Archive for ‘Toronto News’

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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January 26, 2013

Diamond Rings takes on the world

[This article was published last month in Vacay.ca as part of its Rock ‘n Roll Road Trips series. Diamond Rings has since been nominated for a SiriusXM Canadian Indie Music Award, whose show takes place March 22, 2013 during Canadian Music Week in Toronto.]

Diamond rings, John O’Regan says, are glamorous and tough. That’s why they’re the namesake of his on-stage persona, an act that has busted out of the Toronto music scene to earn superlative-laden reviews across the continent. One reason for the success is the fact diamond rings are mesmerizing too.

It’s difficult not to keep your eyes on O’Regan. For one thing, you have to make up your mind whether his act is an artistic form of self-expression or a schtick. One listen of his hit “I’m Just Me” should convince you he’s much more Ziggy Stardustthan Gary Glitter, which is to say that Diamond Rings has substance and cred. It’s quite possible the persona O’Regan has created is the most interesting act to come out of Canada since Arcade Fire. “I’m Just Me” comes across as a mantra for the sexually uncertain, the androgynous or the transgender, but like any great song it has universality to it, appealing to anyone who embraces their individuality when it clashes with bullies or the sensibilities of the establishment. There’s both a rebelliousness and a sweetness to the song, underscoring the duality O’Regan talks about in himself and his performance.

While most audiences are now hearing about Diamond Rings for the first time, O’Regan isn’t an overnight success. He’s been toiling in Toronto for several years, fronting the electro-pop band The D’urbervilles, recently renamed Matters. In Toronto, the 27-year-old spends his days in Roncesvalles, a historic neighbourhood known for its Polish heritage and proximity to High Park.

“I tend not to leave that neighbourhood when I’m at home. Being away, being in a rock band there is so much stimulation, a lot of long nights, a lot of loud music and loud clubs, and although Toronto is great for all that stuff, when I’m home it’s rarely what I want to do,” O’Regan said during an interview three weeks ago in a suite in the Ritz-Carlton Toronto.

Roncesvalles is beyond West Queen West, an area that’s become a cultural hub for the city, with vintage clothing stores, nightclubs, and a pair of notable boutique hotels, the Gladstone and the Drake, that are a breeding ground for artists of all sorts. O’Regan’s part of town is much more low key, although it does have two of the city’s best new restaurants in Hopgood’s Foodliner and Barque. Despite his flamboyant stage presence, O’Regan struck me as very much an introspective artist devoted to pushing himself and his work as far as he can, and that makes Roncesvalles a fit for him. It lacks the bustle and distractions of other areas of the city, allowing him to hole up and make music.

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November 13, 2012

Road tales from the Tragically Hip

[Big thrill for me to interview the guys from the Tragically Hip a couple of months back. This article appeared in Vacay.ca on November 4, 2012.]

KINGSTON, ONTARIO — Armed with will and determination, the Tragically Hip embarked 30 years ago on a rock ‘n roll journey that has taken them around the world and across Canada more times than the band members can remember.

Those trips have resulted in songs and lyrics that will forever resonate with the group’s devoted fan base. “At the Hundredth Meridian,” “Last American Exit,” “As I Wind Down the Pines” and “Silver Jet”— with its continent-binding lyric about flying “fromClayoqout Sound to Cape Spear” — are only a handful of the Hip’s songs that reference Canadian geography and a sense of the nation’s vastness.

Another travel-inspired tune is “Broken Road,”which appears on guitarist Paul Langlois’ solo album, “Fix This Head.” The song was written “while I was in the middle of doing a lot of driving for these guys,” says Langlois, whose lyrics speak of being 700 miles away and homesick for Cataraqui — the river that flows through the Hip’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario. It recalls the quintet’s early days in the ’80s when they toured the country in a van, not the luxury bus or airline flight that takes them from stop to stop these days.

“Travel is a big part of lucky people’s lives. We’re lucky enough to travel. I’m quite happy to know the country pretty well. Certainly not all the areas, but the places along the highways for sure,” Langlois said after a performance of his own songs at Kingston’s Market Square in August that featured Hip bandmates Robby Baker and Gord Sinclair on stage while Gord Downie watched with the rest of the crowd of about 400 people. “Every writer is different, but i think travel’s a big part of a lot of songwriters’ lives because you do that so often and it does influence your outlook on the world.”

Travel, according to Baker, should be an essential rite of passage for Canadians.

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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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July 12, 2012

Chicago rockers Filligar dig Toronto

[THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED LAST MONTH ON VACAY.CA, AFTER I SPOKE WITH THIS FANTASTIC BAND DURING THEIR TWO-NIGHT STOP IN TORONTO.]

Casey Gibson’s first time to Toronto came in March during a record heat wave, made all the more intense by Filligar’s performances during Canadian Music Week. Gibson and his bandmates from Chicago returned two weeks ago to find the city basking again in sunshine and the electricity of a music festival.

“Toronto, to me, is looking like a gem right now,” Gibson said prior to Filligar’s NXNE festival performance at the Gladstone Hotel Ballroom in the Queen West area. “I really haven’t been to many cities like it at all. It’s like Chicago but with a lot bigger downtown and with a lot of different neighbourhoods, it looks like.”

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June 18, 2012

French River is one of Ontario’s jewels

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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.

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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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