Monday, March 18, 2013

Winter in Toronto

As luck would have it, it seems I’m always destined to spend a good chunk of the winter months freezing my knickers north of the 42nd parallel; with Toronto – the vibrant yet somewhat subdued Canadian metropolis – the destination this time around.

Although I was previously here for an up-and-down-the-CN Tower obligatory-tourist-must-do half-day trip, spending a couple months trying to blend in with the locals showed that the city has so much more to offer…

To some extent, it reminds me of NY.  Same hustle-and-bustle (slightly more civilized), similarly vibrant cultural scene (at a smaller scale, of course) and an equally diverse culinary landscape (we’ll touch on Poutine in a minute).  Only the people are much nicer, the city is cleaner and less noisy, despite the myriad of construction projects that prop up skyscrapers faster than a SimCity virtual click.  To say it’s ethnically diverse would be a total understatement… and – not surprisingly – the society as a whole (unlike the neighbors from the South) is a lot less concerned with political correctness and over-sensitivity  A lot more cosmopolitan in that view, and quite refreshing (which makes perfect sense, given 49%!!! of the city’s population is born outside of Canada).  I’d call it practical pragmatism, and it’s definitely reflected in peoples’ joie de vivre.

Downtown view from St. Lawrence Market
The omnipresent CN Tower in red lights (and equally omnipresent tram... in red paint ;-)
"Aerial" (hotel room) view of the new City Hall
City Hall in the Summer ... and winter
(when the fountain  becomes an
ice skating rink)
The old City Hall...
... linking it to the Commonwealth

For a city this size (5th largest in North America at about 2.6 million residents [not including another 3 million in the metro area]) and considering the aforementioned “immigrant-heavy” demographics, the city proper – I learned – has an almost inexistent violent crime rate compared to other metro areas in North America.  As curiosity took the better of me, I checked the same figures for Atlanta: we’re fifth from the top, y’all! Scary, huh?

But I digress…

I hear that the city comes to life during the warmer months, which is no surprise, given the Lake Ontario backdrop and the multitude of parks in and around the city.  For the winter months, however, the “life” revolves around the PATH – a 28 km underground ‘maze’ that connects most downtown buildings and offers somewhere around 1,200 retail and service options.  One practically doesn't need a coat to venture downtown, even when the mercury drops well below freezing.  Just be aware, ‘commuters’ through the path – especially at ‘rush hour’ – don’t seem to abide by the unwritten traffic law that says one should walk on the right side of the path… or maybe it’s just the British heritage that causes confusion.  In short, expect some bumping and shoving if you happen to travel towards Union Station during morning commute… or away from it in the late afternoon.

A couple images from the Eaton Centre...
... the main shopping area in the PATH

Despite the coziness and convenience of the PATH, one still has to venture outside for some of the local points of interest, or simply to take in the Toronto sights.  The Distillery District is one such place; a former industrial area (which housed – you guessed it – a number of whiskey-producing mills) is now a trendy, pedestrian-only area housing cafés, restaurants, shops and art galleries.  It was there, on a very frigid early December night that I encountered Sinterklsaas (Saint Nicolas) who rode in on a white horse to give the kids gathered in the marketplace an early hint of what Christmas will look like.

Sinterklaas arriving on a white horse
(below, patrons having a drink by the bonfire)

One the way back towards downtown, St. Lawrence market is definitely worth a stop (and not just to warm up frozen extremities).  The place is an [overpriced] mecca for foodies and a definite delight for the olfactories.  There are several serious meat, seafood, cheese, fruits and vegetable sellers.  And more than a handful of specialty stores as well.  There are places specializing in preserves, or mustard only, caviar, truffles, you name it...  One of the butcher shops in particular (Whitehouse) offers such exotic fare as pheasant, ostrich, emu, elk, wild boar, even camel and kangaroo.  Bon appétit

A few on-site restaurants are there to turn all these goodies into edible delights:  Buster’s Sea Cove is a must do for fresh seafood cooked to perfection.  Carousel Bakery – sporting Emeril’s endorsement and pictures of Anthony Bourdain – urges you to try the “world famous peameal sandwich”.  Which I did.  Frankly, I was not impressed.  Yes, it was good (a bit salty) but it was nothing more than a few pieces of cooked Canadian bacon on a bun.  Purists will tell you that there is a difference between ‘peameal’ and Canadian bacon… I just submit that in Canada they just had to come up with a different name for it.  Hence ‘peameal’ ;-)

There are plenty of good restaurants (see earlier NY reference) and most celebrity chefs have opened a Canadian outpost here (e.g. David Chang’s Momofuku).  But I was blown away by Guu Izakaya.  A solid 10 for food, staff energy and atmosphere.  The octopus with wasabi stem is forever etched on the cerebrum.  Definitely worth experiencing first-hand!  Equally worthy is the Black Hoof gastropub, despite some of the more ‘adventurous’ menu options.  Up for bone marrow?  Tongue?  Sweetbreads? Bring cash, as they don’t take credit cards!  And on a lighter note, Bánh Mì Boys – a tiny hole-in-the wall on Queen – serves up some crazy-good Vietnamese/Korean fusion fare.

Oh, before I forget: I mentioned poutine in the beginning of this post.  As they say… ‘when in Rome’… so I tried the famed local staple… let’s just say it’s not my cup o’ tea.  Gravy is the last thing I’d put on my fries.  I’m just surprised it’s such a big hit with the locals…

Enough for you gourmands out there… Briefly back to the sites:

On the other end of downtown, the main attraction is the CN Tower.  I’ve already mentioned it in a previous post (here) but it’s definitely worth the elevator ride to the top.  A definite must-do for a birds-eye view of the surroundings.  A few blocks away, the waterfront offers more outdoor entertainment options.  And a ferry trip if you want to take in the skyline from the water.  I passed on that, given the climate, but I would definitely go for it during the summer.

A little out of the way – and unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit – it’s Casa Loma (former residence of financier Sir Henry Pellatt); a veritable castle, built at the turn of last century and offered today as a museum, with plenty of Gothic and Victorian architecture and furnishings.  Back in downtown proper, the Hockey Hall of Fame is the ‘mecca’ for the Canadian past time and any sports enthusiast.  For a nation where hockey is a ‘religion’ this is their veritable cathedral, worth a pilgrimage.

I’ll stop here.  There’s lots more to do and see, but with Yelp, Google, Wikipedia and so on, you don’t need me.  This was just a quick account of my short stint in Toronto.  Would love to get back during the summer, at some point (and have an outstanding invite from some dear friends to spend a few days out in a cottage by the lake)… but for now… au revoir, mon ‘Canuck’ amis!

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