Archive for ‘Personal Essays’

February 23, 2012

Nightclub Bloke & 4th scores with upscale cuisine

Chef-Adrian-Niman

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.

July 18, 2009

Glory Days and the Blue Jays

[First draft was written in May, when the Jays were in first place! This version was published on July 18, 2009 in the Toronto Star – and the Jays are almost in last.]

When I was a child, a summer day rarely went by without the radio voices of Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth mingling with the sizzle of a barbecue or a lawn mower’s buzz. The broadcasters delivered news of each pitch as the Blue Jays’ annual six-month fight for the pennant kept me riveted and tense.

blue-jays-logoFrom 1985 to ’93, I attended 10 to 40 games a year, filling out a scorecard, wearing my Dave Stieb-autographed Wilson glove, hopeful of a foul ball, even in the second deck. On Oct. 20, 1992, I stood in line for nine hours to get into the SkyDome’s Hard Rock Cafe (which charged only $15 and a two-drink minimum, perfect for a university student) to see the first World Series game played in Canada.

Blue Jays fever gripped me again this April, after 14 seasons in remission, and has maintained its hold despite the team’s recent woes.

This year, I’ve made the walk to the dome a dozen times, attending more baseball games than I have in the past 10 years combined. I had lost interest when I lived outside Toronto – and the team resided far from a playoff spot. The baseball strike in 1994 cut off my habit and my obsession never fully revived.

From 1996 to 2005, I lived in Long Island, N.Y., and for the first couple of years I would eagerly go to games when the Jays visited the Yankees. Dressing in enemy colours in the Bronx isn’t smart, and it was downright demoralizing to do it during New York’s decade of supremacy.

July 4, 2009

A Visit to the World Trade Center Reconstruction Site

[Not a personal essay, but it kind of goes with the other two on this site that are 9/11 related. This one was published in the travel section of the Toronto Star on July 4, 2009.]

NEW YORK – The last time I visited Ground Zero was Sept. 22, 2001. I lived in Long Island, N.Y., then and the Sept. 11 attacks consumed life for weeks.

world-trade-center-reconstruction-siteSeeing the World Trade Center in fiery rubble was Dickensian bleak and painful. The ruins smouldered, firefighters teemed, anxiety swept over every face.

Returning nearly eight years later, I expected to find Lower Manhattan solemn as it recovers from that horror and the economic crisis. Instead, I discovered New Yorkers are not only getting over 9/11, they’re turning the Financial District into a neighbourhood with more life than before the Twin Towers collapsed.

The World Trade Center stop is the last one on the southbound E subway train. Once on the surface, I noticed construction workers had replaced the army of firefighters as the massive rebuilding job unfolds.

A half-dozen cranes rise from the cavity that many will always view as a tomb to the 2,750 (including 24 Canadians) who lost their lives on that sad Tuesday. It was hard to find a smile among the visitors who watched the frame of the new skyscrapers being hammered and clanged into place. Emotions swelled there and across the street at St. Paul’s Chapel.

People walked slowly around the chapel’s grounds, occupied by centuries-old gravestones, to its doorstep. St. Paul’s, the city’s longest continuously run public building, stands on Church St. Remarkably, the 243-year-old chapel didn’t suffer any structural damage when the towers collapsed. During the recovery efforts immediately after Sept. 11, the chapel was a place of refuge for the firefighters and emergency services personnel. Inside, displays honour the heroes and the fallen.

While St. Paul’s brings back grim memories, the good news is there’s much happening in the vicinity that makes it clear this area is likely to rebound to a state better than it was in 2001. That reason makes Ground Zero a point of interest, not a morbid itinerary stop.

You can get a fantastic panoramic view of the World Trade Center reconstruction and the district’s skyline at the World Financial Center, an upscale but unheralded mall and office tower that pedestrians can access by crossing a bridge over the West Side Highway. Sixteen palm trees and an ornate staircase greet you inside the centre. On the western side of the mall, you will access one of New York’s highlights that doesn’t get nearly enough mention.

The Esplanade is secluded from the WTC construction and everything else in Manhattan. It’s a route for pedestrians and cyclists, ambling alongside the Hudson River. You can grab a coffee at Devon & Bleakley inside the World Financial Center before heading out on the 20-minute walk. If you want to bike it, there are rental shops in the area.

You’ll notice new residential towers and a number of established retailers opening stores. Most of the area was void of activity after about 8 p.m. most nights.

The population in the region has nearly tripled from 2001. Lower rents and a push for gentrification have turned it into a place to live, not just work.

Perhaps no spot exemplifies this spirit more than the restaurant-rich blocks on Stone and Pearl Sts. My favourite is Ulysses’ Folk House (95 Pearl St./58 Stone St.). The food is overpriced and mediocre, but the beer menu has few rivals in New York and the picnic tables that line Stone St. make it feel like a summer barbecue.

August 11, 2008

September 11th Remembered

[Retrospective essay by Adrian Brijbassi published in the Sept. 10, 2002 issue of “The Record”]

I had to get to Manhattan, for my own good. On the second Saturday with the sky heavy with haze and smelling acrid, I found the nerve to do it, despite the rumors and warnings and the paranoia that had attached itself to me like a straitjacket. To get there I had to take a train. No unnecessary cars were being allowed over the bridges or through the tunnels. The Long Island Rail Road it was then, and I boarded unable to shake the thought that a commuter train was an obvious target and that this particular line was already notorious because a gunman had opened fire on one of its cars seven years earlier.

Nervousness was a carry-on for everyone. People with tired eyes came aboard clutching hands of companions. Young men sauntered through the doors as if it was nothing, but before long their eyes would skitter, betraying their cool facades. Conductors with swivelling heads walked the aisles, punching tickets and peering at faces. The anxiety was understandable and expected. This was Sept. 22 and this train ride to Penn Station, which had been routine 12 days earlier, was no easy trek.

For me, it took some willpower and some convincing from my wife. We had to see it, she said. We had to get out of the house and away from the TV. Before I knew it, I had found myself holding my breath as the train passed under the East River tunnel and pulled into midtown Manhattan. Yes, I was scared of another attack, but the trepidation I had about entering the heart of New York City for the first time since Sept. 11 was also due to my feelings of trespass and misconduct that were twofold. First, I’m not from New York and I felt I didn’t belong there then, mourning the loss of life and stepping into the poignant moments of a community not my own. Second, and most importantly, I thought it was too soon for this journey. People who are traumatized, I understand now, have a need to stay in the moment that caused their trauma. It’s the mind’s way of buying time to cope with the severe, to reason out an explanation for it. In the first few days after the attacks, I could hardly eat. Sleep was also a problem, because of the need to stay informed and because of the patrolling fighter jets overhead. And I couldn’t write. I was too numb.

Riding into New York, when I clearly needed to get my mind off of it, wasn’t the best course of action, I said in frustration, and I reiterated that once we departed the train to the sight of rifle-bearing military officers and little else. Penn Station, where walking a straight line is usually impossible because of the obstacles of travellers and their belongings, was as desolate as could be.

Outside, the surrounding streets were also quiet. Our intended destination wasn’t the site of the destroyed World Trade Center, but that’s where we ended up after unexpectedly running into a friend who convinced us to join him on the long walk down. Grey soot sat on the face of buildings blocks away, deep, haphazard crevices slashed into the streets as if a runaway train had made them, firefighters sloughed, looking troubled by the task and bothered by all the onlookers. I wanted to leave, but I stayed to watch, for no other reason than I felt it was good to see this. I’m not sure if it was or not. Someday, I might understand it better.

August 11, 2008

How 9/11 Changed New Yorkers

[Retrospective essay by Adrian Brijbassi published in the Sept. 11, 2002 edition of “The Record”]

Everybody was okay. Me, my wife, our friends and neighbours, the few family members we have here. Friends and relatives had been calling since morning. No one was hurt, I told those who were able to get through on the phone lines; all of us were safe. Later in the day, professional acquaintances began to make contact. They were mostly reporters looking for first-person accounts from Canadians living in or near New York. I couldn’t give them a harrowing story on Sept. 11th, and I am as grateful for that now as I was back then, when I awoke to learn that the twin towers of the World Trade Center had each taken a bullet in the form of a passenger plane and had crumpled on a pristine Tuesday morning that would have been routine if not for the unfathomable machinations of 19 disturbed men.

As we tend to do when huge events halt life, I sat frozen in front of the television. I was barely able to watch and at the same time could not help but. Seeing the carnage happening 35 miles away from my home, then getting glimpses of the catastrophe at the Pentagon and the crash site in Pennsylvania, all I could do was worry fretfully about what might be next.

Since then, life in America has been about repair; individually and collectively, physically and psychologically. For me, it has been easier than for others. Having lived in New York for six years now, I suppose I am fortunate to have no roots here. Then whom might I know? Who might I now say I had known? As such, my life has returned to that “normalcy” politicians and psychologists felt was so important to attain after the attacks. My circumstances, I realize as I reflect on the past year, are not all that unusual. The fact is, Sept. 11 marked the most significant event in my lifetime and that of my generation, but it is not the most significant thing to have happened to us as individuals. For me, it would be my immigration from Guyana to Canada when I was five. For others, it might be a marriage, or parenthood, or the passing of a loved one, an accident or brutal event of another sort. As such, I don’t think I live in an America now that is very different from the one I was living in on Sept. 10. There is less optimism, certainly, more wariness and a broader global perspective. But many of us have not changed, and there is good in that as well as bad.