Where Toronto Eats: Sid’s Deli

Art work by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

The key to a simple dish lies in the details: the quality of the ingredients and the precision in preparation and presentation. If the demands of these details are met, even the most simple and humble dish can be downright thrilling. But when such dishes are prepared halfheartedly, with no rich sauce or pretty decorations to hide behind, their flaws become glaringly apparent; the balance is thrown off and the humble and simple dish becomes, at its best, noxious fuel for the road. Sushi is a great example: it can either be of Jiro’s dreams or of his nightmares. Though certainly not as highly prized as sushi, the same principle applies to even a deli sandwich. To those who love the pleasures brought on by such dishes’ simplicity, the nightmares are not merely disappointments but causes for moral outrage. For those, and for those looking for a great deli sandwich, Toronto’s Sid’s Deli gives cause for outrage in every bite of its pastrami sandwich. Stuff of Willy Katz’s and Reuben Schwartz’s collective worst fears.

Let’s not get too much into the establishment itself; suffice it to say that the alley next to its patio was riddled with oozing garbage and a red table just in front of the front counter was sticky with whatever combination of substances left undisturbed for god knows how long. The more unforgivable of Sid’s Deli’s deficiencies greeted me in the form of a supposedly 6oz pastrami on rye. The first bad sign: the absolute pinkness of the pastrami without the dark, smoky edges that should have, in the very least, been visible. The second: the visibly, and soon, to my dismay, to touch, cold pastrami — pastrami should sit in a steamer until it’s warm before it’s sliced and served. The third: the unbalanced distribution of the meat: each bite should offer a balance of lean and fat meats to bread ratio. These are, so far, only signs of the kitchen’s carelessness and lack of know-how that are telling me that this sandwich is not likely to satisfy. However, still at this point, the actual sandwich itself, against all odds, might very well have been a pleasant surprise. Not the case. The pastrami was flavorless, dry, and somehow devoid of any fat. The only noticeable flavor came from chunks of peppercorns lodged somewhere in the mound of dry pink. I should also note that Sid’s Deli charges 85 cents to have the pastrami hand-cut, an essential part of eating pastrami I’ve apparently been taking for granted all these years.

Hoping to find some solace, I looked to the rest of the plate, but it offered none. Though I saw the kitchen staff put the cold latke from the fridge into a microwave, I was hoping that it would still be good: it’s difficult to mess up such a simple and perfect classic. But the latke had, by the time I turned to it, oozed yellow oil onto the plate. Cutting into it, I found that the potato was neither grated nor shredded in the food processor but rather pulped in something or other. It was soggy and bland. Not an ounce of soul could be found in this infinitely forgiving and nourishing Jewish soul food. The cabbage in the cabbage slaw was unevenly cut, a paper-thin piece swimming in the same tasteless juice as a piece as thick as a finger. The matzo ball soup with a cold matzo ball was reminiscent of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup in its briny broth. In the end, the only solace came from a bottle of water that tried to wash everything down.

Some may think that I’m overanalyzing a sandwich platter. Would I, for instance, look at a Subways sandwich with the same level of scrutiny? Isn’t a sandwich, after all, just a sandwich? But a pastrami sandwich, especially one from a place that calls itself a deli, is not just a sandwich. Like many everyday foods, pastrami has a long cultural history and carries with it the stories of people who make and eat it. It is nothing short of an embodiment of that history and those stories. As such, it should be treated with respect and when it isn’t, one should scrutinize and call out. With a dash of exaggeration, I might even posit that mediocrity in food — and people’s acceptance of the mediocrity as normal — is both symptom and outcome of a blindingly materialistic culture. That the only thing  BlogTO had to “kvetch” was Sid’s Deli’s high price and that BlogTO is a common reference point for Torontonians are, therefore, sufficient causes for further moral outrage.

After all the moral outrage at this emotionally hazardous establishment, what bugs me still is the fact that it had the audacity to charge 85 cents to have pastrami hand-cut. Was it an attempt to make that extra near-dollar per sandwich and thereby lower food costs? Or were those 85 cents going to the master cutter who otherwise sits solemnly in the back room, sharpening his tools? That the establishment even considered thinly machine-cutting pastrami was a good idea is a testimony to the fact that those running it have neither love nor respect for the food they sell. It should be obvious by now that Sid’s Deli is not Katz or Schwartz, but that’s not really the point. The point is that Sid’s Deli’s values and principles are antithetical to those of respected institutions of deli sandwiches; by extension, it’s antithetical to those of anyone who loves what he/she cooks.

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Novel Ideas: Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Twenty years after her first novel, Arundhati Roy returns to fiction with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. In 1997, she published The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize and marked her as an internationally acclaimed author. For the following two decades, Roy worked as a political activist, speaking out against Hindu nationalism in India, advocating for the independence of Kashmir, critiquing capitalism, and protesting against environmental degradations. Indeed, any reader of Roy’s new novel can see the heavy, intermingling threads of activism running through it. It is a demanding book that, thanks to its outspoken political nature, challenges the rigid ways in which we often see and define the novel: as an exclusive genre that adheres to its rules of plot, dialogue, form, and style. But Roy’s novel resists this, integrating political thought with narratives, poetics, and languages.

The reader first meets Anjum (described as a hijra, a Hindu term referring to those who are hermaphrodites, transgendered, or third gendered) living “like a tree in the graveyard”. She is born with both male and female sex organs, and is raised as a boy named Aftab. The reader joins Anjum when she, as Aftab, sees “a slim-hipped woman wearing bright lipstick” and realizes she “want[s] to be her” – and continues with Anjum as she faces the consequences that follow her choice to live as a woman. Anjum’s identity and its complexities are shown within and in relation to the political ongoings of India: for instance, the war surrounding the Line of Control in Kashmir and the murder of Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat, both stemming from the centuries-old conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The novel probes how a hijra is seen, treated, and heard in such situations, working with both the personal and the political. It zooms into the individual and then the collective, introducing a range of characters who are all somehow connected to Anjum, to the tree in the graveyard.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness author Arundhati Roy

Many reviewers have suggested that the novel tries to weave too much of Roy’s activism into one book: the number of characters can be overwhelming, the number of political turmoils explored can be difficult to follow, the plot and dialogue — the supposed holy grails of fiction — can fall behind the political settings. Indeed, all that can be said justly about the novel. But, as Roy herself explains, approaching and writing fiction often involves questions of experiment, of whether you can “make the foreground into the background,” of whether you can center and decenter things. As such, Roy’s decision to center the personal at a given time or the political at another time, irrespective of time and chronology, not only challenges the ways in which themes are explored in novels — integrated and often in the background of a plot – but asks what the ultimate role of a novel is. Can there ever be one set role? Or should we expect it to evolve and change? Expect ourselves, in fact, to critique and evaluate it?

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a difficult, long book, requiring a second read from many. But its nuances and complexities, its poetic language and narratives are remarkable. Because of its exploration of the connection between the personal and the political, it showcases the human faces of the collective — the human faces of not just individuals from a given community, often easily accomplished in novels, but of the mass —, of those whose narratives are often shown simply as political upheavals and disruptions, rather than the human force that exists behind them. As a result, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, with all its merits and flaws, insists on centering on humanity.

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Watching Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the 1986 novel of the same name by the famed Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. The premise is that the government of the United States has been abolished, along with the constitution, and replaced with a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead. Our narrator is Offred, a Handmaid, whose sole purpose in Gilead is to act as a surrogate for high-up officials and their “barren” wives. In addition to showing us Offred’s daily life as a we also see flashbacks to the world before, and the transition between the world we now know and the one of the show. By switching back and forth between flashbacks and the present narrative, The Handmaid’s Tale both sets us up into a terrifying dystopia, and shows us that it’s not so far removed from our own world. Throughout the episode, we see direct references to things of our time: the morning after pill, Tinder, Scrabble, Uber, the Handmaid’s Tale is constantly reminding us that we are not so far off from any of this. Indeed, Atwood herself has repeatedly claimed over the years that part of the point of The Handmaid’s Tale, is to show just exactly how it could really happen. ”You could say it’s a response to ‘it can’t happen here.’…But what could happen here?… if you were going to do it, what would you do? What emotions would you appeal to? What groups would you utilize? How exactly would you go about it? Well, something like the way the religious right is doing things. And the ultimate result of that process would be the union of church and state.”  

The frequent flashbacks to the “before” time to show us how the world came to shape. In the episode “Late”, we see a time after the government has been taken out by a supposed terrorist attack and the constitution abolished, but before the Republic of Gilead has fully taken shape. Offred is simply trying to live her life. She goes out jogging, she goes to work, and so on. Offred continues to try to live her life as more changes take shape, as women are forbidden from owning money and fired from their jobs. Eventually, all the changes have come together to create the present that Offred lives in. As Offred thinks in “Late”, “That’s how we let it happen…Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it” And while Offred’s facial expressions as she learns of her new reality reveals the horror and terror of it all, in the current timeline she just seems bored by it all, with the facets of her daily life appearing more monotonous than oppressive. Aunt Lydia herself says it best: “I know this must feel very strange, but ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.”

The show is also brilliant for its insights on the state of our current world. For example, one of the most brutal parts of the show is the treatment of rape. On the one hand, Aunt Lydia makes a point of forcing Janine to talk about being raped and saying that it was “her own fault”, and forcing all the women around her to point at her and say it that is was her own fault, over and over (also there’s a brief cameo from Margaret Atwood herself, who appears briefly in the background and compels Offred to join the rest of the women in blaming Janine). Not to mention the fact that Aunt Lydia is preparing the women to engage in what is tantamount to state-sanctioned rape. And yet, Aunt Lydia is the same woman who later encourages the handmaids to beat a convicted rapist. Janine, heavily pregnant at this point, stands aside but watches with pleasure as the rapist is beaten to death. We see in Gilead whose bodies are valued, and whose are not considered worthy.

This attitude, of condemning rape when convenient, while shaming victims of rape when it is not, may be, horribly enough, one of the most realistic parts of the show. True, he actions that take place are fiction, but the attitude is a very real one we see today. Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump claimed that Mexicans were “rapists” and made a show of parading around women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and harassment. He even called for April to be sexual assault awareness month. And yet, he himself bragged on tape about harassing and assaulting women and has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women. Not to mention, in the new health care bill that he has been so proud of, being a victim of sexual assault is actually considered a pre-exsisting condition.

From the cover of 1986 edition of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

With each instance of humiliation, violence, and oppression of women, we can find some type of real-world example or historical precedent. And that is the point. The novel and the show aren’t painting a dystopia that “could be” if we’re not too careful, they are painting what we are already on the road too.

Abortion rights and access to contraception is being rolled back under Republican control. One in every four women the US is a rape victim. Right-wing Christian fundamentalism, as seen in the extreme in The Handmaid’s Tale, is not only rampant in the US, but has taken over state legislatures and members of Congress.

I spoke on the phone with my mom about it, who described reading the novel when it came out during the Reagan years, when the threat of Christian fundamentalism overrunning the US seemed immediate and pressing. Now, she says, the situation is actually worse.

No, the Reagan administration wasn’t executing gay people, but they were allowing hundreds of thousands of them to die of AIDS. No, the Trump administration doesn’t have secret “eyes” like in The Handmaid’s Tale running around making everyone suspicious of each other, but they have publicized a pre-existing hotline to report on undocumented immigrants, who are often so afraid of deportation that they don’t call for help from domestic violence. The Republicans, both in the 1980s and today, aren’t forcing fertile women to act as handmaids, but they are attempting to roll back abortion rights and prevent women from accessing contraception or even proper sex ed, and are attempting to classify everything from sexual assault to pregnancy as a “pre-existing condition” that could prevent many women from accessing health care or getting to make their own informed decisions about their bodies.

This is the effectiveness of The Handmaid’s Tale, and why it is so particularly relevant now. We aren’t seeing a possible warning of what may happen in the future, we are seeing the logical extension of what is already around today. Each humiliation, each violation, and each injustice faced by Offred is based on what we are already seeing. To use Offred’s metaphor, we’re already in the bathtub. Now we have to keep ourselves from boiling.

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A Visit to the new Yorkville restaurant, Figures!

There are two sides to my personality that, for a long time, I figured would stay separate, never the ‘twain shall meet. There is the side that’s always on the lookout for a new restaurant that offers an interesting twist or a perspective on something I’ve already had before, thereby making it refreshingly different; a menu that incorporates multiple tastes, layers, and textures into a complex and delicious whole.

And then there’s the other side of me — a massive sci-fi and comic book geek, developed from very early on when I was growing up. Over time those interests have somewhat subsided. But I have found that I have become quite sentimental about that earlier period of my life, those memories that may seem insignificant to others yet played a large role in making me the person I am today. And remembering such memories or icons with a certain fondness perhaps acts as a reminder not too take oneself too seriously as one ages, and to retain a more positive and care-free attitude. It is that sentiment that clearly comes across when you enter the new Yorkville restaurant Figures, at 137 Avenue Road. The owners Nader and Patrick Marzouk have created an environment that brings a sense of laid-back and vibrant fun to the neighbourhood, — which, frankly, they note that Yorkville is in some need of — while also retaining the refined dining that the neighbourhood residents have surely come to expect. It is the interesting marriage of these sensibilities that will most likely make Figures stand out.

The concept of Figures is simple yet seems exciting and fresh. The idea behind the name points to the importance of remembering the figures in our lives that make us who we are. At Figures, they are most clearly various pop-cultural ones.

Very few images of the interior currently exist either on the main website or on their social media accounts — perhaps a calculated marketing ploy to create an air of mystery surrounding the establishment. This certainly worked for me, for when I entered the restaurant, knowing next-to-nothing as to what to expect, I was immediately overwhelmed by the creativity and intricate details of the décor. The front of the restaurant is made to look like a small comic book or a collectible shop. On various shelves sit original concept art sketches of Star Wars characters and golden and silver age comic books amongst other rare and nerdy oddities — certainly appealing to that older collector with some money to burn, as everything in this area is for sale (during my visit, I was told an original sketch of Darth Vader had sold for five thousand dollars a couple of days prior). A hostess greets you in this area, pushes a button — a Captain America Shield —, revealing the wall behind her to be a hidden, Batcave-like entrance to the main dining and bar areas, which are also quite impressive. Entering the dining area, you are met by paintings of Star Wars and DC Comic characters, a large Pac Man maze on the ceiling that also acts as mood lighting, and a large mural of various pop-cultural icons meant to evoke the stories and personalities of the owners and chef. Basically, imagine if someone hired a big pop-culture nerd to create the ultimate high-end VIP dining experience, and you will likely get something close to this. I don’t think it is a stretch of my imagination to think this will quickly become a popular destination for people wanting to check out the space. They will likely not be disappointed by that, nor from the food and drinks offered.

Currently, Figures has a two-page cocktail list, some of the names and concepts of which have a delightfully silly sense of humour to them. To start, I went for The Rarely on Target ($20). Visually speaking, this is going to be a slam-dunk crowd-pleaser. This cocktail is made with Bacardi Gran Reserva Maestro De Ron and Dillon’s Absinthe. Combined, this creates an initial spicy taste, similar to a Negroni, but slightly sweeter and with a smooth, clean finish, which makes it not too boozy and quite easy to drink. A very nice way to start the meal. Egg whites give the Rarely on Target a frothy head, which the bartenders take advantage of by stenciling an image of a stormtrooper on top with various spices. As far as I’m concerned, this drink is the perfect representation of the meticulous presentation, refined tastes, and the don’t-take-yourself-so-seriously sense of humour that Figures will hopefully be known for. A definite recommendation.

The dishes offered create a blend of casual sensibilities that nevertheless can be appreciated with by an experienced palette. There can be some slight drawbacks to that, but otherwise the menu, which is made with seasonal ingredients and is set to change on a near-weekly basis, offers dishes that from my experience are still rich in flavour. The first dish I tried was one that I was told had become a favourite over their initial first weeks of business: the Lump Crab ($24), a medium grilled crab cake sitting atop a small crab salad. The crab cake is very nice, as it has a delightfully crispy exterior, but the interior is still juicy and melts in your mouth. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed this dish, a slight criticism would be that there is not much that distinguishes the crab cake from the crab salad. Some more variation between these two components would have been appreciated but, as it stands, it is still a small dish that packs a wallop of hardiness from the crab, and will surely appease those looking some good no-nonsense seafood.

The second dish I went for was an absolute winner. The Lamb Shank ($28) did not disappoint. In keeping with the blend of casual sensibilities with rich tastes, this dish is the restaurant’s own version of a shepherd’s pie — with lamb, gravy, peas, and corn sitting atop a warm bed of mashed potatoes, which has a perfect soft and milky texture. I was told that the lamb had been braised for upwards of five hours, making it incredibly flavourful and tender as well. This is a great balance of different tastes and is incredibly filling given the relatively small portion size. Given everything I tried during this visit, future rotating menu options will likely be promising as well.

Along with the food menu, there are also plans to change the cocktail options on a seasonal basis, some of which are currently being experimented with right now focusing on some ideas inspired by literary figures, according to bar manager and mixologist James Bailey. As such, there are plenty of reasons to be enticed to check out Figures, and given it’s unique atmosphere and unpretentious fine dining options, it will hopefully spark much curiosity in the coming weeks, putting the establishment on a path for prolonged success.

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Product Review: Mèreadesso

Wanting perfect skin is one thing, but searching for perfect skincare products in a world with so many sending you hundreds of mixed messages can not only be difficult, but it can also be downright discouraging. As someone who has spent most of my life in search of products that can properly take care of my skin, I understand that the struggle is way too real.

Now that I am in my twenties, I am finally starting to learn more about my skin and what it’s like. But skincare has become so confusing and extravagant. With cleansers, toners, serums, creams, oils, milks, and moisturizers, it’s hard to know what you need. It makes finding what works for you a nightmare you can’t escape. At this rate, by the time you do find your perfect skincare, you’ll need a different one because you’ll have aged 20 years.

Luckily for me, I was given the chance to try a new line of skincare known as Mèreadesso. Mèreadesso was created by Linda Stephenson, a chemist, botanist, and microbiologist, who was formerly a senior product developer for Estée Lauder. When Linda became a mom, she truly understood what it means to have no time to herself, so she decided to create a product that would do multiple things at once (i.e. day/night/eye cream, primer, toner). Mèreadesso is also the only Canadian line carried by Nordstrom’s beauty department.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, I tried out some Mèreadesso products to see what this new line had to offer.

Face and Neck Cleanser

At first, I was a little caught off guard and skeptical about using the microfiber cloth with the cleanser. This cleanser reminded me more of a cleansing milk. Its non-foamy formula acts as a cleanser, mask, toner, and eye makeup remover. Initially, I questioned whether or not it actually cleaned my skin, because in the past I have always used foamy products that lather on my skin. But after the first night of using the cleanser, I was impressed. My makeup was completely removed and my face felt clean and smooth; my skin looked and felt better than I expected.

Note: I was given the small travel sachet size of the face and neck cleanser to try, along with a mini travel sized microfibre cloth, but you can purchase this cleanser and cloth in a full-size 4oz bottle as well.

All-in-One Moisturizer

I suffer from having fairly dry and sensitive skin, so proper moisturizing is important to me. What I loved most about this moisturizer is how it made my skin look. The all-in-one moisturizer claims to be a single step product that replaces day cream, night cream, eye cream, serum, and primer. It is said to decrease redness and tighten and tone the skin while reducing the look of fine lines and wrinkles. Once again, I was skeptical about the performance of the moisturizer, but once again I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was my skin well hydrated and moisturized, but it also really did seem more toned, tightened, and even. As far as moisturizers go, this one works well for me.

Tinted Lip Treats

As someone who is constantly applying lip product on my lips to keep them hydrated and pretty while I’m on the go and at work, I was very excited and impressed by these lip tints. I feel that a lot of the time tinted chapsticks are never really tinted, but that is not the case with these lip treats. The tinted lip treats did exactly what they promised. They provided long-term moisturization with the addition of buildable colour, and without the waxy feeling of chapstick. I’ve been wearing the light pink one religiously since I got it. They are low-key and natural looking so they are perfect for an added touch of colour and moisture to your everyday makeup look. I also tried them as lipstick primers and I was not disappointed. Long story short, I loved the tinted lip treats.

Beautiful Body Balm

Body moisturizing is just as important as face moisturizing. Even though it is kind of a pain at times, your skin will seriously thank you. That being said, I’m usually pretty picky when it comes to body moisturizers because I am not a fan of scented or greasy formulas. What I loved about the Mèreadesso body balm was its ability to make my skin look and feel smooth and toned without being greasy. I also loved its versatility as a body, foot, and hand lotion. It really did the trick in all three areas. Plus, according to Mèreadesso, the body balm helps break down cellulite and minimize the appearance of scars, stretch marks, and water retention. My only complaint is that it felt like it took long to fully rub into my skin. It moves around and leaves white cream lines until it is fully rubbed in, kind of like the old sunscreen from the 90’s used to. But other than that, I thought it was great.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned, I suffer from having fairly dry, sensitive skin that is also prone to breakouts, so finding a good cleanser and moisturizer that works for me is super important. Overall, I really liked the Mèreadesso cleanser and moisturizer. I was really impressed with the results and how smooth and moisturized it made my skin. The system didn’t dry out my skin at all or cause breakouts. I also really like how the skincare system eliminates a lot of steps such as toner and serum — it made getting ready for bed that much quicker.

My biggest criticisms are that there were times that I wished there was a deep cleaning part to the routine. Maybe a mask or something to go along with it. I know the line is made to eliminate steps, but I feel like a cleanser just can’t clean thoroughly enough on its own. Sometimes you need a deep clean after a long week. I also wasn’t crazy about using a reusable cleansing cloth to wipe away my makeup and buff my skin. Even though the cloth is washable, it seems a little unhygienic and inconvenient for me.

To conclude on a positive note, I love the mini travel sachets. I think more companies that make mini travel packs should try the resealable packaging Mèreadesso uses. I also love the lip treats and the all-in-one moisturizer. The moisturizer is non-greasy, and probably the best part of the entire Mèreadesso line. I would definitely recommend this line to people who are struggling to find a skin care system that works for them!

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