Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Before I get back to what's going on in sunny, spring-time Barcelona, it would be remiss of me not to mention Toronto, where we stopped on our way back to Barcelona for random toboganning, extravagant dinners with friends and some very unpleasant dentist appointments. Don't worry, I still have all my own teeth.
This year, my favourite addition to the always changing Toronto scene was OddFellows (936 Queen St. W., 416-534-5244, reservations recommended for weekend evenings), for the unabashed fun of it. The brainchild of designers Kei Ng and Brian Richer, OddFellows blends eclectic, modern, campy and sometimes just plain weird design pieces with an atmosphere that's as down home as it gets: a wood burning stove, a long communal table, the clatter of dishes, the bumping of elbows and the buzz of conversation...well, it's actually more like a clamour to be heard over the throbbing music, but it's a minor niggle.
The food follows the homey elements of the space: bison meatloaf, pressure cooker lamb stew, a burger the size of a small child's head--all fantastic and all seasoned with a giant dose of family dinner hour nostalgia, right down to the creamed corn and partitioned plates.
Initially, I thought that there was a certain kind of pretension behind OddFellows' self conscious devil-may-care-ness and deliberately incongruous pairing of out-there design with the staples of home cooked comfort food. Certainly there's an eerie sense of displacement, a carefully constructed falseness of the kind you feel when you enter an artist's model of a house. Maybe it's just the reverb of putting an unfamiliar spin on the ultra familiar. Ultimately, it's just another element of the experience and the bottom line is that the experience, particularly in good company, is great. You should go.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Hi. How are you? It's been a while. What's new? How's the family? Work? The dog? Your Friday night bingo games? Yeah, it's always great to get together with the old gang even if the stamping pens are getting a little pricey.
Me? Oh, I've been fine. Took a trip to a little town they call Calgary. Saw the folks. Froze my ass off. Put on a few holiday pounds. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Yes, the weather was bad. Thirty below. Not a word of a lie. And piles of snow. Mountains, even. The fluffy kind. It was a little like the Christmas movie version of the North Pole. Except for the tree sized candy canes and talking reindeer. Not many of those.
A few good restaurants, though. Who would have thunk it? Don't get me wrong, I'm still a long way from declaring that Calgary is the next Barcelona, but frankly, it was better than I would have thought.
For one, there were tapas. Good tapas. Better tapas than I've had in Canada in a long while. At Wine Bar Kensington (Lower-1131 Kensington Road NW, (403) 457-1144). I know, they didn't waste any creativity on the name. Perhaps that's for the best. We could have ended up with Hola Cowtown or something equally Iberia meets the Wild West. (You can take a city out of the cow pasture, but you can't take the cow pasture out of the city.)
Now, to be perfectly honest, the tapas weren't authentically Spanish, but no one in North America really uses the word tapa to designate anything resembling traditional Spanish tapas anymore. The tapas were "small plates", as they say, ranging from a delicate bison carpaccio to an absolutely divine mascarpone stuffed lemon ravioli to staggeringly good Alberta beef short ribs to a died-and-went-to-heaven pork belly risotto. The wine selection was nice too and within reach. As for dessert, we were tempted by a basil cheesecake. Now, for my money, you can't really improve on the good old fashioned variety of cheesecake--i.e. the kind without the basil--and should probably not spend too much time trying. But I will say that the basil version was creamily memorable.
Other spots deserving of mention are Blink (111 8 Avenue SW, (403) 263-5330, www.blinkcalgary.com) and Mercato (2224 4 Street SW, (403) 263-5535, www.mercatogourmet.com). Thanks to my lovely sister and her very large gift certificate, we were treated to some very finely prepared dishes at the swish Blink. These, in their minimalist and somewhat trendy way, showcased the highlights of Canada's bounty: freshwater Manitoba pickerel, bison, loads of Alberta beef and other tasties, which I would probably remember but for the gallons of wine we consumed. The one minus to the evening was that the place echoed with emptiness; we were one of two tables in a restaurant that sits 60 if not more. It was a Monday night between Christmas and New Year's, though. Perhaps not the most popular dining night of the year.
In stark contrast to Blink, Mercato (no relation to the Toronto version, I'm told) is always stuffed to the gills and is the place I can now say I always go to with my dear friend Amreen, given that we've been there twice, once on each of the last two holiday treks we've separately made to see my parents, her in-laws. The lively spot has solid Italian pastas and mains, a terrific antipasto platter and a combination of clatter and movement that makes you feel perfectly comfortable bringing kids; Amreen brought her baby this time around. What I particularly love about Mercato is that Amreen and I can sit still for hours amid all the commotion, picking at hunks of parmigiano and roasted red pepper while sharing the news of the year that's just passed, the intimate and the notorious, the happy and sad kernels of it.
By the way, you can find Amreen's Urban Moms blog, The Balancing Act, by clicking here.