Posts tagged ‘vacay.ca’

June 16, 2014

A night at Vikram Vij’s new restaurant, My Shanti

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Vikram Vij is eager to welcome diners to his restaurant in the suburbs. (Herman Chor photo)

[This article was originally published on Vacay.ca on June 8, 2014.]

SURREY, BRITISH COLUMBIA — It’s 7 pm on the first Wednesday in June and the lineup at Vij’sis two hours long. Those at the back of the queue may not know it but they could hop in a car and drive 45 minutes to find food prepared by the same cooks as the famous Vancouver Indian restaurant. Not only that, these days they’ll also find Vikram Vij at My Shanti.

The celebrity chef’s newest enterprise opened on June 2 and for the time being it needs its owner’s attention. “It’s like a baby,” he says of the 130-seat restaurant with an exterior so eye-catching you’ll think it belongs in Times Square, not a suburban strip mall.

For 20 years, Vij has spent most of his evenings working the room at Vij’s, making it a destination restaurant unlike any other in Canada. With My Shanti, he sees an opportunity to elevate the food choices in the suburbs. He also indulges in showcasing more of his recipe book, filling the menu at My Shanti with regional dishes from India.

Anyone who has been to Vij’s knows the cuisine is a blend of European technique and Indian flavours. My Shanti is more traditionally Indian. “These are the dishes I’ve wanted to share with people for a while. They are from different regions of India, from places I’ve visited many times over the years,” says Vij, who juggles his time between the restaurants, his packaged food product line and numerous TV appearances, including as an upcoming member of CBC’s “Dragons’ Den.”

Vikram Vij’s Culinary Tour of India

Though the cuisine at My Shanti isn’t the same as Vij’s or Rangoli — the small eatery next door to Vij’s on Granville Street that’s also often packed with diners — some of the experience is unmistakeable. The spices that are so sublimely blended together you don’t realize there are dozens of them in each bite, the texture of perfectly prepared basmati rice, the heat that hits the back of your throat after you’ve enjoyed the other flavours first. Those are all hallmarks of Vij’s food and it’s what you’ll discover in the Indian dishes at My Shanti.

“This really is just like Calcutta fish,” Mariellen Ward, my dining companion, said with both joy and surprise when she bit into the steamed tilapia ($19.50), served with mustard gravy reminiscent of dishes from the capital city of the state of West Bengal. “This is really is like being back in India.”

Ward is an excellent person to gauge the authenticity of My Shanti’s recipes. Her website, BreatheDreamGo.com, has been recognized as a leading authority on travel to India and she has visited the country several times in the past decade. She assured that the menu accomplished Vij’s aim of giving diners a culinary tour of his homeland. Dishes evoke the diverse tastes of the Asian nation. The names on the menu tell diners the origin of the appetizers and entrees.

As good as the food is, the decor is a match — starting with that shimmering exterior. It is made of 4,000 sequins, affixed by hand to tiny hooks attached to a brick wall. The wind ripples through the sequins, causing a lovely wave of silver to streak above your head.

Mysorian vegetable thoran ($15) is a curry mixed with delicious grated coconut; Hydrabadi chicken biryani ($22) is served with Vij’s “3 Mistresses” — spicy sauces that include tamarind and chili concoctions; and Goan Oyster Pakoras ($11.25) are tasty morsels breaded in chick-pea flour and served with a tangy green chili creme fraiche. There are also Bollywood references and colloquial Hindi phrases used on the food and cocktail menu (try the rum-based Dawa Daru, $11). The standout, though, is a flavourful appetizer inspired by South America. The Peruvian/Indian ceviche of fish and shrimp features the seafood dropped into a gol gappa (a thin, crisp, hollow, bite-size bread bowl) and served atop a non-alcoholic shot of tamarind juice. Pop the seafood-stuffed gol gappa into your mouth and throw back the tamarind shot. Unique and incredibly tasty.

January 2, 2014

Best of Canadian travel for 2013

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Sonora Resort in the Discovery Islands is surrounded by pristine Pacific scenery. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This is my look back at 2013 travels across Canada, as first published in Vacay.ca on December 30, 2013.]

When I think back to my 2013 travels, one day will dominate my reminiscences — September 21. The last day of summer, the first full day of my return to British Columbia as a resident, and the single most stunning photographic experience of my life. I wasn’t alone in that assessment. On a journey with a half-dozen well-travelled journalists and photographers, I witnessed grizzly bears snatching and chewing salmon within a few strides of where I stood, a school of 150 dolphins propelling through the north Pacific with a pair of full-span rainbows as a backdrop, and an inter-species dance between sea lions and some of those same dolphins in the gloaming of the night.

This experience that was fit for a cinema took place in the Discovery Islands, a place all travellers should endeavour to find themselves one day. That morning and afternoon were captured in an article and photo slideshow published this fall.

Except for a couple of sojourns to the Caribbean, I spent the entire year’s travels within Canada, exploring its abundance of wonders. Although my trip to Sonora Resort stands at the top, it was far from a singular highlight.

DINING

Best dinner: I can never name just one, so here are three: Le Laurie Raphaël in Quebec City presented a happy mix of elegance, playfulness and culinary creativity; Araxi in Whistler showcased chef James Walt’s brilliance and passion for local food; at Sonora Resort, a Relais & Chateaux property, chef Terry Pichor treats diners to a course called “pre-dessert” — one reason why its tasting menu is a must for culinary travellers.

Best dinner enjoyed at a bar: I pulled up a stool at Bar Isabel in Toronto and was wowed by a handful of zesty Spanish dishes that would fit suitably in Iberia. Oh, and the drinks are great, too.

Best dinner enjoyed with a sabre: At Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, the Champagne sabering ritual is something you have to do — read why.

Best lunch: At Annie’s Table in Prince Edward Island, chef Norm Zeledon taught me to shuck oysters (and how to douse them with a shot of the province’s moonshine) and introduced me to the wonders of black garlic. He then cooked up some delicious mussels that we enjoyed in the lovely property that is a converted church. (Runner-up: The Lobster Pound in Sydney, Nova Scotia, where chef Richard Moore isn’t stingy with the portion sizes.)

Best liquid lunch: I had a few of those at Chase, which has one of the premier patios in Toronto and a terrific rum selection.

December 12, 2013

How travellers can go in search of Nelson Mandela

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A bust of a youthful Nelson Mandela adorns the famous Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Capetown, three kilometres from Robben Island. On Thursday, Mandela passed away at age 95. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on December 5, 2013, the day Nelson Mandela died.]

Naively, I arrived in South Africa three years ago thinking it would be difficult to find anyone in the nation who didn’t love Nelson Mandela. The first person who I interviewed taught me a lesson. “I didn’t like Mandela much,” said the man, a former diplomat who asked not to be identified when he spoke about his political career. He was present with Mandela at numerous high-level meetings in the 1990s, during the leader’s presidency. “Behind closed doors, he had little tolerance for dissent or opposing views. But I do respect him, tremendously. How could anyone not?”

So, I was asking the wrong question. For all the idolatry around him, Mandela was human and susceptible to the range of emotions as everyone else. Rather than inquiring about the ubiquitous of adoration for him, I should have sought a person in the nation who didn’t appreciate what he did for South Africans of all ethnicities. Such a person I didn’t find; however, somewhere there must exist a dissenter, a boorish individual opposed to the ideas of anti-apartheid and the Rainbow Nation. Largely, though, South Africa is a nation of Mandela acolytes, white, brown, and black.

“It’s like meeting an angel,” Sebastien Qweshe, a driver at the posh Michelangelo Hotel in Johannesburg told me about his encounter with the Nobel laureate.

Maria Sekwane, a member of the African National Congress, remembered February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, as a night of unmatched celebration. “We sang and we danced, but we were also expecting that we would soon have to fight,” she recalled. “For days we were collecting money to buy guns and then Mandela said each and every gun must go into the sea. We couldn’t believe it. But he insisted that had to be the way. That we could not look backward and that had to happen for the country to go forward.”

September 12, 2013

A stroll along Canada’s No. 1 street

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Visitors enjoy the atmosphere of Old Quebec on Rue du Petit-Champlain. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[This article was originally published in Vacay.ca and the Huffington Post.]

QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC — Eric Vezina can trace his roots to this spot, a cobblestone street that is 12 metres wide and 500 metres long, with a history older than the nation and a devotion to culture that is as fierce as it is endearing. Walking along Rue du Petit-Champlain, Vezina says, “My family goes back 11 generations in Quebec, to 1659. They helped build this street.”

A maintenance worker for the businesses in the area, Vezina speaks proudly of the heritage his ancestors played in establishing this section of Quebec City that dates more than 400 years and of where the street stands today, which is at the head of the nation. Vacay.ca has spent months visiting Canada’s urban centres to determine which streets are the best places for you to spend your time and dollars when touring the country. Rue du Petit-Champlain, lined with shops that belong to an artists’ cooperative, ranks No. 1 among the Top 20 Streets to Visit in Canada (full list to be published on September 17).

The street has boutique shops, artisan galleries, and restaurants, as well as a 200-seat theatre within centuries-old stone walls, a mural that depicts different stages of the city’s history, and a touching memorial to the 20 victims of an 1841 landslide that saw shale from the hill above  tumble down 300 feet. Look up beyond the cross that honours those lost and you will see the city’s greatest landmark, the Château Frontenac, rising tall from atop the Dufferin Terrace. The famed hotel was built in 1893, however, making it relatively modern when compared to the street and district beneath it.

Rue du Petit-Champlain is the oldest commercial street in North America. The Breakneck Stairs that lead down to it from Côte de la Montagne — a winding route that doubles in winter as the course for the annual Red Bull Crashed Ice races — are steep and dramatic. Built in 1635, the staircase has 59 steps that take you to Rue Petit-Champlain and the adjoining streets that make up the Quartier Champlain district.

Beyond the eye-catching scenery, what distinguishes Petit-Champlain from every other street in the nation is its emphasis on local culture in a tourist-heavy location. The street receives one million visitors a year, yet you will not find a Starbucks or McDonald’s here.

“We just say no,” notes Pascale Moisan, director of the Quartier Champlain cooperative. She mentions that Subway recently wanted to open a franchise location on the street but was refused.

Forty-five stores belong to the cooperative, with most owned by artisans and boutique fashion retailers. There are a couple of restaurants and chocolate shops. Not all the stores in Quartier Champlain are part of the cooperative. The one national chain that has a storefront here is LUSH (102 Rue du Petit-Champlain), but Moisan points out that its cosmetic products are handmade and that helps it complement other shops in the district.

In winter, the street is cleared by the cooperative’s members because Petit-Champlain is too narrow for snowploughs. The community also places 40 trees along the street at Christmas and more than 15,000 lightbulbs are used as decorations. It creates a beautiful scene, a winter wonderland that underscores that the street is as much for residents as it is for visitors.

“We have the best of both worlds. We have shops and things to do for the people of Quebec who enjoy the area, and you have stores that have lots of appeal for tourists,” says Monique Zimmermann, proprietor of Brin de Folie (38 Boulevard Champlain, linked to Petit-Champlain by a staircase), a colourful shop with zany gift items.

August 13, 2013

Chase is on to be Toronto’s best restaurant

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The rooftop patio at Chase is sure to be a hot spot in Toronto. (Julia Pelish photo)

[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on August 12, 2013.]

TORONTO, ONTARIO — Steven Salm has opened 14 restaurants in his career. That would be impressive for anyone in the restaurant business. Consider that Salm is 29 years old and the feat seems astounding. The transplanted New Yorker’s most ambitious and likely finest achievement debuted on a Monday afternoon soaked with sunshine and a champagne sprinkle of rain.

It’s called the Chase and the Chase Fish & Oyster Bar — two restaurants, one building, four floors apart. Anyone would crown the combined 10,000 square feet of dining flair as Toronto’s new “It” spot without even pulling up a chair. The space is that phenomenal. The rooftop, home to the Chase, features lounge chairs on the patio, a wonderfully stocked bar, and lavish decor in the interior that’s bracketed by attractive glass walls.

“This is the most relaxed I’ve been in eight months,” Salm said on opening day, smiling in the way people smile after they’ve finished a marathon — half excited with the achievement and half astonished at what they’ve just put themselves through. “I thought we would do half the size of what we did, but the real estate is so good and the opportunity really excited me.”

New Yorkers Salm and David Chang of Momofuku have invigorated Toronto’s dining scene with culinary ambitions on a massive scale. Momofuku Toronto opened last September in a terrific 6,600-square-foot property adjacent to the Shangri-la Hotel. It features three restaurants, a cocktail lounge, and the recently opened Milk Bar. The Chase restaurants are in the historic Dineen Building, a circa 1897 heritage space.

Executive chef Michael Steh oversees both two restaurants, which have separate chef de cuisines and diverse menus. The oyster restaurant, which debuted four days earlier, flies in fresh seafood from both coasts of Canada. It’s offerings include Oyster Po’boy Sliders ($11), a Lobster “Waldorf” Roll with candied walnuts and apple ($28), and decadent seafood platters ($50 or $110). The upscale rooftop kitchen sources local ingredients and also features some seafood dishes from abroad, including a delicious grilled octopus with pork sausage, salsa verde, and piquillo peppers ($23).

“We want to reset the bar for fine dining in Toronto,” says Steh, who has worked at Splendido and Reds, a favourite spot for bankers in the Financial District. “I think a lot of restaurants get away with things in this city that they wouldn’t in a place like New York. I think competitiveness is something that’s been lacking in Toronto for a long time. Steven has a lot of competitiveness and that is why I jumped aboard. He brings a drive for excellence that’s contagious.”

August 5, 2013

Eugenie Bouchard ready for the Rogers Cup

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Eugenie Bouchard is the top-ranked Canadian female tennis in the world and is 58th overall. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on August 5, 2012.]

Many Canadians skip off to travel the world when they’re 19. Eugenie Bouchard, though, is doing so in a high-stakes, high-style environment that only professional athletes would be involved in at such a young age.

The tennis sensation from Montreal is in her first full year on the WTA tour, which covers 59 tournaments in 20 countries. This week, Bouchard joins the Williams sisters and other top-ranked players at the annual Rogers Cup tournament in Toronto. The rigorous schedule that’s filled with practice sessions, media commitments, more practice sessions, and whirlwind scheduling that keeps her hopping from one destination to the next limits how much Bouchard can enjoy her world travels. But she does try to get out and see what she can of the stops on WTA.

“It’s tough travelling all the time, because you are always living out of suitcase for your job, but I love it. I love travelling, and seeing all of these different cultures,” she said Sunday during a press conference that followed a practice session at York University’s Rexall Centre, site of the tournament whose main draw begins Monday.

Bouchard will play Russia’s Alisa Kleybanova in the first round and will also team with retired champ Monica Seles for an exhibition doubles match against Venus and Serena Williams on Monday night. At 5-foot-10, Bouchard is a rangy, powerful player who has made a blazing ascent up the rankings since cracking the world’s top 200 last August. She’s currently No. 58 on the WTA and is no longer catching opponents by surprise after upsetting 12th-seeded Ana Ivanovic at Wimbledon in June. In a conference call last week, Serena Williams said Bouchard was “a talented player with improving control of her groundstrokes.”

With Maria Sharapova, the No. 2 player in the world, pulling out of the tournament, Tennis Canada is leaning on Bouchard to be a face of the Rogers Cup. With a quick smile and witty personality (see her Gangnam Style video with British player Laura Robson), Bouchard is poised to be Canada’s sporting sweetheart for years to come. Having the fans behind her in Toronto this week will be a help, she predicted.

“Coming home is special. I know I’m going to have great crowd support and that always helps. I’ll be using that to my advantage,” she said.

July 1, 2013

Montreal Jazz Fest keeps going strong

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Feist opened the 2013 Montreal Jazz Fest with a free show. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[First published in Vacay.ca on June 30, 2013]

MONTREAL, QUEBEC — In a city that very well may be the festival capital of North America, the annual event that started on Friday night stands above the rest. It’s not that the Montreal Jazz Fest’s lineup features the biggest names in music — the superb Osheaga festival that runs August 2-4 this year has a more star-studded roster — or the most unique venues and program.

The Jazz Fest remains worthy of reverence for the same reason any great event or attraction would. It has built up years, 34 of them, of credibility and notoriety. Its 25th anniversary edition in 2004 drew 250,000 people for its finale, a Cirque du Soleilperformance that celebrated that circus troupe’s 20th year, and earned the event a Guinness Book of World Records‘ mark for largest jazz festival on the planet. Since Ray Charles headlined the first edition in 1980, the Montreal Jazz Fest has grown into a calendar event, an annual occasion that your mind makes note of every June. You know the Montreal Jazz Fest means something, just like you know theToronto International Film Festival or Tour de France or Rio Carnival mean something, even if you’ve never been.

What the Jazz Fest means to Montreal is approximately $125 million in economic impact each year. It employs 2,500 people during its 10-day run and attracts more than 1 million people, roughly a third of them from outside of the metropolitan area. It is also traditionally considered the event that kicks off festival season in Montreal, a city that rolls out good times like no other North American centre other than New Orleans. Following the Jazz Fest is the Just for Laughs comedy festival, the delightful Circus Festival, Osheaga, the underrated Reggae Fest that’s in its 10th year, Pop Montreal, a world film festival, and on and on right into the new year when the 30-year-old Snow Fest and IglooFest, billed as “the world’s coldest rave,” serve as opening acts to the Montreal en Lumière Festival that fills the cold winter nights with dance, song, and plenty of cups of hot chocolate, many of them spiked.

While the likes of Charles and Stevie Wonder have opened the festival, the event for the past two years has featured Canadian talent on the first night. Rufus Wainwright kicked things off in 2012 and this year’s edition starred Feist, who played a free show for more than 100,000 people in Places des Festivals, a square outside of the Contemporary Museum of Art and the concert hall, Place des Arts.

May 26, 2013

Explaining Canada’s tourism strategy

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Ottawa hosted this year’s Rendez-vous Canada industry conference. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[This column was first published in Vacay.ca on May 17, 2013, and later appeared on the Huffington Post.]

OTTAWA, ONTARIO — The Canadian Tourism Commission has come under unwanted and ignorant criticism this month. The truth is, any of us would be hard-pressed to find a government agency that manages to do more with less than the CTC. Its budget has been slashed by 20% to $58.5 million from the 2012 level of $72 million, a sum that had also been reduced from previous years. Yet, the Canadian tourism industry grew 4.2% in 2012, increasing its revenue to $81.9 billion. A $100-billion target has been set for 2015.

“We’re the little engine that could,” Michele McKenzie said on May 3 in Cape Breton while attending that Nova Scotia region’s annual tourism conference and she underscored that sentiment a week later at Rendez-vous Canada, a yearly gathering of Canada’s tourism and trade industry.

In the face of relentless competition and staggering budget cuts, the CTC has deployed a strategy that involves provincial and municipal tourism boards and agencies focusing on traditional markets like the United States. On the federal level, the CTC is pushing all of its efforts toward attracting consumers from Brazil, India, China and Australia — nations where revenue potential is immense. The economies of Brazil, India and China are going to continue to grow and their citizens are will travel farther afield, and Canada has an opportunity to ensure consistent travel from those populations. Australians are used to long flights and the ascent in value of their currency allows many of them to fulfill the dream of venturing to Canada.