Posts tagged ‘toronto’

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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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 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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May 14, 2012

Tom Wilson plays a secret Toronto house party

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Tom Wilson gives it his all wherever he plays. (Photo collage by Julia Pelish)

[Had a chance last month to catch up with Tom Wilson, great musician, great guy, at a secret house party in Toronto. Here’s the report from Vacay.ca.]

On March 21, Tom Wilson headlined at Massey Hall in front of 2,750 fans. Less than three weeks later, he is tuning his guitar in the living room of a home in a middle-class neighbourhood in midtown Toronto, about to play to 31 people, many of whom can’t believe their fortune. The performance that ensues gives new meaning to bringing down the house.

On “concert nights,” the home takes on the persona of a venue. It’s nicknamed “The Growler,” tickets are sold, amplifiers are brought in, the musicians have their own “backstage” space in an upstairs bedroom, CDs and other paraphernalia is for sale, and there are no encores until the audience delivers loud applause and calls for “more, more, more!”

Wilson doesn’t hold back anything, either. The singer/songwriter with a wide range of tunes plays for an hour, including a two-song encore that starts with a cover of “Ring of Fire.” His voice resonates with clear, dead-on pitch like what you might be treated to in a studio session. As always, his showmanship is as much a part of the entertainment as his music. His self-effacing comments and hilarious stories of rock ’n roll life never fail to win over a crowd.

During this set on Good Friday, Wilson reveals that Colin Linden nearly showed up, too. Linden, Wilson and Stephen Fearing form Juno Award-winning Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, who finally headlined a gig at Massey Hall after 15 years together. Although it would have been a great bonus to see Linden, the audience is more than satisfied with Wilson and his band members, who on this night include his son as well as long-time collaborator Ray Farrugia. The trio are paid with the money brought in from ticket sales.

It’s Wilson’s second time making the trip up from Hamilton, Ontario to play “The Growler,” and he says he’s open to more. “These people are great,” he adds. “Really, we come back for the food.”

One of the owners is from Mexico and apparently spoils the band with fabulous cuisine prior to the show. The homeowners, who will remain anonymous because operating a “concert venue” out of their house may not fly with some authority figures, also offer bed-and-breakfast stays to the musicians.

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November 22, 2011

‘World’s Best Dark Ale’ only available in Ontario

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Unibroue brewmaster Jerry Vietz and BeerBistro chef Michelle Usprech toast to the release of Grand Reserve 17 to LCBO stores. (Julia Pelish photo)

TORONTO — You don’t know Jerry Vietz, but if you like beer he’s no doubt brought joy into your life. Vietz is the brewmaster of Canada’s most acclaimed craft brewer, Unibroue, which will exhaust you of superlatives if you try to describe what its roster of beers has meant for the international reputation of Canadian brewing.

Since debuting with Blanche de Chambly in 1992, Unibroue has delivered flavourful, Belgian-style ales that stand up to Trappist stalwarts like Huyghe Brewery’s Delirium Tremens and Rochefort’s top brews. It’s also earned all the accolades to live up to its stature as one of the best breweries on the planet. La Fin du Monde, the top-selling Unibroue beer in the U.S., has won five platinum and six gold medals from the Chicago Beverage Tasting Institute’s World Beer Championships, and Unibroue beers have won 152 awards overall.

On Wednesday, Vietz was at BeerBistro in Toronto to unveil perhaps Unibroue’s finest creation, Grand Reserve 17, which in 2010 was named the World’s Best Dark Ale from the annual World Beer Awards in London. About 30 of us were invited to the event that also featured servings of BeerBistro chef Michelle Usprech’s Unibroue-infused cuisine and a special serving of a Christmas ale Vietz first made in his home. It’s not a surprise that Grand Reserve 17 is a delicious beer, what you will raise your eyebrow at, though, is how light it feels on your palate. Rather than a thick, rich ale like Maudite that announces the intent of its 8-percent alcohol content upon the first sip, Grand Reserve 17 is immensely smooth and easy to drink. It costs $9.95 for a 750-millilitre bottle and is available only at LCBO stores.

This beer with 10-percent alcohol content was the first Vietz created when he took over as brewmaster in 2007, after working at the brewery for more than four years. He calls Grand Reserve 17 “my baby.”

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July 12, 2011

U2 Concert Review in Toronto: A Beautiful Day and Night

Maybe God does listen to Bono.

On a night where rain was such a certainty the restaurant I dined at prior to Monday’s show wouldn’t open its patio because of the dire forecast, the panels of the ’Dome stayed curled back, allowing the selected songs from U2’s 30-something-year-old catalogue to lift off into the Toronto night.

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June 25, 2011

Letters from you: Hooray for Buffalo

Canoe sculpture at Albright-Knox Art Gallery

The stunning new canoe sculpture by Nancy Rubins, unveiled earlier this month at Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It features 57 canoes. (Julia Pelish photo)

A lot of people love Buffalo — I learned that this week.

And they’re passionate about it — which I discovered last weekend when I was there. The letters and comments have poured in. Most are on the bottom of the article that got everyone fired up enough to express their love for the city, but some came directly to my inbox or to the Toronto Star’s Travel department or on Twitter. Here are a couple of those as well as some of the ones I liked most from the comment feed.

I like to think the outpouring of affection for the city spurred by the article is a testament to the power of the written word. But those words could have just given voice to a sentiment that was long overdue to be expressed. In any case, the piece seems to have served as a conduit for Buffalo to show its civic pride and, hopefully/possibly, for those readers outside the city to think twice before dismissing it as a travel destination.

See everyone in the Queen City on November 11 (if not before)!

GIVING IT A TRY
“I’m glad someone bothered to look past the stereotypes, cheap malls, hockey and wings and actually see the city. I’m not from there nor do I have any agenda. I just like to see places ­­— especially the ones people mark as dangerous, boring or ugly. I enjoy Buffalo every time I go and wish people would at least try.”
– Sabina

CANADIAN MOVING TO BUFFALO
“I was reading your article on Buffalo and wanted to express my interest in it. I currently live in Mississauga and am going to D’youville College in Buffalo in August for graduate school.

I was there a couple of weeks ago looking for a place to live with a lot of hesitation and worry…being a girl. Again, we’ve all heard how bad certain areas of Buffalo are but a landlord who has lived in Buffalo has told me about areas that are gems like you had stated in your article.

It really is a beautiful place but has had some unfortunate stories and reputation as being a bad area. I am hoping to eventually convince my friends that Buffalo isn’t just good for outlet shopping and Walden Galleria. I really hope that Buffalo continues to strive and become more reputable for being a nice town. It has a lot of heritage and potential but is always masked by the bad things.

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