How to Have a Good Time when You’re a Foodie on the Down Low

It’d be nice if we had the means to dine at Alo or Buca on a regular basis and the shameless determination — or at somebody else’s disposal with the very same shameless determination — to cajole and coerce the maitre d’s for reservations. As it were, money’s short and maitre d’s are not known to vouchsafe tables so easily. By the time your or my time comes to dine at such places without having to insult the waitstaff, another joint pops up a few blocks away. But the truth of the matter is, if it is food, or, what everybody’s calling a “culinary experience”, you’re after, you don’t really need to drop that much money to have fun and something to mull over long after. There are plenty of experiences other than delicious, prettily plated, deconstructed-then-reconstructed, includes-some-foam dinner that are not only culinary but also much more exciting.

Let’s say you have a day to spend entirely on food-related things. Say it’s a Sunday of a long weekend and let’s throw in pleasant weather and good tidings all around to make this hypothetical situation as daydream-like as possible.

Start this wondrous day right at the appetizing store — head over to Schmaltz Appetizing for the right kind of bagels and lox. They carry, among other things, nova, pastrami smoked, and acadian salmon, not to mention sturgeon, gefilte fish, gravlax, caviars of various fish, herring, fresh egg salad, chopped liver, and all kinds of cream cheeses — the only essential they seem to be missing is the sable, the fatty, delicious, now very pricey and prized ‘poor-man’s sturgeon.’ Though they do offer a variety of selections, if this is your first time, I recommend pastrami smoked salmon and regular cream cheese on a plain bagel — this is the fundamentals, the touchstone for not only truly appreciating the lox but also for evaluating an appetizing store. The slivers of onion and a few capers on top are on the house.

It’s worth noting that the bagels at Schmaltz, which come from Kiva’s, are no flimsy crusty ones à la Montreal; they belong to that deliciously chewy, thick, and actual-meal variety of New York. Nevertheless, indulge in a pickled herring after the meal to round things out. I rarely if ever say this when it comes to babka but it’s optional at Schmaltz — the last two times I tried, it was rather dry and the chocolate was unevenly spread. So if you’re still hungry, eat another herring. It’s delicious, it’s good for you, it gives you lots of loving and asks for nothing.

Illustration from Lucky Peach by Nick Iluzada & Brian Macduckston

Walk down to Kensington Market and walk right into Good Egg’s many shelves packed with books for those who love to eat, to cook, and to talk about what to eat for dinner over lunch. If you have not yet checked out Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton, the mind and body behind the eponymous restaurant, you should. She’s not the friendliest of kitchen voices. As her cookbook as well as her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, show, she does not shy away from giving you her opinions and edicts: whether it’s radishes with sea salt and sweet butter or salt baked beef tenderloin, there are right ways to do things and you should know them. The book, even when some of its recipes are not home-kitchen friendly, is full of inspirations. If you’re looking to ante up your Asian dishes with the American vernacular game, you can’t go wrong with either 101 Easy Asian Recipes by Peter Meehan and the brains behind Lucky Peach or The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook by Chris Ying and Danny Bowien fame. For a fantastic Italian standard other than Marcella Hazan’s seminal Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, flip through a copy of The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual by the two Frankies and, once again, Peter Meehan.

The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook by Chris Ying

The cookbooks cost upwards to $30 and considering their weights, it’s not the wisest thing to make impulses purchases — after all, the wondrous day still has much to offer. Take mental notes — or discreetly take photos of — recipes you like from these cookbooks. How to use fish sauce, to bring out the magic of fermentation, to brighten with ginger are some things you should take notes on from Meehan and Ying. And personally, the Frankies offer a meatballs with sauce recipe worth getting into a fight with the book purveyors. In Hamilton’s book, look for an asparagus recipe as they are in peak season in April — both white and green varieties are unusually delicious during Spring. When you’ve filched your fill of recipes, grab a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s still Kitchen Confidential to support local book business and your mind alike.

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (2000)

If you have not read Kitchen Confidential yet, this is what you are looking for, even if you don’t know it yet. It’s filthy and romantic and sometimes you want to take a break from it, but you know you will always come back to it. In this way, it’s like that fine medium rare burger deluxe at Joe Jr. on too many nights a week.

By now you’re probably a little peckish and in need of a little sweetness after missing out on that babka. I’ve got you covered: head over — this might take a while — to Neo Coffee Bar for a coffee and a slice of roll cake. The Japanese coffeeshop offers delicious coffee roasted by Toronto’s own de Mello Palheta with subtly sweet roll cakes full of flavor. The Shingen is red beans and gyuhi rice cakes (softer than mochi) with roasted soybean cream; the Matcha & Adzuki is classic combination of the distinct matcha flavor and sweet red beans; and for a classic, try the Pistachio Raspberry. Sit and relax, read your copy of Bourdain, and enjoy. The roll cakes at around $6 aren’t the cheapest sweets out there. But remember that time when you dropped $30 for a mediocre steak frites and it came out with a foot in the well-done zone? That’s right, I saw you.

Otto’s Bierhalle main page

If you’ve read a bit of Bourdain, you’re probably in the mood for some beer. Get on a streetcar and head back west to Otto’s Bierhalle for a pint or two. Though I personally prefer a rowdier and less palm trees ridden beer halls where the lighting and the prices are more conducive to beer-induced silliness, Otto’s has a fine list of drafts you should try. Hofbräu München is a German brewery that opened in 1589 and theirs are some of the best beers one can drink. Otto’s offers two Hofbräus — the Original, a slightly sweet lager, and the Hofbräu Dunkel, a nutty dark larger. Paulaneranother Munich brewery, this one dating back to 1634, is on tap at Otto’s — the Hefeweissbier, or the wheat beer, is slightly more flavorful than common lagers and tastes somewhat like bananas. If you’re looking for something a bit more hoppy, try the citrusy and bitter Stone IPA from the Californian brewery. If you’re in the mood nurse and sip on your beer slowly, go for La Chouffe Golden AleThe Belgian brewery’s cute drunken gnome mascot should be enough warning for both its fruity deliciousness and malicious strength. If you want something in bottles when there is a respectable draft list, I can’t help you.

Tartine’s sourdough photo by Eric Wolfinger from the New York Times

By now you’re happily buzzed or tipsy. This is the perfect time to surreptitiously begin your journey as a journeyman baker/bacteria farmer. When you get home, in a glass or plastic container, put four ounces of whole grain, all-purpose, or rye flour and pour in four ounces of lukewarm filtered water.  Stir until it looks like a thick pancake batter. Cover with a kitchen towel or a cheese cloth. Now you’ve got a sourdough starter going that will, once done, revolutionize your pancake, pizza, morning rolls, and, most importantly, everyday bread game. From then on, you won’t touch pre-packaged bread or even that ACE stuff they sell at the groceries. I recommend reading up on sourdough starters as you go along to find the right one that fits your personal needs.

A day spent like this may very well be costly, what with transportation and roll cakes being $6 and all. But if you do the math, it’s probably a fraction of a dinner with wine at some fancy restaurant. It’s not that a day like this is objectively better than a deconstructed surf & turf + preceding palette cleansing sorbet. It is, rather, that a ‘culinary experience’ can be as humble and mind blowing like a nicely pickled herring or as easy as the surprising texture of red bean in a roll cake. Both are equally good and, in the romantic words of Nick Solares of Eater’s Meat Show, ‘profound and concussive.’ Just so happens that one won’t give your wallet a concussion.

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February Must Do List

February is the shortest month so you have very little time to waste trying to figure out what to do with yourself. Not only have I figured it out two days in advance, the list is so good as to last you the whole month and keep you thinking and savoring for even longer. Who else is thinking of your February leisure game like I am? Nobody. Now, pay attention and take notes:

John at The Company Theatre

Hilton Als described John by Annie Baker (The Flick) as “so good on so many levels that it casts a unique and brilliant light.” The play centers on an old innkeeper and a young couple with a chorus of inanimate objects. Indeed Baker’s genius is capturing all the minute, interesting, and increasingly more meaningful details of human interaction is undisputed. So much so that just reading her plays is a pleasure all on its own to equal many a theater experience. But luckily for Toronto, John, directed by Jonathan Goad (Reign, Dorsal, Troubled Waters), is running at The Company Theatre through February 29th.

The Paris Review Free Trial

 

The Paris Review is, in the small and eclectic world of literary magazines, a bonafide giant. With its over six-decades’ history and back issues, it is possibly the closest thing to a literary cornucopia. To which you can now have online access for free for ten days. Fiction and poetry by legends and those unduly forgotten, interviews with the likes of Ralph Ellison, Henry Green, Elena Ferrante, and Ann Beattie, and strange and wonderful portfolios of art works on your table to be gobbled up voraciously. It’s also a way to vet a meaningful gift idea for your significant other before Valentine’s Day.

Anna Magnani at TIFF

Though Volcano: Anna Magnani runs through March 11th at TIFF Bell Lightbox, some films are only playing once. Don’t panic! You just have to think ahead, is all. Pick one or two — I recommend the Rose Tattoo (Feb. 9th) and the Golden Coach (Feb. 25th) — ahead of time and look to it like a lighthouse on dreary early February days.

Dumbfoundead We might Die Tour

Dumbfoundead of K-Town, Los Angeles dropped his latest album We Might Die late last year, and, as soon as his tour dates were announced, it’s been a sold out show one after the other. In fact, the Toronto venue had to be moved from the Drake Hotel to the Mod Club due to large demand. Honestly, I don’t even know how to talk about this show in a coherent and reasonable manner. It’s all screams and awkward, passionate dance moves to express my enthusiasm. So, here, just listen to this for now and proceed to Ticketmaster.

Horace and Pete

If you like Louie or Baskets, you might not really like Horace and Pete. And if you are like me and a sucker for anything to do with Louis C.K. and, on the off chance that he drops in in your neighborhood, signed up for his hilarious and kind newsletters, you probably bought Horace and Pete last year. Though I’ve pushed the show to my friends like my nonna at the dinner table — Got all ten episodes packed and ready in a USB for your viewing pleasure, I said — I only got halfhearted, “Hmm interesting” responses. Must have been because they were at good places in their lives not ready for the captivating darkness that is Horace and Pete. But with Inauguration Day behind us, some have come back to thank me. So, here I stand offering this show, once again. It won’t do any good to your sense of morale but it will certainly entertain and force feed food for thought. Quit Neflix for a month. Instead, Horace and Pete and cry.

Trey Ellis, Platitudes 

By all accounts, an accurate and detailed history is something that should be taught year-round for years, but for now we have Black History Month. Cynicism aside, it is just another reason on top of a long list of reasons to learn. You could, of course, read Zadie Smith or Ta-Nehisi Coates and get a top-notch education. But why not challenge yourself and read something that’s been unduly neglected by the publishing industry? Trey Ellis’s Platitude is only hilarious, smart, and highly entertaining, but, more importantly, it is an exploration of black identity, community, and the complex issues innate to being multiracial and multicultural in America. If you’re smart, you’d get yourself a Northeastern University Press copy that includes Ellis’s seminal essay, “The New Black Aesthetic”. Readings like these have always been pertinent to our culture but in times like these, they are imperative.

VIKTOR KOLÁŘ — Canada, 1968-1973

Vancouver, 1969 © Viktor Kolář

Czech photographer, Viktor Kolář, came to Vancouver in the late 60’s and, along with a six-month English course, began photographing his new home with a Leica. Perhaps that’s why his photographs have the power of making the familiar seem strange or pointing out the strangeness within the ordinary — they’re less cityscapes and more of mediations on new surroundings. You can see Kolář’s early works at Stephen Bulger Gallery until February 18th. You can also visit the gallery for free screenings of films picked by the artist on Saturdays until the 18th. Screenings include: Funny Games by Michael Haneke, Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve, and Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai by Jim Jarmusch. 

Toronto’s Inaugural Light Fest

Photo @ Arjun Yadav

Toronto Light Festival, the city’s first-ever light art festival, runs through March 12th in the historic Distillery District. The admission is free and it’s right by Mill Street brew pub, crucial for post-art beer and chat. The twenty-one art installations are not only beautiful in the picturesque streets of the Distillery, but they also raise funds for charity for The Yonge Street Mission — through a GoFundMe page — and Daily Bread Food Bank — for every photo with #MillStLights, Mill Street Brewery will donate $1!

If you can’t make a day(s) of these things

Well, I understand. You’re busy and with Valentine’s Day ahead, your finances need maneuvering and you’ve learned to slouch and call it hygge — I have a personal dislike toward this ‘concept’ — and whatnot. But you still want things to do while you’re indoors, relaxing. Do so with Charles Bradley — though I have to interject and ask, What were doing not listening to Charles Bradley? Follow Astro Poets @poetastrologers on Twitter for your daily horoscope, comedy, and anxiety. Eat sourdough from Blackbird Baking Co. and cook Gabrielle Hamilton’s stewed chicken and rice. Drink Sourdais Chinon 2014 (16.95$) and Anselmi San Vicenzo 2015 (16.95$). And otherwise do things ever more astounding and wonderful.

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