Archive for ‘Food and Drink Writing’

January 5, 2013

10 tips on how to eat cheap on the road

Many hotels, such as the Residence Inn in Kingston, Ontario, now have kitchens in their suites. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

Many hotels, such as the Residence Inn in Kingston, Ontario, now have kitchens in their suites. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[These tips were originally published on Vacay.ca]

One of the most costly expenses when you vacation is food. It’s also one of the more difficult purchases for which to budget, even though many restaurant menus are now online to help you pre-plan what you will spend. What tends to happen is we end up becoming more picky about where we eat on the road because we want it to satisfy our hunger both for food and for experience. Will the food be worth it? is a question that takes on greater importance when you only have a few days in a place. How do I stretch my budget and experience the best of local culture? is another question many travellers ask.

Here are tips on how to save on your food budget when you travel, while maintaining your desire for an enjoyable visit.

1. Know your hotel choice. Book a hotel that includes breakfast and pre-pay for the stay, which will reduce your accommodations cost by at least 5 per cent at most lodgings. Hotel breakfasts can often be overpriced but a cost reduction through pre-payment is beneficial for more than just your pocketbook. It saves you time — eliminating a decision on where to eat in the morning — and gives you some peace of mind because you will have paid for this cost before you arrive.

2. Sleep with a kitchen. Better than paying for breakfast (or lunch or dinner) is having the ability to cook it yourself. More and more hotels are providing their own kitchens, a feature that many timeshare owners have long enjoyed. The benefit of having a kitchen — or at least a microwave and fridge — is it gives you the option to further control your food costs. A trip to the grocery store soon after check-in will give you a stockpile of choices for late-night snacks or an all-out gourmet feast if you choose. EXTRA TIP: Pack a few teaspoons of your favourite spices in spice containers made specifically for travelling. You’ll find them in the kitchenware department of many retail stores. It’ll save you from buying full containers of spices once you arrive at your destination.

3. Eat meals prepared at grocery stores. Even if you don’t have a kitchen in your room, you should still go to the grocery store. Some of the best cheap meals you’ll find in any North American city are in the prepared food areas of supermarkets. Whether it’s Whole Foods in New York, Rouses or Langenstein’s in New Orleans, or even Longo’s in Toronto (where a gourmet 10-inch pizza can be had for less than $7), you can find outstanding, freshly prepared food that won’t break your budget. You also won’t need to tip or wait for a table. Although some health experts will tell you that grocery stores tend to cook their prepared meals with meat and fish products that aren’t the freshest in stock, you’re still more likely to get a healthier meal from a grocer than from a fast-food restaurant.

4. Visit the local farmers’ market. Farmers’ markets are booming across North America thanks to the locavore movement and the desire for environmentally friendly community building. The markets offer both a travel experience — because you will find out a lot about a city’s culture through the people who cultivate and consume its local produce — and a fun dining experience as you sample bits and bites from different vendors, many of whom offer samples. Canada is extremely lucky to have thriving farmers’ markets across the country, particularly in Ontario.

5. Adjust your Groupon deals account. Those online coupon companies that just about all of us take advantage of when we’re at home can come in handy on the road too. Adjust your Groupon or Living Social account to show deals in the destination you’re visiting and you’ll find discounts on restaurants, as well as some attractions.

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August 9, 2012

What to expect when Momofuku opens in Toronto

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The White Chocolate dessert is one of the most popular items at Momofuku-owned Ma Peche in New York. (Julia Pelish photo)

[This article first appeared in Vacay.ca and the Huffington Post.]

NEW YORK CITY — I visited New York last month to see what Torontonians can expect from the Momofuku experience when that restaurant empire makes its much-anticipated Canadian debut in the coming days — I didn’t think I would find the maitre d’ investigating too.

“I’m just seeing how things operate. Getting a feel for it,” says Joel Centeno, who moves over from the formal Auberge du Pommier to be the host at Daisho, the flagship restaurant of David Chang‘s ambitious enterprise that’s attached to the soon-to-open Shangri-la Hotel. The Momofuku Torontofranchise, whose debut was scheduled for July 28 but has been pushed back because of construction delays, will also feature three other eateries: Shōtō, whose Japanese name means “short sword” (Daisho is a term that refers to a set of samurai swords); Nikai, which means “second floor” and will be a level below the main restaurant; and a Momofuku noodle bar that will instantly be the hottest lunch spot in the city and possibly a go-to late-night choice as well.

It’s not only the most anticipated restaurant opening in Toronto in recent memory, it may be the one notable event that finally gets Canada taken seriously as a culinary destination around the world. No Canadian city has a Michelin restaurant guide, while there is one each for New York, San Francisco and Chicago. The country has gone nine straight years without placing a restaurant on the World’s 50 Best list, while Momofuku’s Ssam Bar in New York has made it two years in a row.

“Without a doubt, it instantly raises the city’s foodie cred,” award-winning food reporter Steve Dolinsky of Chicago, a regional chairman for the World’s 50 Best list, says of Momofuku’s foray across the border. “If Chang is able to maintain his high standards in a remote location — which includes consistency and his presence more than a few times per year — then I think it becomes one more important reason to visit Toronto.”

Chang said he spent more of his time in Sydney, Australia than he did in the Big Apple during the year he opened his only other Momofuku location outside of New York. With Toronto, it’s too early to know how much time he will be in Canada but he has a reputation for being a hands-on owner. As I discovered, Chang doesn’t have to be on-site for his restaurant to shine.

When I went to New York to see what all the fuss is about, I was impressed for reasons beyond the food.Má Pêche, the franchise’s restaurant in the Chambers Hotel in Manhattan, captures the spirit of a culture that’s post-recession, post-fine dining and eagerly communal, but has managed to elevate eating out to an activity akin to going to a fine art museum. We want top class, we don’t necessarily want to look like it in order to have the experience.

What The Black Hoof  — named Toronto’s top restaurant by Vacay.ca judges earlier this year — lacks in classy atmosphere, Daisho will possess thanks to the Shangri-la, the latest luxury accommodation to hit a downtown area that has seen the addition of Ritz-Carlton, Thompson and Trump properties in a short amount of time. What other restaurants in the city are missing in inventive cuisine, Momofuku’s brand will deliver.

There are Korean and Japanese influences, for sure, but the complexity of Chang’s cuisine redefines fusion. His chefs aren’t simply throwing stuff together and seeing what sticks — a characterization made by some early commenters of the New York operations —, they’re pushing the envelope the way great chefs from Grant Achatz to Michel Bras do. The steamed lobster bun at Má Pêche (or “mother peach”) is addictively good. The monkfish was so tender you could’ve mistaken it for poached lobster, while a bowl of curried carrots shocked with the deliciousness of its flavour. Desserts, including the famous White Chocolate that features salty popcorn and caramel, drive repeat business on their own.

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August 8, 2012

PEI’s Trailside Cafe and Nova Scotia’s Point of View Suites beckon

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Pat and Meghann Deighan have a good thing going with the Trailside Cafe. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)


[This article first appeared in Vacay.ca]

MOUNT STEWART, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND — Olympic moments happen across this country on a daily basis. The participants may not be going for gold medals like the competitors at the London 2012 Summer Games, but they are striving to achieve ultimate success. Although they do it in obscurity, the spirit with which these entrepreneurs pursue their goals is similar to the dedication elite athletes have for their disciplines.

I recently came across a couple of examples of Canadians in the travel and hospitality industry who are giving it their all as they chase their dreams. Pat and Meghann Deighan were married on December 30, 2011, about two weeks after they purchased the Trailside Inn and Café, a venue 30 minutes outside of Charlottetown that has been a reliable spot in Prince Edward Island for good music and good times. The Trailside was in need of rescue and the newlyweds have poured themselves into making it the coolest music venue in Canada east of Casa del Popolo in Montreal and the Dakota Tavern in Toronto.

Like the Dakota, the Trailside features clever decor, an intimate atmosphere that charms musicians, and a short menu that delivers big for diners. The Trailside Café only has four main dishes, one of which is a daily special from chef Chris Coupland and another is an order of the best fishcakes you’re likely to ever taste. They are loaded with salmon and haddock, and go for just $15. You’ll devour them on one of the café’s tables that Meghann Deighan has decorated in inventive ways. On one surface, she has lacquered decades-old receipts from the property’s previous incarnation as a community co-op store, on others are black-and-white images and old movie posters.

“We’re looking for low-cost solutions for improving the place and the property has an amazing history, so we figure why not use what we can that’s right here,” says Meghann Deighan while pointing out some of the old dusty bottles that are kept in the back of the store.

The Trailside is the kind of place where the headline performer can stand at a bar drinking a beer while taking in his own warm-up act. Such was the case last Wednesday night, when Matt Mays headlined on back-to-back nights while his friend Adam Baldwin opened up. Seeing a musician of the calibre of Mays — a Juno nominee whose latest album “Coyote” is due out on September 4 — in a setting that holds no more than 50 people is a rare treat.

It’s also good marketing for the Trailside, which is hopeful of attracting more people from Charlottetown and elsewhere in the Maritimes to its little spot on the side of the road in Mount Stewart, home to about 310 people. If reviews from customers during Mays’ show are an indication, the Deighans will do all right. Several attendees praised the café’s atmosphere and its menu.

“The Trailside always had a good music scene but it needed a little more upkeep and we wanted to focus on improving the food. I think we have. I think Chris has hit it out of the park,” Pat Deighan says of his chef.

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June 14, 2012

Friday Night Live at the ROM is a Toronto sensation

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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.

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June 3, 2012

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

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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.

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March 19, 2012

Jonathan Gushue stays local with Langdon Hall

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Jonathan Gushue's efforts to keep Langdon Hall's menu have also put a spotlight on the quality of ingredients in southern Ontario. (Julia Pelish photo)

[This article was previously published in Kalev.com and AOL/Huffington Post.]

CAMBRIDGE, ONTARIO — In a lot of ways, sustainability starts with the food we eat. The more we can consume foods that are in our own backyards, the less food needs to be shipped in from disparate parts of the world.

At Langdon Hall, a Relais & Chateaux country manor close to Toronto, executive chef Jonathan Gushue has succeeded in turning the property on which he cooks into the source for a large percentage of his ingredients. Gushue is one of North America’s finest chefs, having attained 5-Diamond Award status from CAA/AAA judges for six straight years at Langdon Hall as well as a World’s Top 100 Restaurants ranking and acclaim throughout Canada.

“People talk about a 100-mile menu. This is a quarter-mile menu here,” says Gushue, who was the chef at the Four Seasons in Toronto before coming aboard at Langdon Hall in 2005. “It really took us about four years, the time to understand our harvesting. We’ve learned to use wild herbs, what our gardeners had been ripping up as weeds. These are the things that are indigenous to the area, what people were eating 100 years ago.”

INSPIRATION AND HISTORY

Gushue says the soil at Langdon Hall is exceptional for growing beets, so those root vegetables are almost always on the menu. Although he will fly in products from elsewhere in Canada, including snow crab from the east coast, Gushue sticks to sourcing his meat and fish close to home. The fish & chips served in Langdon Hall’s comfortable bar are made with pickerel — and they’re as tasty as any you’ll find with cod or halibut.

“We use everything here for our inspiration. Don’t expect the typical lobster, steak, salmon dishes,” he says of his menu.

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February 23, 2012

Nightclub Bloke & 4th scores with upscale cuisine

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Adrian Niman, who had hockey dreams, has a winner with Bloke & 4th on King Street. (Julia Pelish photo)

[First published on Vacay.ca]

Adrian Niman stands in the middle of his swanky new restaurant, thick with sexy red drapes and sexier women in tight black dresses, and talks about his dream of the country. Bloke & 4thfits right in with Toronto’s vibrant nightclub scene in the Entertainment District; its chef, though, is more about wine pairings than bottle service. Despite the fact that he’s just 27 and, on the surface, a superb fit for this glam supper club, Niman is all about the cuisine, not the scene.

“I’d love to have a little place in the country, with my girlfriend and focus on all local ingredients,” Niman says during the opening of Bloke & 4th earlier this month. The club had a soft launch in December and has packed in the late-night crowd, doing thousands and thousands of dollars in booze sales alone on weekends, Niman says.

His passion, however, is food and to his credit he doesn’t waver from it, even though he could go off-course in a posh spot like Bloke & 4th. Places like Ultra and barchef on Queen Street draw in the city’s high rollers and their arm candy who come to mix and mingle; indulgences other than food on their mind. With Niman’s cuisine, Bloke & 4th distinguishes itself from that pack.

“We’re going to try different things in here,” the chef says as he calls out for pick-up orders in the kitchen. “Some of it’s going to work, some of it isn’t, but we’re going to be creative.”

Its current choices include a number of good dishes and one killer one: a Bangkok Cole Slaw ($26) that includes yellow fin tuna, crispy calamari, and a mix of vegetables and sauces that combine for a sensational blend of flavours you can’t find anywhere else in the city. That dish was inspired by Niman’s time in Thailand, and other items are influenced from his days working in Spain and his early career at North 44, Mark McEwan’s esteemed restaurant.

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February 18, 2012

Have dinner with a ghost at Muriel’s in New Orleans

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Denise Gratia of Muriel's sets the table for the ghost in New Orleans. (Julia Pelish photo)

[First published in AOL Travel/Huffington Post Canada]

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — Each night, Muriel’s restaurant sets a table for Antoine. It’s beneath an ornate chandelier at the foot of a staircase leading to the upstairs bar. The table cloth is white, there’s a candle and a setting for two, with plates, utensils, napkins and glasses for red wine. A waiter will place a basket of French bread in the centre as well as a bottle of wine, usually Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. This is the way Antoine likes it and there’s nothing unusual about the scene except Antoine has been dead for 198 years.

The ghost table at Muriel’s has become a draw for this city’s many paranormal tours. Groups stand outside an iron gate and peer through the window to catch a slight glimpse of the table, which Muriel’s put in place after Hurricane Katrina, in part to help calm the active spirit. With Mardi Gras approaching on Feb. 21, visitors will arrive by the thousands looking for fun, excitement and the bizarre happenings that have brought this city fame. Muriel’s is sure to attract more than a few party-goers looking to scare up a good time.

“This is the most haunted place in the city,” declares George Dubaz, a tour guide with Spirit Tours. Dubaz stands outside the restaurant on Chartres Street in the French Quarter and points to the large, two-storey building that has stood on the property in one form or another since the mid-1700s. “Some of the staff members will tell you they’ve seen glasses fly across the room.”

Dubaz says he wasn’t a believer in ghosts until he moved from Biloxi, Mississippi to New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane that devastated the Crescent City. Now, he says, “I’ve seen and heard of too many strange things for there not to be something to it.”

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