Travelogue: Toronto

I have been to Toronto many times this past year. Each time I go there I find more to explore – this city has become a truly great, culturally diverse, metropolitan destination. Below I have listed some of the many places I have been to on past trips but this trip was a quick one.  If you have the good fortune to have a decent amount of time to visit while you are there, I recommend checking out the city by neighborhood in order to get to know it better.  A great blog to check out for the city is BlogTO.com.

I have waited for the opportunity for my friend Jake to have a free weekend to visit TO with me.  He recently had a couple of free days so we took advantage of them and met there in mid-May.  I had expressed an interest in seeing the Banksy documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and he, of course, wanted to check out some beer places while we were there.  We decided on a few things that would fit comfortably into a 36-hour window of opportunity.

Aside from the endless culturally diverse things to do there, the other reasons I hit Toronto are for the food and great beer.  I had wanted to see if we could get into the audience taping for the CBC Talk Show, The Hour with George Stroumbouloploulos (Strombo), but our schedule didn’t work out.  The Hour has become my favorite interview show on television.  It’s on CBC weeknights at 11 pm EST or you can catch it online. The format primarily consists of two interviews conducted by Strombo along with news updates.  It’s casual, hip and unlike late night TV in the US., Strombo does not wear a suit and tie (the Johnny Carson obligatory Late-Night legacy uniform). He has interviewed everyone from social activists to Hollywood stars. (The US Late Night programs seem very dated compared to this show – they could take a lesson from it. The only Late Night host who seems to buck the system now is Craig Ferguson – and he’s from Scotland.) I have been to an audience taping for The Hour and it’s actually a lot of fun.

After ruling this out, we decided to go to some of my favorite places, The Fish Store in Little Italy, Victory Cafe in the

The Fish Store

The Fish Store

Annex and Prague Fine Food Emporium on Queen St. West.  We also swung by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to look at the exterior installation mounted on the front facade by Barbara Kruger for the CONTACT Photography Festival.

We started out at lunch time and made our way to the Little Italy section of town. I wanted to take Jake to The Fish Store (657 College St. at Beatrice), a tiny storefront that sells – well, fresh fish.  But they also have a small take out menu with one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten.  Thankfully, it was a warm, sunny day and we were able to grab one of a handful of tables outside in front of the store.  We went in to order our sandwiches both deciding on the Sockeye Salmon which is served on a Portuguese roll with lettuce and tomato with a mild vinaigrette.  It’s almost impossible to describe how great this sandwich is but the accompanying picture does much to tell the tale.  Everything about this is fresh – fish, produce and roll.  In fact the rolls, come from the bakery across the street, Golden Wheat (652 College St.) – a good place for dessert if you have room left over.

Sockeye salmon sandwich at The Fish Store

Sockeye salmon sandwich at The Fish Store

The fish itself is sauteed perfectly and it’s large enough to make it a great meal by itself. The good news is that two sandwiches plus drinks cost $22 Cdn. This is a great deal all the way around.  If you want to have a more leisurely and full meal, there are many small neighborhood restaurants along College Street to pick from.  But if you want to do something special, keep going west for a few blocks and treat yourself to a wonderful meal at the Portuguese place, Chiado (864 College St.). This place pulls out all the stops flying fresh fish in from Portugal daily.  Just be prepared to spend a lot more for a meal there.

Once we ate lunch, we headed to Yorkville to the Cumberland Theater (159 Cumberland St.)  to see Exit Through the Gift Shop.  This neighborhood is filled with designer clothing shops, pricey restaurants and small art galleries.  The Four Seasons Hotel is just around the corner on Avenue Rd. This is a hub for stars visiting during TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival).  So, if you don’t want to be crushed by fans – I suggest not coming here during the festival.  The Cumberland Theater is basically an upscale art house in the middle of all this decadence.  The screening room itself was rather small and probably very nice to see certain types of films there.  After seeing the film, it felt ironic that it was playing in such a monied neighborhood.  We really enjoyed this film and you can read about it in the Film / Media section of this site.

From here we planned to have beers and food at the Victory Cafe. This is a great pub at 581 Markham St. just south of Bloor West.  So, we took the Bloor subway to the Markham St. Station and walked a couple of blocks south to get there. The Victory has an outdoor patio for imbibing during the nice weather but we prefer to go inside and sit in a booth near the bar so we can see all the taps.  Jake was in pig-shit heaven when he saw all the beer selections.  Forever addicted to cask conditioned English bitter ales, wherever he goes he always tries whatever is available on cask.  He started with a pint of Mill St Cobblestone Stout – and never looked back after that. To see a full list of what they have on tap visit their website at www.victorycafe.ca.  For eats, their menu has many typical dishes you might find at a pub.  I had their pulled pork sandwich and Jake had their chicken curry. Both were filling and tasty.  I have also read that their macaroni and cheese is among the best you can get in the city.  So if that’s your preference, I recommend it.  After several rounds of great ales, I dragged Jake out of there and we headed south to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

The AGO is a world class museum.  The building was re-designed by architect Frank Gehry in 2008 and is stunning from certain vantage points.  AGO, Barabara KrugerI wanted to see the exterior photo installation by artist Barbara Kruger which was installed for the city-wide photography festival, CONTACT, which is held annually in May. We got there with plenty of daylight remaining for me to take some photos of her installation.  I had mixed feelings about it. Barbara Kruger has been an iconic artist, a woman who has pioneered this field.  I have an enormous respect for her accomplishments.  But I couldn’t help comparing this installation with the street art I had seen in Banksy’s film the day before. This installation was a pure example of her established style – so there were no surprises here.  But the most interesting thing was that I thought it was essentially an example of “institutionalized street art”.  And, it was no doubt expensive to mount.  It felt stilted – and dated.

AGO, detail, Barbara Kruger installation UNtitled (It)

AGO, detail, Barbara Kruger installation Untitled (It)

All the things that good street art is not.  Still, this was a very ambitious installation that ran the length of the front facade of the building.  After a good long look, we headed to the next pub on our list for a night cap.  Smokeless Joe’s (125 John St.) is a very small pub with many great beers both on tap and bottled.  This pub is very small and in a basement location so if you aren’t looking for it specifically – you can walk right by it.  To enter, you have to walk down some steps and once inside – it is a long narrow room with the bar almost the length of the room.  During the nicer weather, you can drink outside in their small street side patio.  I have been to this place during different seasons and weather conditions.  By far, I love coming here in the dead of winter to drink beer because you feel like you are in a warm, cocoon protected from the outside cold with genial company and always with great beer.  We both had a pint of Durham County ESB – and Jake had more after that – and we talked about the itinerary for the next day after which we stumbled back to our hotel.

We had to catch flights in the afternoon the following day so we had just enough time to eat a late morning breakfast.  So, that morning we took the tram down Queen St. West and ate a great breakfast at Prague Fine Food Emporium (638 Queen St. West).

This is great deli/diner which specializes in Czech foods. It’s on the small side so when we arrived all the tables across from the deli counter were filled. So, we sat at the window on stools which actually gave us a great view of the street.

Prague Fine Food Emporium

Prague Fine Food Emporium

Jake chose the Palacinky stuffed with strawberry, banana, and orange covered with blueberry yogurt compote. The Palacinky is a cross between a crepe and a pancake. Stuffed with the sweet fruit and blueberry sauce – it was a delicious and satisfying beginning to the day. I had the Czech-Break which is a plate filled with bread dumplings, scrambled eggs and kielbasa. The kielbasa tasted more like ham than sausage but was good nonetheless. The bread dumplings were small pieces of savory french toast grilled with scrambled eggs and the kielbasa. We debated getting apple strudel to go but decided against it – this time. I have had this before and it is heavenly.   After our meal, we caught a cab and headed for the airport.  Jake was impressed with this city and we both promised ourselves that we would be back soon.



The Fish Store    657 College St.

Cumberland Theater   159 Cumberland St.

Victory Cafe   581 Markham St.    www.victorycafe.ca

Art Gallery of Toronto (AGO)    Queen St. West   www.ago.net

Smokeless Joe’s    125 John St.

Prague Fine Food Emporium    638 Queen St. West  www.theprague.ca


A few other recommended things to do and places to go in TO:

The Hour    CBC Broadcasting Centre   25 John Street    www.cbc.ca/thehour/tickets.html

MOCCA   Museum of Contemporary Canadian Arts   952 Queen Street West   www.mocca.ca

St. Lawrence Market    92 Front Street East    www.stlawrencemarket.com

C’est What   67 Front Street East    www.cestwhat.com

Distillery District    Parliament and Mill Sts.   www.thedistillerydistrict.com

Rodney’s Oyster House   469 King Street West    www.rodneysoysterhouse.com

By the Way Cafe   400 Bloor Street West    www.bythewaycafe.com

Chiado   864 College St.   www.chiadorestaurant.com

Lee Garden   331 Spadina Ave   www.leegardenrestaurant.ca

Rol San  323 Spadina Ave



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Travelogue: NYC Art Binge

Jenny Holtzer, Claes Oldenburg, Kenneth Anger, Francis Bacon, “If accidents will”, Dresden and Jacques Torres

When I found out I would be in New York last month, I contacted my friend and gallery-hopping pal, Jake, who has lived there on-and-off for years.  As luck would have it, he was free to see some exhibits with me.  He had already seen, The Generational: Younger than Jesus at the New Museum and had also been to the Whitney to see the Jenny Holtzer and Claes Oldenburg exhibits.  “So, no Chelsea this trip?” he asked.  “Not this time.”  He added, “We also have to go to Jacques Torres on Hudson St. He makes ice cream now.”   “We’re there.”

We ended up seeing a number of retrospectives at the major museums.  I went to the Whitney on my own and we both went to see Francis Bacon at the Metropolitan Museum, Kenneth Anger and others at PS 1 and the Brücke artist group at the Neue Gallery.  He asked why I wanted to go to the major institutions – especially to see the Brücke group (Dresden’s turn-of-the century pioneering group of German Expressionists).  I said that I hadn’t been to some of these places in many years and all these exhibits were collections of works never exhibited together before.

Day 1: Whitney Museum

Jenny Holzer: PROTECT PROTECT

March 12-May 31, 2009

After I had a cappuccino and a wonderful pastry at Veneiro’s in the East Village I made my way up to the Whitney to see Jenny Holtzer: PROTECT PROTECT.  

Veniero's

Veniero's

Jake had said, “The scale of Holtzer’s show is very impressive.  But I thought I  was in the middle of Times Square for a second surrounded by all those strobing LED’s.”   He wasn’t wrong about the scale.  It was expansive.  The scale of the technical installations alone were impressive. According to the Whitney’s website,”PROTECT PROTECT centers on Holzer’s work since the 1990s and is the artist’s most comprehensive exhibition in the United States in more than fifteen years.”  The installations were also very hypnotic and quite beautiful in a hyper-techno-savvy way.  I was one of many viewers in the darkened rooms standing in trance-like states reading the rivers of Holzer’s trademark Truisms as they flowed by like little verbal streams of wisdom.  The content of this exhibit was drawn from the very personal to the highly political including the artist’s written words from 1977 to 2001 as well as from redacted documentation from declassified government papers which were presented as paintings in addition to the LED installations and sculpture.   Needless to say, at one moment I was reading personal statements ala “Protect me from what I want” to the political including text from government documents describing conditions at Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of enemy combatants.  What I didn’t expect in this exhibit was the Lustmord Table which was a display of human bones meticulously arranged in rows from large to small.  Lustmord, German for rape-slaying, is an earlier work about war atrocities that occurred in Yugoslavia perpetrated by Bosnian-Serb forces.  This piece was in stark contrast to the majority of the exhibit.  If it’s inclusion was supposed to shake you out of a trance-like-LED-induced state, it worked on me.  At the time, I resented this shock but in retrospect, I have to bow to it’s effectiveness.  All too often, artists create works with political and/or dire content and sometimes these ideas lose their impact in the physical translation because of the medium of choose.   This small piece brought the rest of the exhibition into focus for me.  Being lulled by the familiar robotic nature of the electronics was in some way actually a by-product of the exhibit.  It was only a subliminal vehicle for relaying some very powerful subject matter by a courageous and masterful artist.   I was grateful that I had seen this exhibit as it closed on May 31. For images and an interview with the artist, go to the Whitney’s website at http://whitney.org/www/holzer/index.jsp.

Claes Oldenburg: Early Sculpture, Drawings, and Happenings Films;

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen: The Music Room

May 7-September 6, 2009

If Jenny Holzer’s exhibition was the main course, then Claes Oldenburg’s exhibition was the cherry on the sundae.  I remembered what Jake had said about this exhibit, “…It came from the ’60′s – but I liked it.”   If giant drooping sculptures of French Fries and Ketchup (1963), Giant BLT (1963), Soft Toilet (1969) or a giant soft sculpture of an Ice Bag (1971) doesn’t make you smile, not much will.  The Whitney had restored the giant Ice Bag and it’s mechanical components.  It creaked in circular slow motion and made me think how far artists have come in producing moving pieces since this piece was created.  This was a real dinosaur but you had to admire the ambition behind the scale.  In fact, there was a wall of photos of very large public art pieces that this artist had executed over the years with always familiar objects – saws, hammers, etc.   The soft sculpture continued in another gallery with whimsical musical instrument pieces that were created in collaboration with Coosje van Bruggen.  There was also a room with projections of films entitled Happenings.  Jake was right – this entire exhibit was like traveling back to the ’60′s.   But it was a welcomed counterpoint to the weightiness of the previous exhibit.

I met Jake later for dinner at Keste Pizza & Vino at 271 Bleecker St near Jones.  This is a new Neapolitan pizza place with a coal oven built by craftsmen from Naples.  The Margherita pie was very good but a bit pricey for the size.  After this, we went (nearly next door) to the Blind Tiger for a drink.  The Blind Tiger was his favorite pub when it was located on Hudson at 10th St.   It was a neighborhood bar where you might see a lawyer as easily as a line cook.  It was unpretentious and had a great beer selection.  On occasion, it even had cask conditioned ale on tap.  After having to move to its new location on Bleecker near Jones (in order to make way for yet another unnecessary Starbucks in order to continue the homogenation of Manhattan) it seems to draw bigger crowds but there is a larger number of NYU students and tourist types in the mix.  Jake still goes there for the beer as do many other regulars from the old place.

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