Finding Toronto’s soul

When we first came here, there was one thing of which I was certain: I would never want to live in Toront. This was a city with no soul, no emotion, and certainly nothing much to recommend it. We even chatted about this with a friend who OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA coincidentally was here on a press trip. “I asked the PR guy why people in the UK should choose Toronto when New York is so near and he said New York was obviously miles better – then he realised and went back on what he’d said,” our pal told us.
The problem was that at that time, we were living in an area called Victoria Village, although it’s better known as “Where?” Here, to be exact. Not knowing Toronto, we had taken faith in a description that said it was 20 minutes from Downtown, not realising that the description was written for superheroes with their own cloaks. Mere mortals relying on public transport had on average a 45-minute trip. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe photo above shows Downtown in the distance – our admittedly not bad view from the supermarket. Also, apart from a Tim Hortons and a very nice pizza place, there was nothing around except a school and lots and lots of houses. This is clearly car country, with the nearest supermarket and signs of life being a 25-minute walk away. There’s not even a pavement to walk on, turning our evening paseos into a daredevil venture as 4x4s went shooting by us. (The manicured lawns come right down to the road and as you can’t go into someone’s house without taking your shoes off, we dreaded to think what the reaction would be if we walked on the grass in our boots.)
The worst moment came when we were spending an afternoon in a OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAlocal park (pictured). There’s a huge greenland area next to Victoria Village, with parks rolling into forests and then back to landscaped areas again. We’d gone for a wander a few days previously and had found a nice spot to rest just outside one of these woodlands not far from our apartment. It wasn’t until we were leaving that Ged pointed out some of the rubbish on the ground. “Drugs,” he said. Sure enough, our return to that area turned into a walk home as we saw a group of young men on what I’d hoped to call “our seat” smoking a variety of substances. Which is why we ended up in the landscaped park, determined to enjoy the rare sunshine in what had turned out to be a wet cold and very disappointing spring.
But our enjoyment was not to be. Resting on a bench after competing with each other to go higher on the children’s swings, I noticed a young man close by muttering to himself.
“Pyschos always come from quiet suburbs,” joked Ged. “All the mass murderers lived somewhere like this.”
We kept on chatting, with me keeping one eye on the young man – who brought out a meat cleaver and started throwing it into the grass, angrily shouting at it all the while.
We left. Quickly. And never went for a walk again.
It wasn’t all bad, however. One of my abiding memories is the advert OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfor a car salesroom (above). The woman on the swing moves backwards and forwards and for some reason, I always felt like Marty McFly was about to land right next to it. Also, about 20 minutes walk away was this gorgeous little church, which dates back to the 1850s. Wandering around the gravestones and seeing all the history of this little area was amazing.
We were there for six, looooooooong weeks before transferring – via Montréal, which yes I will get round to writing about – to our present place in The Annex, right here. We’ll see out the rest of our time in Toronto here, and wOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAe couldn’t be happier.
Apart from being a little hipster hub – thank you Yelp for confirming this. We’re exactly on this little orange spot in between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue (which is pronounced Spah-diner, not Spad-eena) – this is a brilliant location for a holiday in Toronto. It’s filled with bars, restaurants, take-aways, delis, coffee shops, music stores, health food stores… The local neighbourhoods hold farmers’ markets and street fairs and the streets are always busy. Waiting for Ged one night, I got into a lovely conversation with this amazing Colombian, who showed me the badly mangled legs a motorcycle crash had left him with and how the doctors said it was a miracle that he could walk. “No miracle,” he added. “I wanted to see the beautiful ladies so I had to walk.” If you’re in Madrid, think of Lavapies without the fear you could get mugged and the mounted policeman; if you’re in Edinburgh, we’re talking Newington meets Marchmont meets the buzz of Hogmanay; and if you’re in Newcastle – well, there’s nowhere like this, which is something the city councillors might like to think about.
Above is the view from the end of our street, showing where we buy our bread (Cobs, which has heavenly cinnamon buns and the best lemon tarts ever) and KO Burgers, where we may also have sampled one or two delights. Or four or five. I lose count.
Far from being miles away from Downtown, we can now walk to the Y OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAin 25 minutes, through the beautiful greenery of Queen’s Park (below) and the impressive buildings (here) of the UofT (that’s the University of Toronto, for those of you not in the know). The Beaches are 30mins by subway, Koreatown and Little Italy lie close by but best of all – or perhaps worst – we’re within staggering distance of Kensington Market and the Cloak and Dagger.
Kensington Market – I may have disOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsed you when we were still living in the Hellmouth (actually, I did, here) and for that I am eternally sorry. Now the sunshine is here and we no longer are flying visitors but near-enough locals, I love you. Yeah, it’s hipster-tastic and wanky things regularly go on, but it’s alive and buzzing and still has the best tacos and I’ve also found a place that sells pear cider. Best of all, I get to practise my Spanish when we buy tomatillos for green chilli. “Ahhh, you’re British,” they say, “That’s why your accent is so… different.”
I still think Downtown is very bland, with poser pubs and no atmosphere, but here in The Annex, I think we’ve found the real Toronto. And it’s going to be very, very sad to say goodbye to it at the end of September.


Oops we did it again

To be Bourdained: to be advised to go somewhere only to then discover it’s rubbish

Yup, that sexy chef had us another time. On this occasion, we were OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwondering through Kensington Market when we spotted Thirsty & Miserable, one of the locales mentioned en passant during The Layover. And so – purely in the interests of research, you understand – we popped in.

Imagine your sixth form common room painted red. Now add red plastic chairs and put the students to work graffitising the tables. That’s about it. Oh, and of course, where would any sixth form common room be without the black and white photos of old punk bands on the walls?

“But what about the beer?” I hear you ask. Aye, there was some of that, but none of the names on the menu (scribbled on what looked like the side of a cardboard box) were familiar and the bartender’s efforts to describe what was on offer extended as far as: “And there’s Silversmith Black Lager – that’s a dark lager”. (Ged ordered it. It was the lager equivalent of Israeli wine – instantly forgettable.)

So, we faced up to the fact that we’d been Bourdained. Again. You’d have thought after last time we’d have learnt better but that’s mindless optimism for you. The music was really good, though, but it seems the Chef and I have different ideas about what makes a good pub.

We drank up and moved on, wandering out of the Market and up to College St to the place that has become our local – the Cloak and Dagger.

While T&M is trying its hardest to be a dungy bar – and I love dungy bars, as anyone who visited Sapama and La Terraza in Madrid with us will realise – it’s still too cool for school. Or even the sixth form common room. It feels like one of those stylised anti-chic places which someone has thought a lot about.

The Cloak, however, has obviously evolved into dungyism. It is a dark, DARK room with the bar hidden away at the very end. When we first went in, there was just the bearded barman, who we now know is called Jay, a couple of locals and some pretty good music.

We sat at the bar while Jay talked us through the beers on offer, comparing them to what we may knowOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and offering samples. We settled on a Durham Hop Addict for Ged and Gananoque‘s Naughty Otter lager for me. They were both, Jay told us, Ontarian brews, local produce – but come on, the lager’s called Naughty Otter. Who cares where it’s from with a name like that?

And then we settled in for one of those afternoons that make a holiday. Jay is a natural bartender – a man who knows his stock and is interested in learning more. Joined by the locals, we shared tales of my nephew David’s bar, the Brandling Villa, and how he had gone to Estonia to buy hops, and then the conversation turned to music, food, life in Britain, the yacht club…

Yes, we even talked about a yacht club!

Three Naughty Otters later and we knew we’d found a home. Not only is the beer great, but the locals and barstaff have always made us feel welcome. There’s even a beer garden for when the weather is nice and the Otters are sent on their way in favour of Waupoos Cider.

I’m just not telling Mr Bourdain about it.

I’d love to hear your favourite watering holes – and beers!

No reservations? No surprise

Being avid admirers of modern visual culture (ie. addicted to the telly), we were delighted to see that No Reservations‘s Anthony Bourdain had a new programme and that it was visiting Toronto. The premise of The Layover is simple and perfect for two out-of-towners like us: 1) take a city; 2) imagine you’re trapped there for 24 hours of so on a layover; 3) get the locals to show you the best places to eat and drink.

Local knowledge – for free and without any more conversations about football v soccer. (By the way, we invented the modern game so we can call it any damn name we want. Especially when we use the right name.)

So I’d like to say that that is how we ended up at St Lawrence Market. But then I’d be lying. You see, we were on one of those “We’re not lost but we’re not quite sure the best route to get to where we want to be” walks when we stumbled on it. Unlike Kensington (see, this is a proper, covered food market with two sites: the north, which opens for a weekly famers’ market – with some of the biggest tomatoes I’ve ever seen – and the south , which is open throughout the week to offer fruit, vegetablImagees, cheeses, meat and fish as well as a worldwide selection of bakeries, delis and places to eat. Last year, it was named the world’s best food market by National Geographic. We didn’t go in for that. We went in because we were cold and I was tired and after a sit-down and a coffee (bit of a theme going on here).

The answer of which of these wondrous places to eat was provided by Mr Bourdain – it had to be the world-famous Carousel Bakery (above), the home of the peameal bacon sandwich as drooled over by the celebrity chef himself, amongst many, many other prestigious publications and TV shows.

We ordered. We ate. We looked at each other.

“It’s a bacon sandwich,” Ged said.

It was the truth. This wondrous feast that so tingled Mr Bourdain’s discerning tastebuds was a bacon sandwich so dry that I – I’m ashamed of myself but in the spirit of full disclosure I have to say it – I added tomato sauce. Yeah, you got lots of bacon – for almost $7, I’d expect so too – and a crunchyish roll, but back in our early courting days, Ged and I went for breakfast at a greasy-spoon in Leith and also got a bacon sandwich. It was dripping with brown sauce, was half the price, and by God, was it good. Sadly, it never featured on AB’s trip to Scotland…

Undeterred, we weren’t put off when another of our hikes – this time to see the home of Toronto FC – ended up on King St West outside Wvrst (below), a sausage joint so hip it could provide replacements for 15 old grannies and still be able to balance a babImagey on one side while searching for the front-door keys. Anthony had loved it. Wvrst contains long, communal tables and benches to sit at and offers beer, chips and, of course, sausages in the style of a Bavarian beer hall. It was lunchtime and while there was a fair number of office workers in, the place was far from full. Perhaps those in skirts were put off the idea of hoisting their legs up and over the benches in order to sit down…

We ordered a couple of beers – asking for something hoppy, only to be told they didn’t do any, and wincing at the prices (see below, this was still early days. We’re used to it now) – and Imageour food: a kranjska (pork and garlic) for me and a bratwrst (veal, pork and wine) for Ged. We decided to share a small fries, which are dipped in duck fat and sprinkled with salt and come with a dipping sauce.

At $6 each, you certainly cannot complain about price here. The meals (that’s ours, below) are enormous and we had to double-check that we’d received small fries, such was the quantity. They were delicious, too, although the dipping sauce was a little superfluous. To be honest, the fries themselves were not necessary, such was the size of the sausage. However, the main attraction itself sadly failed to live up to expectations. While the flavour was nice – note, just “nice” – the skin was tough and after a while, my jaw ached from the force of chewing. By the enImaged, I half expected Adam Richman to come bounding out and present me with a T-shirt and put my photo on a Man vs Food wall of fame.

Would we go back? We haven’t yet and we have no plans of doing so. I’ve eaten wvrst sausages in my time (sorry, you knew that pun had to appear somewhere) but I’ll tell you where I haven’t – the hot dog stalls on the streets of Toronto. For a couple of bucks, you’ll get a juicy, tender dog with a choice of condiments. Just follow the queues. In fact, I think we’ll make that our policy for all our future choice of eateries and we’ll leave Mr Bourdain to look cute…

So, Torontonians – and those of you who’ve visited – where would you recommend we eat?

Disclaimer: Anthony Bourdain is a god in the Carr/Ellis households and comes a close second in the list of chefs I’d most like to scramble my eggs in the morning. (All innuendo intended)

Pekin in


Kensington Market lies slightly beyond Toronto’s amazing Chinatown (crap picture above, sorry). In my native Newcastle, Chinatown stretches a couple of streets and contains some great restaurants offering (the usual) Chinese fare. In Toronto, we’re talking about an entire neighbourhood filled with Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai – you name it, it’s there, offering up sushi, dumplings, noodle bars, soup, rice, chow mein… although I don’t think the chicken and pineapple you get there will be quite the salmon-pink, gelatinous offering so beloved of my Mam. You can’t please everyone.

Throw in markets stalls and supermarkets with ingredients that your average Madrileño would shy away from (“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I have looked upon foreign food…”) and you have my idea of heaven.

Who knows, some day I might even know what exactly they’re selling and be able to buy some.