Toronto Trip: Food Glorious Food!

So in case you hadn’t noticed by now, I’m something of a foodie. Whenever I go on vacation, I usually have several restaurants I look forward to eating at; it’s what has kept me from doing an all-inclusive, since I’ve never forgotten what Anthony Bourdain said about buffet lunches in Kitchen Confidential. I don’t need fancy, either, although I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it. Montreal specializes in affordable bistro fare that spotlights local ingredients, stellar technique, and just enough innovation to make things interesting, and Toronto has a similar reputation. My lovely hostess, Mal Peters, was game to play culinary tour guide. Here are some of the places we checked out.

MOMOFUKU NOODLE BAR

As soon as I heard David Chang was expanding his empire to include a Toronto location, I knew it was perhaps my one and only chance to sample some of his storied Asian cuisine. My friend C. has sung the praises of his pork buns on many an occasion, and since I am always going on about the savory pillowcases made by local heroes the Satay Brothers, I had to give Chang’s a try.

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They did not disappoint. The buns were fluffy but firm. The sauce was tangy without compromising spice. The pork belly was cooked to perfection. Add a few slices of cucumber and some cilantro… sublime! But even better was the ramen bowl.

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Beautiful, no? I have not eaten a better plate/bowl of food all year. It was hot that day, but if this was available to me in the middle of winter, I would haunt the place seven days a week. Pork belly, pork shoulder, cabbage, seaweed, a poached egg, and homemade noodles in a broth so yummy even your mother would think it’s better than hers. It is that good. That red daub in the middle is some sort of spice bomb that took the dish to infinity and beyond. I was crazy full after eating it, and I wanted more. (It normally comes with a fish cake, but I am allergic, and they very kindly omitted it for me. Class.)

LOS COLIBRIS

Before our trip, the lovely Mal sent me a list of 14 restaurants to choose from for our big fancy meal. We ended up having a few of those, but the place that most intrigued me was a new resto called Los Colibris (The Hummingbirds). Since we hadn’t made a reservation, we were told we only had an hour and a half to eat, which was fine by us. Our waiter was very gracious, didn’t make us feel rushed at all. The problems started when the manager started interfering, doing his job for him and speeding our plates to the table. To see her openly undermine him left a bad taste in our mouths that the food certainly didn’t warrant, and her attempt to apologize to us felt kind of insincere, so if you do sample their wares, be aware that there is a wee bit of a service issue.

The food almost entirely made up for it, though! We first sampled their guacamole with yucca chips – fresh, creamy, and crunchy, with just the right hit of acid and no grease. I then had their Cerdo en Mancha Mantel, a confit pork belly in adobo sauce with black bean tamal, pineapple salsa, and broccoli, and we ordered a side of Papas Bravas, a type of spicy potato.

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It tasted as good as it looks. One of my main criticisms of most fine dining restaurants is that they skimp on the vegetables, so I cheered the addition of the broccoli. The pineapple contrasted so nicely with the sauce and the pork that it was almost a refined version of tacos al pastor. The potatoes were a miss for me: too much char, not enough spice. This might be the more authentic version, but I’ve had the dish better elsewhere. Overall, there were a few hiccups, but I would definitely go back for more.

AROMA ESPRESSO BAR

I was alone for lunch on one of my festival days, on the hunt for something filling but healthy. Coming from the land of butter, cheese, bacon, and lard, I was impressed by how widely available truly nutritious and delicious lunches were in Toronto. I had three dinner salads that not only tantalized the taste buds, they didn’t challenge the waistline. But the best of these was at a nondescript café on King Street. I was in a rush, having dallied too long looking for a place to eat, and walked in out of desperation. Instead, I had one of my most memorable lunches in a long time.

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An arugula salad with lentils, sweet potatoes, and goat’s cheese. There was something crunchy in there, as well. So simple, but so perfect. Loved it so much that I’m going to replicate it at home. The best of surprises.

Although I don’t have pictures, I loved the chipotle roast chicken avocado BLT at Easy, the baked goat’s cheese in phyllo on spinach salad and the lime tarts from Littlefish, and the amazing mascarpone cheesecake with berry compote from Hunter’s Landing. These are only some of the amazing restaurants you’ll find in Toronto. While not exactly the culinary mecca of Canada (that would be my own fair city), there are definitely adventures to be had for the urban foodie in us all.

-Selina

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Toronto Trip: TIFF ’14

Late into my aestas horribilis, my lovely friend Mal Peters texted me to suggest I visit her in Toronto the week of the film festival, since she had inadvertently booked some time off. Being a diehard cinephile and in dire need of a holiday, my immediate answer was “Yes!” After creating an elaborate Venn diagram charting where the films I wanted to see and the dates I would be in town intersected, I decided on four films (I heart making schedules): That One With a Lot of Heat Out of Sundance; That One With the Danish Guy I Love; That One With the Other Danish Guy I Love; and That One With Sherlock as Alan Turing (AKA Maybe I’ll Get To See the Batch Kiss a Dude).

I am happy to report that there was not a stinker in the bunch. All of them are independent films with various levels of promotional support. Two of them are foreign-language films that will likely get a North American and European release, but still could benefit from a little extra push, so here are my capsule reviews.

WHIPLASH

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This is the film I was least excited to see. I had heard great things coming out of Sundance about it, but I really just picked it because it was the best-looking film that fit into an empty slot in our schedule.

It was the best film I saw. It. Is. Amazing. I am not overselling it. It’s about a jazz drummer (Miles Teller) at a music school who gets called up by the most renowned teacher at the school—perhaps in the world—to be a part of his class/ensemble (played by J.K. Simmons). The teacher is both inspiring and abusive. The driven student becomes more so under such a harrowing yet challenging influence. When these two forces collide, it is a clash of the titans. If you think you know where this story is headed, you are wrong.

All of the music was written for the film. The cinematography and the editing use it to punctuate the film language. The director (Damien Chazelle) used to be a jazz drummer himself, though he says it’s only inspired by his experiences and those of his fellow musicians, it’s not autobiographical. He imbues his film with the percussive rhythm of the music he loves; it pulses and pops and crashes like an extended drum solo.

It’s also a captivating meditation on what exactly it takes to make great art. If no one is there to push you, then how far can you really go? Is talent enough to make someone great? But if someone pushes you too far, doesn’t that risk not only your artistic spirit, but your life? Your ability to achieve greatness? These are the questions the film asks, brilliantly. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a mic drop. Go see it.

FAR FROM MEN (LOIN DES HOMMES)

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A morality play about the human cost of war paid by both sides, the first film from Viggo Mortensen’s Perceval Pictures stars the King of Men as a French school teacher living in the barren wilds of Algeria during its war with France. A former major in the Second World War who returned to the place of his birth in search of a more peaceful existence, he is forced by the French army to transport a dissident (Reda Kateb) to the nearest city for execution. Both men have a complicated history, with the country they call home and with the conflict its now enduring, and form a bond as they encounter various trials along their journey.

The stark Algerian landscape becomes a character itself, its rocky desert terrain almost impossible to cross. With nowhere to hide and even fewer options, the two men are forced to rely on each other. But even if they reach their destination, is there a way out for them? For Algeria? For France? When both sides have committed atrocities, when two divergent cultures clash, will there ever be a clear winner and a clear loser?

Far From Men is based on a short story by Franco-Algerian Albert Camus, and waves its philosophical colors with pride. I admired the way it allowed no easy answers, and never gave its characters an inch. It’s also liberally spiced with humor, a relief from the intensity of the life-or-death situations it depicts. It’s extremely well acted and made, but it was missing a little something for me. I should have been engrossed, transported, devastated. Instead, I was intrigued. It’s a beautiful intellectual exercise with a strong message, but I personally felt it lacked power. But worth seeing all the same.

A SECOND CHANCE

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Danish director Susanne Bier specializes in ethical dilemmas played out on the domestic front. Her latest film features a bravura performance by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (that’s Jaime Lannister to my fellow geeks) as a police detective who, in a moment of weakness, makes a questionable decision that quickly and vertiginously spirals out of control.

Warning: Personally, I think this magnificent movie is best enjoyed spoiler-free, so I would skip the next paragraphs if I were you, even though I won’t be getting into the film’s various twists and turns.

It could be the subject of a Lifetime movie: a couple suffers the loss of a child, so the cop father steals a baby from a junkie couple who neglect their own. But it is played so realistically, so emotionally, so compassionately that not a moment rings false. It is a shame that foreign-language performances don’t get nominated for Oscars, because NCW should be on the nominees list this year. His tender, devastating work here will cut you to the quick.

This is an adult movie of a kind that they don’t make anymore. Except, apparently, in Denmark.

THE IMITATION GAME

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As much as I enjoyed the heck out of this film—there’s something to be said for seeing a film with a festival audience in a theater as large as the Princess of Wales—I was surprised that it won the audience award. It was a lot of fun, a moving story told expertly, but I think the, er, Cumber Collective may have helped it along a smidge.

I am not damning with faint praise when I say it’s the kind of film I like to categorize as Elevated Masterpiece Theatre. To give context, I adore Masterpiece Theatre. That said, they’re not reinventing the wheel. It’s a compelling and relatively unknown story acted and directed by artists at the top of their game. Benedict Cumberbatch gives his all as Alan Turing, the genius who built the machine that cracked Enigma and helped win the war, also one of the grandfathers of modern computers.

I read one review that criticized his performance for not being far enough away from Sherlock, and while I don’t disagree, it is still a beautiful, affecting performance. My rule of thumb for judging performances is this: could another actor have done the part better? No, which excuses the typecasting. The same review goes on to praise Keira Knightly for yet another variation on the brainy, spunky chick she almost always plays. A similar charge could levelled at Charles Dance, who seems to have been cast as Tywin Lannister the WWII General. Just goes to show you how intimidating in his own right Cumberbatch is that his foil had to be one of the most skilled and ruthless players of the Game of Thrones.

The truth is, everyone in the ensemble is great. The film rises above its prestige Oscar-bait bio-pic status, but it doesn’t overleap it. Still, it’s a diverting night out at the cinema: a little drama, a little heartbreak, some witty banter, some scandalous cruelties. If I look a little too closely, I see a film trying much too hard to eek a traditional boy-meets-girl-under-harrowing-circumstances narrative out of a persecuted gay man’s story. What happened to Turing is horrifying. In remembering him, best not to forget that.

One of the fringe benefits of going to a popular festival like Toronto—along with having one of your dearest friends put you up for the week—is having the actors and directors do Q&As after the screenings. They smartly schedule the secondary screenings that the public can actually get tickets to the morning or day after the gala premieres, so that the stars are still in town and can attend. I was lucky enough that the filmmaking teams to three out of the four films I saw took time out of their busy promotional schedules to come and speak to the real fans—the paying audience. The only cast that didn’t? The Imitation Game. Bad form, chaps.

Coming later this week… a brief culinary tour of Toronto, with pics! Stay tuned!

-Selina