Saturday, February 24, 2007

Montreal: Food and Clothing

It felt like it took an entire day to get to Montreal. I had to work late the night before, so we thought we'd get up early, pack, leave at the leisurely hour of 10AM, pick up some stuff at Darcy's company in Markham, and then make it to Montreal by about 5:30PM. Instead, we slept in, were 1 hour late picking up the rental car, went the wrong way on the 401 for 20 minutes, and got to my sister's building by 7:30PM where a big, fat mini van was parked in the parking spot she arranged for us. The young woman who owns the parking spot, Saskaia (who is so beautiful in that effortless, cool way that French girls have), was very annoyed because apparently this mini van has trespassed many times. Saskaia showed us an alternate place to park and then went straight to the police station down the street to try to get the van towed. I guess this is harder than you would think. The police don't really have time for these kinds of things, but she did manage to get them to leave a ticket. At one point, she wanted Darcy to leave the rental car blocking the van so we could find out who they were. It sounded like fun for a minute and then the whole idea seemed a bit too vigilante. I think the ticket was enough.

I had wanted to spend the entire weekend chilling, but since the Las Vegas trip is coming up, I needed to buy some 'business casual' clothes. What a pain. At my work, it's definitely 'casual casual'. On a normal day, I wear jeans and a hoodie. I have lots of nice dressy clothes that are too big or too small, but absolutely nothing decent that fits. I was feeling particularly unmotivated and shy because my French is awful, but I nutted up got out there.

There was supposed to be a Quebec cheese festival at Complexe Desjardins next to my sister's place, so I'd thought I'd check that out before I got started. It was lunchtime and there are lots of office buildings around there, so it was packed. I had just had lunch, so I didn't have any cheese (sorry to disappoint), but I did take some papparazzi-style photos of the event. These Montrealers managed to look cool eating their artisal cheese and sipping wine even though they were sitting on plastic patio furniture.

At Complexe Desjardins, I bought some semi-dressy, high-heeled, black winter boots, which I sorely needed because I really don't have any winter boots other than my hiking ones. My hiking boots looked especially shabby in the bright shoe store, so after I bought the new ones I went back to the apartment, changed into them, and then headed back out to keep shopping (yes, I put on brand new shoes and went on a marathon shopping trip). What is it about Montreal that makes you feel so uncool -- like you've just fallen off the turnip truck? I hate to admit it, but in general people dress so much better there.

In the course of 4.5 hours, I bought a cute pair of black, dressy shoes, 4 pairs of pants, 3 long-sleeved shirts, and pantyhose (when did these get so expensive?). Upon leaving the second to last store, I was totally accosted by a young salesgirl selling Dead Sea skin care products at one of those kiosks in the middle of the Eaton Centre. Her spiel made it sound like she was selling me a used car, but the demonstration was very impressive. I ended up buying the facial peel, nail kit, and salt scrub.

In most of the stores, I tried my best to speak French and I think I did pretty well. In Tristan, I was waiting in line at the cash behind this really mouthy middle-aged Anglo woman who was trying to return something that she bought at a different location. She was squawking like anything and all the while that they were trying to accomodate her, she was complaining. At one point, she turned to me and the Francophone man beside me and told us, in English, to move away from her because we were standing too close and that she'd be a while. The guy beside me gave her a look and said, "c'est quoi ton probleme, la". Then he looked at me and said, "c'est pas correct, ca". I went along, pretending I was French too, and sort of grunted in agreement. Then, in swooped the most beautiful gay Tristan employee and he opened a till to ring me through. I wanted to align myself with the Francophone man instead of the rude Anglo woman, so I spoke in French, but it was painfully obvious that I was an Anglo too. He was still very sweet to me anyways.

The shopping trip was taxing, but successful. I limped home in my new boots in the icy, cold wind carrying tonnes of bags. I had never been so happy to sit down. Sophie (my sister's cat) and I sat motionless watching Sex and the City for 2 hours.

Darcy got back from Quebec City that night at about 7 and we were both starving, so we went across the street to our favourite Vietnamese pho place, Pho Bac. Pho is totally fast food in that the time between ordering and chewing is about 5 minutes. We got our usual: imperial rolls (deep-fried spring rolls filled with pork and vegetables), fresh rolls (rice paper rolls filled with fresh and pickled vegetables), pho with rare beef (for Darcy) and pho with beef and tripe (for me). It was so cold that night and the soup was warm and filling. And cheap -- the bill came to $21.

The next morning we went to dim sum at our favourite place, which is also just across the street in Chinatown. When Darcy was living in Montreal 10 years ago, we used to go there for dim sum every Sunday. After all this time, less than half of the staff has turned over. Not only are the servers mostly the same, they drive the same carts. For example, the 'fried' lady always has deep-fried things like spring rolls, calamari, and taro while the 'scary' lady has stuff that we are too scared to try (chicken feet, duck feet, assorted innards -- I know, we should just try it!). Since it was just the two of us, we were fairly conservative. We had har gow (shrimp dumplings), siu mai (pork dumplings), garlic spare ribs, rice rolls with shrimp, fried tofu with shrimp and scallops, and garlic baby squid (for me). The baby squid was outstanding -- fresh, garlicky, and tender. The bill came to $25. I love this place.

The rest of Saturday was more like what I had in mind for the weekend. After we got back from dim sum we watched TV, took a nap, watched a movie (Munich -- very good), and then ordered from Alto's, a place I ordered from all the time when I was a student at McGill. If there are places like this in Toronto, I haven't found them yet. They make absolutely anything you could think of (pizza, pasta, sandwiches, hamburgers, hotdogs, poutine, salads, steak, omelettes, etc.) and you can have all of it delivered until 4AM. I don't know how many times I called for poutine at 3:30AM from residence. We had chicken souvlaki pitas, greek salad, and poutine (had to have it) and it arrived within 20 minutes of ordering. If I lived here, I'd gain so much weight.

Something that is at every greasy spoon like Alto's that I have never seen anywhere else is the Michigan hotdog. It's basically a hotdog with meat sauce on top of it. I can't say that after all those years in Montreal I ever tried it, but it's nice to see it on the menu and that it endures. Some places, like Alto's, take it one step further and make a 'Michigan poutine', which (you guessed it) is a poutine with meat sauce instead of gravy. Imagine.

My sister's condo building used to be a nursing school, I think. That seems to be the cool thing to do everywhere: build condos in historical buildings. For anyone who is thinking of buying one, I'd advise you visit the place during the winter. My sister's place is really beautiful and bright, but the difference in temperature between the rooms is astounding. The sitting room, where her computer is, is hot like a greenhouse while the bedroom at the other end is freezing. And the heating makes this really loud buzzing sound. She's only renting the place, so she isn't stuck with it, but I can't imagine if you bought the place and had to live with it for a long time.

On Sunday, we went for dim sum again because, well, why not. We were able to have all the things we didn't the day before. This time, we had radish cake, a sweet cake that I didn't recognize), garlic spareribs (yeah, again), pork and vegetable dumplings, shrimp and vegetable dumplings, shrimp and cilantro dumplings, and tripe (for me). Dim sim, like pho, is really fast food because you don't have to order (everything comes to you on carts) and all the staff is so quick. Within seconds of sitting down, you have tea and hot sauce. Within a minute, the first cart has found you and others are lining up behind it. The total time between when we stepped out of the apartment and when stepped back after dim sum was 25 minutes. So, I'm guessing we literally spent 15 minutes in the restaurant. I know. We eat way too fast.

The drive back was fast and easy until we got to the GTA and hit the snow. The Weather Network said 'light snow', which was so untrue! The snow was thick and blowing and we had to slow down to 50km/h on the DVP. It took us an hour to get from the 401 to the Lakeshore. But, we made it in one piece.

It was great keeping my sister's cat, Sophie, company while my sister was in Vail. She followed me around the apartment the whole time and slept with us at night. I'm glad she didn't have to spend this long weekend alone, especially since my sister's flight got cancelled and she had to stay in Colorado for an extra night. Poor kitty. Poor Koto too. The airline lost her bags.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

I can't believe I'm going to Las Vegas

Can you believe it? My company is sending me to Las Vegas the first week of March to help our clients with their testing cycle. I've never been before and I probably wouldn't ever go there on my own dime, so it's a great opportunity to see it -- all that man-made grandeur.

There's obviously so much to do there (and so many great restaurants), but I'm not sure how much time we will have for fun. Unlike the India trip, I'll be the vendor instead of the client, so it will be a completely different situation. I'll have to cater to them and not the other way around. But, however it goes, it'll be an experience and hopefully I'll have lots to blog about.

Work has been so crazy for the past month, so I'm going to Montreal for a long weekend this weekend. I haven't been there since last July and I'm really looking forward to it. Darcy has to do some work there (visiting his company's Montreal and Quebec city branches), but I'll be free, easy, and lazy. We're staying at my sister's place right next to Chinatown (and the best dim sum ever). She's going to be in Vail, Colorado snowboarding, so we're going to housesit and take care of Sophie, her little chubby kitty-cat. I'm going to lie on the couch, hang with the kitty, and read my book (Heat by Bill Buford -- excellent). I can't wait.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Brunch at Mildred Pierce, Japanese Design 100 at the Design Exchange

To celebrate my dearest Darryl's birthday and upcoming trip to New Zealand and Australia (he leaves tomorrow at 9AM), we met for the most decadent brunch at Mildred Pierce.

Mildred Pierce is sort of a quietly famous Toronto restaurant that is just celebrating its 15th anniversary. I can't seem to find any succinct research on its history, but I know that its reputation and success was built by Donna Dooher, a now famous chef, cookbook writer, and FoodTV host. In the same building is Donna's cooking school called The Cookworks, which Diane and Dennis attended and said it was excellent (they learned how to properly debone a chicken -- apparently it's easy if you know how).

The restaurant is in a very out-of-the-way, secluded street parallel to and south of Queen at Dovercourt. This morning I was running late, of course, and I realized that I had left the house with only a vague idea of how to get there. I got off the streetcar at Dovercourt and saw Darryl's familiar form in the distance and ran like crazy to catch up with him before he disappeared down the rabbit hole. It turns out that I only had to go straight and the place was right there. They don't take reservations for Sunday Brunch, so we got there at 9:30 in anticipation of the doors opening at 10.

While we waited outside in the freezing cold and wind, the loudspeakers outside the restaurant were playing Beastie Boys -- very odd. Maybe that's what the cooks were listening to in the kitchen while they were prepping? We were the only ones in line until about 9:45AM when streams of attractive, affulent, apres-ski-looking folks started pouring into the parking lot.

They opened the door promptly at 10 and we got what I think is the best table in the place -- a round one in the corner to one side of the door so there was natural light, privacy, and a good view of everyone waiting to get in (yes, I know, schadenfreude).

We started with delicious freshly squeezed orange juice, which actually was freshly squeezed from actual oranges. In addition, Darryl and I had Lemon Ginger Fizzes, which were tall glasses brimming with ice, lemonade, soda, and ginger syrup -- yum. The combination was delicate and refreshing -- almost as good as those sublime fruit drinks Marcelo and I had to Goa in December.

Next we all had either scones or buttermilk biscuits. I saw scones being made on TV once and I was surprised by how heavy they were (cream, butter, etc.). I had them on only two other occasions before, I think -- once at the King Eddie for high tea and once at a high tea-themed dinner party hosted by a friend who is a former pastry chef. The ones I had before were soft and smooth, much like Darcy's biscuits. These ones at Mildred Pierce were SO heavy and full of butter. One order comes with two scones and I'm so glad that Michael and I decided to split it. They were so buttery that it really was like eating a croissant in a different shape. They were delicious, of course, but kind of obscene -- like eating deep-fried bacon. I think I actually prefer lighter ones.

As for the entree, my heart wanted the Eggs Benedict on croissant with smoked salmon, but Michael and Diane were getting that and I wanted to see a variety of things on the table. That was a mistake. Michael's Eggs Benedict was the most decadent, delicious thing I have ever eaten (he sweetly let me have quite a bit of his since I was eyeing it so jealously). The croissant was homemade (also very buttery), the yolk was runny, and the sauce was incredible. If you are someone who enjoys savoury dishes for brunch (as opposed to French toast, pancakes, etc), you must not order anything else. It was outstanding.

As for me, I order the Green Eggs and Ham, which was scrambled eggs with spinach accompanied by a small ham steak, fried potatoes, and a buttermilk biscuit. I had expected the eggs to be flecked with spinach, but they were actually completely and uniformly green. They must have mixed the eggs with spinach juice. It was very surreal and sort of Alice in Wonderland, which was fun. The eggs didn't taste like spinach at all though. The potatoes were deep-fried and the biscuit looked more like puffed pastry due to all the butter. I ate everything except the biscuit (I took it home in an adorable doggy bag) and I felt like I had enough fuel to climb a mountain.

Dennis and Darryl had the cinnamon brioche French toast and Louis had the omelette of the day (goat cheese, mushroom, and spinach, I think). I noticed that they made Louis' omelette just like professional cooking schools tell you to make it. I took a food theory course at George Brown a couple of years ago and they said that the proper, traditional, French way of making an omelette is to cook it so that the egg doesn't have any browned areas and is completely yellow. Louis' omelette would have gotten an A+.

Darryl said, while we were waiting in line, that Mildred Pierce is so over the top (in decadence), but they do it so well. That is exactly right. The food was heavy and buttery, but expertly made. And the portions are just right -- not too much; not too little. They really know what they are doing. I'd recommend brunch at Mildred Pierce to anyone, but be prepared to abandon any heart healthy ideas you might have. And get there early. 9:45 should be fine.

Afterwards, I went all by my onesy to the Japanese Design Today 100 show at the Design Exchange. I had invited everyone to come with me, but no one was into it and it was just as well since the show was quite underwhelming. I had gone to the Italian Design show at the ROM in January, which was fabulous and really showed, I think, pieces that reflect the magic (I know that sounds corny) of Italian design. This show looked like a collection of 'All the Japanese Things That We Can Find Without Looking Too Hard'. They had 100 pieces that were supposed to represent the best of contemporary Japanese design in everyday objects (furniture, dishes, electronics, etc.), but I feel like I saw cooler stuff when I went to an ordinary electronics store in Tokyo in 1994.

The show didn't come close to capturing what is great about Japanese design, which I think is understatement, efficiency, and a kind of sensitivity. There weren't any pieces that struck you as particularly novel or ingenious (although the salt and pepper shakers pictured here were cute). One really great Japanese design that has been copied all over the place is the Akari lights by Isamu Noguchi. He made many, beautiful light shades (basically light sculptures), but in this show they only had one, which they displayed on the floor cluttered with lots of other things (and ironically, my picture of it came out blurry). I think what made this show so unimpressive was both the selection of objects and how they were displayed. I can see now how difficult it is to design an exhibit because how things are presented really makes a difference, but you don't notice it until it's done badly (I guess that's the case with everything). I took lots of pictures though, if you'd like to see him. Maybe I'm just jaded. Tell me what you think of the show.

I had arrived at the Design Exchange pretty much at noon on the dot (when it opened), so for the most part I had the place to myself. By the time I left an hour later, there were at least 15-20 people there, I think. I'm glad to see that people come out for these shows, but it's too bad that this one didn't do the subject justice. I hate to end on such a sour note. On the upside, there were these really cute elephant sculptures across the street.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Yama Japanese Restaurant in Bloor West Village

Darcy and I caught an awful cold last weekend, so tonight was actually the first time in 6 days that I've left the apartment. We were coincidentally both thinking of how long it's been since we've been to our favourite Japanese restaurant up on Bloor Street, so we went for an early dinner.

Yama used to be called Delite Sushi and Noodles up until about 3 years ago. It's a small, cozy, 20-seat restaurant run by a Korean family. I know what you're thinking: how good could it be if it isn't run by Japanese people? I've found that what makes a good Japanese restaurant is the freshness of the ingredients and the care that is put into the cooking and presentation rather than ethnicity. It similar to how Tony Bourdain says that the majority of French food served in high end New York restaurants is made by Mexican cooks. There is a sushi restaurant close to Runnymede station that is run by Japanese people, but the quality was very poor when we went there. The lacquer dishes were chipped, the lettuce in the salad was wilted and discoloured, and the sushi was sloppily made. At Yama, they care about all those details. All the garnishes (even the wedge of lemon) are pretty and fresh and everything is beautifully presented. I know that if you want very high quality authentic Japanese food, most likely you can't have it at a Korean-run restaurant. But, since we're not in Japan, you won't be able to have it anyways. So, follow your tastebuds.

When it was still Delite Sushi and Noodles, it was a very casual place where you could get great zaru soba, which you don't see in many Japanese restaurants in Toronto. Zaru soba is cold soba topped with nori and served with a soy-like dipping sauce. It's one of my favourite things to eat and my mom used to make it a lot when I was a kid. After the re-branding and renovation, the menu and dishes became more upscale so they don't serve it anymore, but they do have great sushi, sashimi, and bento boxes.

If you are absolutely starving, the bento boxes are great. At Yama, they serve your bento in courses, so it's like having a five-course meal for less than $20: miso soup, house salad, sashimi, entree (box), and dessert. It is a prodigious amount of food of excellent quality. Tonight, we were less ambitious so we ordered a few appetizers to share: gyoza (pork dumplings), wakame (seaweed) salad, and vegetable tempura, as well as chicken katsu (schnitzel-like thing) for Darcy and dragon rolls (maki sushi with barbequed eel, shrimp, crab, and avocado) for me.

The gyoza was so much better than I expected. At Yama, they deep fry it (my mom steams or pan-fries it), so I didn't think I'd like it, but the skin was light, crisp, and ungreasy. The filling was a little bland, but it wasn't overstuffed.

Darcy had house salad with his chicken katsu, so I had the wakame salad all to myself. It was a very generous amount of seaweed soaked in a sweet/sour dressing, topped with sesame seeds, and served on a bed of angel hair daikon. I love seaweed. It's delicious and I feel so healthy when I eat it.

The vegetable tempura was pretty good. I remember it being better in the past. There was red pepper, green pepper, sweet potato, daikon, and a couple more starchy vegetables that I couldn't identify.

The dragon roll was very pretty and yummy. I know it's sort of howaito-san (i.e. for white people), but I love barbequed eel and avocado. I kind of had buyers' remorse immediately after ordering it because I had been craving fresh fish, but I figured it's something I can't make. I have no idea how they slice the avocado so thinly and keep it from discolouring.

For dessert, they sweetly gave us free mango ice cream. Ever since coming back from India, I've been missing ice cream, especially mango. Marcelo and I would have ice cream at least twice a day. It was exactly what I wanted, but I thought I was too full. I'm glad they made the decision for me.

There is next to no information on the web about this restaurant, but it is very good and it's been around for at least as long as we've been in living the neighbourhood, which is about 6 years. If you're in this neck of the woods and want some great Japanese food for a reasonable price, you must come here. There is a larger, fancier, usually more crowded place a couple of doors west called Yumi, but Yama is better and they treat you like gold. For the address and phone number, see picture.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Cheese Boutique aka The Mini Bar

Like last Saturday, Darcy and I found ourselves today with no food and we were too lazy to go to Sobeys or even up to Bloor Street. Actually, Darcy was feeling a bit under the weather so I nutted up, braved the cold, and walked to the Cheese Boutique, which is pretty close (5-minute walk).

The Cheese Boutique is a pretty famous gourmet shop that has been around forever. It began when current owner Fatos Pristine's father bought a convenience store on Bloor Street in 1968 after immigrating to Canada. Recently, Toronto Life did a very lengthy piece on the Cheese Boutique and the Pristine family, which you can read here. Over the years, the convenience store gradually metamorphosed into a gourmet food shop and became very popular. In 2000, the same year that Darcy and I moved to Toronto, the shop relocated to my neighbourhood. Fate? I think so. We stumbled upon it when we were walking around taking in our new surroundings. The big cartoon mouse logo on the sign really didn't prepare us for what was inside.

The Cheese Boutique is a beautiful store. The entrance area overflows, especially in the summer, with both potted and fresh flowers for sale. When I need to bring flowers to a party or an event, I usually buy them here because they are consistently fresh and gift-ready. In the summer, they sell the prettiest Ontario roses and they have these great cone-shaped clear plastic bags for carrying bouquets. With these bags, you can easily transport a heavy bouquet without having to cradle it like a baby and use your butt to open doors.

Inside, every wall is lined with shelves from floor to ceiling that are packed with every food-related item you can think of. Exotic extracts, oils, condiments, sauces, biscuits, cookies, chocolates, crackers, jams, jellies, tea, coffee, pasta, rice, spices, hot sauces, chutneys, goes on forever. They have a glass-fronted case filled with aged balsamic vinegar that looks very old and expensive (I can't tell how old they are. That one in the middle can't be 100 years old, can it?). The centre of the store houses the enormous selection of cheeses, deli meats, fresh meats, and olives. They are happy to let you taste anything you like before deciding on whether or not to buy (this is probably why they have a million people working behind the counter).

Also on the main floor is a walk-in cheese vault where they actually age cheese. The vault is open to shoppers, so you can go in, cool off (unnecessary today), and inhale the salty, funky smell of parmesan. This also where they keep the truffles and truffle-related products (under lock and key).

Further toward the back is the dessert case filled with lovely cakes and pastries, the prepared food counter (serving dips, samosas, spring rolls, stuffed veggies, etc.), and an amazing produce section. The produce section is relatively small, but full of impeccably fresh items, including very exotic things that you don't usually see at other places (tomatillos, purple potatoes, fresh figs, kumquats).

Lastly, upstairs is a sort of wraparound balcony that is stocked with pretty much every tea and coffee in the world. In between the stacks is a grand throne-like chair with a hanging cowbell beside it. If you sit in the chaird and ring the bell, someone from the deli counter pulls on a rope that lowers a basket of candy in front of you. Don't worry, I didn't ring it; I watched some kids do it once.

Tonight Darcy wanted pizza, so I bought some bocconcini, fresh basil, tomatoes, red peppers, white mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, King mushrooms, mild pepperoni, spicy pepperoni, and prepared tomato basil sauce. Since our cupboard is completely bare, I also bought cucumber, lettuce, ham, turkey, smoked gouda, sliced provolone, ground beef, chicken breasts, bread, baba gannouj, and veggie samosas. I was in the mood to take home a really smelly, runny, advanced cheese, but the girl who was serving me was brand new and she didn't really know anything at all so I thought I'd leave that for another day. She actually really put me at ease. I was feeling a little intimidated in the presence of all that cheese and Fatos who was walking around the shop. I've read so much about him that seeing him feels like a celebrity sighting and I have this irrational fear that he won't like me. My girl also called me "Miss" several times, which is so nice to hear after being "Ma'am-ed" all over the place while I was in India.

So, all of that fit in 3 bags and came to about $100. Darcy and I were looking at the prices of some of the stuff ($4 for the cucumber, $2.69 for each samosa, $7 for the small container of baba gannouj, $10 for the 250mL of tomato sauce) and it's no wonder that it was so expensive. It's sort of like shopping from a mini bar. I knew while I was there that I was spending too much, but I let myself go ahead anyways. I spent all morning and afternoon working (AudienceView has a new release coming out soon), so I think I felt like I deserved it.

The pizza came out really well. I made one with sliced tomatoes, bocconcini, and fresh basil, one with spicy pepperoni, bocconcini, red pepper, and white mushrooms, and one with sauteed mushrooms (King, shiitake, and white), provolone, and fresh basil. The pizza dough recipe called for all white flour, but I ran out so I used a combination of white, whole wheat, and rye. It was okay. Healthy-tasting. So, we have lots of leftovers for the Superbowl tomorrow.

The Toronto Life article says that Fatos is thinking of retiring soon. He has four sons though who I have seen working at the shop and, according to the article, are very interested in inheriting the business. Hopefully, we all can keep enjoying the Cheese Boutique for a long time. If you haven't been yet, go. Be prepared to spend.