said. Hawksley Workman, who performs on the album’s first single, “Break Your Body Down,” will also join this rambling group of aging and congenial musicians who will show audiences that great concerts are still about great musicianship, not distracting choreography and lip-synching.

“We’re really astonished by the response. To be able to put 470 people into that hall is quite something,” Wilson said about Friday night’s show, which was part of Canadian Music Week festivities. “The album has been No. 1 in Canada already on the Americana Roots charts and we’re getting airplay in the States.”

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April 3, 2013

Rene Redzepi of Noma to appear at Toronto’s Terroir Symposium

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Among the delegates at Terroir will be chef Marc Lepine, who created this inventive dish featuring lobster and crab at his Ottawa restaurant, Atelier.

[This article was originally published on Vacay.ca]

Arlene Stein has tried for three years to line up a date for Rene Redzepi to join Toronto’s food industry at the annual Terroir Symposium. This year the schedules aligned and the executive chef of Noma is the marquee name among a list of culinary stars ready to appear at Monday’s gathering that’s focused on encouraging better practices in the industry and celebrating local food.

“I made a film with Rene last year about Noma’s Saturday night menu, which is pretty significant and pretty fantastic. Getting to know Rene even more than I had before helped to build that relationship. We were trying to get him here for three years but in 2010 he and his wife had just had a baby, and last year our conference was four days away from the World’s 50 Best awards,” Stein, the event’s founder and chairperson, said last week. “This year he decided to come and we are thrilled. We have outstanding international chefs and amazing Canadian chefs.”

The day-long symposium will be held at the Arcadian Court, an Oliver & Bonacini venue at the historic Simpson Tower. It will include seminars that range from appetizing (cooking demonstrations) to thirst-quenching (craft brew workshop) to thought-provoking (a debate on “culinary cannibalism”).

Along with Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant has ranked atop the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three straight years, other international chefs at Terroir will include Magnus Nilsson of Sweden’s Faviken, Kobe Desramaults of Michelin-starred In de Wulf in Belgium, and South African Peter Templehoff of The Collection by Liz McGrath.

Among the notable Canadian chefs in attendance are Marc Lepine of Ottawa‘s Atelier, Jeremy Charles ofRaymonds in St. John’s, and Connie DeSousa and John Jackson of CHARCUT in Calgary — all of whom will perform cooking demonstrations.

Terroir will be a more high-profile gathering than culinary events with larger advertising budgets and more prominent histories in Toronto. While it is a gathering for the industry and not for culinary travellers, it is still a tourism driver for the city.

“It’s subtle and very grassroots what we are doing,” Stein said. “We’re not overly swamped with people. You can stand in the halls and have a conversation. I think the chefs like that.”

While Terroir started in Toronto and is in its seventh year, Stein is aiming to expand to “another Canadian city.” The notion of Terroir — which to a great degree depends on the willingness of chefs to share their coveted ideas, practices, recipes, and sources — would not have worked in the 20th century, Stein said.

“We happened to come around just as the local food movement really started to take hold. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time for us. We filled a gap in the marketplace because all of a sudden everyone needed more information and a way to build real resources around sustainability,” said Stein, who has spent recent months in Europe networking with several of the chefs who will be attending the symposium.

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April 1, 2013

Gearing up for a promising Blue Jays season

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Jose Bautista and the Jays are poised for a big year. (Owais Qureshi/Vacay.ca)

“It’s designed to break your heart,” A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote about baseball. “The game begins in the spring, when everything is new again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops, and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

Giamatti was one of those tormented Red Sox fans of the 20th century. Their autumns and winters were never warmed by the memories of a championship, only the torturous thoughts of “what if?” He died in 1989, while in office as the commissioner of Major League Baseball, a few weeks before the Red Sox swooned again in September and lost the American League East title to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Back then, the Jays and Red Sox were similar because their fans shared a sense of doom. While what Torontowent through was nowhere near the devilish grief Boston endured for 86 years, the Blue Jays had suffered monumental and historic collapses. In 1985, they led the best-of-seven American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals 2-0 and 3-1, but George Brett’s bat blasted the Jays into winter earlier than anyone in Canada wanted, and baseball fans in Toronto became familiar with the meaning of the term “die-hard.” The pain became more intense after the team lost its final seven games in 1987 and missed the playoffs, even though it appeared for months that Canada’s first World Series title was a certainty.

Blue Jays supporters went through a discontented winter waiting for redemption and the sense of hope that flourishes in the sport each April. But 1988 was a failure and 1989 started out terribly and the Oakland A’s had assembled a juggernaut that dispatched the Jays with ease in the playoffs. Even though the Blue Jays owned baseball’s best cumulative record over a six-season period dating to 1984, it seemed like the window of chance had closed like an umpire’s fist on a strikeout call.

The rest you know. On December 5, 1990, the Blue Jays revamped their lineup — and their identity — through trades and free-agent signings. They reached the postseason from 1991-93, and won back-to-back championships, bringing euphoria to the city, as well as an indelible source of pride for all of those who zealously followed the team from spring to fall, season after season.

Fans today may find it hard to believe, but the Blue Jays once were the most successful team in baseball, becoming the first franchise to draw 4 million fans, selling out home games at the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) at record levels. In recent years, the same stadium has seen its attendance rank among the lowest in baseball, with the Jays averaging just 25,921 fans in their 81 home games in 2012.

As Opening Day arrives, however, change comes with it. In 2013, the Blue Jays are in a position they haven’t been for two decades: They enter the season as World Series favourites.

The addition of three elite starting pitchers — Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson — as well as All-Star position players Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera ensure the Blue Jays will be one of the most exciting teams to watch. The offseason moves have rekindled thoughts of the feats former general manager Pat Gillick pulled off in the early 1990s. Whether this team truly can bring the glory days back to Toronto will not be revealed for months. For now, what we do know is the electricity that has been absent during the past 20 years — as the Jays have failed to come within even a warning-track flyball of the postseason — will be back. They are going to be competitive. Game days will be exciting, bars and restaurants will be full, hotels will enjoy a boost with visitors coming in to see the hottest show in town.

If you’re going to see a game, here are tips to enjoying the Blue Jays experience:

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