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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Oh Canada

(Bruce writes...)

I just spent six days in Toronto, Ontario, at the Special Librarian Association’s annual conference (I know, “yawn”).

I haven't been to one of these conferences in about 5 years. I have been to a few in the past, and as a result, I knew that if I stayed in one of the “conference hotels” (meaning within walking distance from the downtown Metro Conference Center) I would never get to see anything, other than the few blocks around the conference. So instead, I stayed at Victoria’s Mansion guesthouse. OK, well it was not exactly a mansion but it was clean, quite and conveniently located at Church & Gloucester Streets – five subway stops from Union Station and the conference center – just on the edge of the “Queer As Folk” part of town. And, it was cheaper than the conference hotels.

I got in late, very late, Friday night. It was warm and a bit muggy. Toronto was having a bit of a heatwave the whole time I was there. After dropping my bags at the guesthouse, I wondered down the street to find something to eat. I found a friendly-looking pub called The Churchmouse & Firkin and, indeed, the people were friendly - even at 12:40AM (they serve food until 1:30AM). At the time I didn’t know it was a chain of sorts.

I had a bowl of potato cheddar soup, a Greek salad and garlic bread ($7.95 Canadian) and a couple of Black Russians, light on the Kaulua. Everyone was friendly, informative and tolerant of a clueless tourist. I left there full and happy, and it made me feel like I was back in England. Like England, the fries are “chips”, the chips are “crisps”, crackers are ‘biscuits”, and among the condiments is good ol' HP sauce.

Saturday morning I got up, hopped on the subway, which runs about every four or five minutes (San Francisco MUNI pay attention please!). I was at the conference center in about 20 minutes. Not bad. Spent a few hours at the conference center, then headed to Chinatown.

Chinatown in Toronto on a Saturday is hoppin’. Not only do all the markets have their fruits, vegetables, dried roots, meats and spices on the sidewalks, but individuals with something to hock – some vegetable, fresh herb or such – have their little carts, hand-trucks or boxes out in the middle of the pedestrian stream. Although the streets and sidewalks are wider than those of San Francisco’s Chinatown, they are packed to bursting with goods and people. And with more variety of both.

Fresh California Figs? In June?

The area referred to as Kensington Market – previously known as the Jewish Market in the 1920’s – is adjacent to Chinatown, and indeed the two mingle along Kensington Market’s few narrow blocks. Kensington Market is a riot of colors, tastes, and cultures. Victorian style homes have had their bottom floors converted to clothes shops, cheese, meat and produce markets, head-shops, coffee houses, bars and restaurants. Persian rugs, Indian fabrics and spices, South American and Caribbean cloths, hippie wares, Mexican dry goods, bongs, and pipes (including the stuff to fill them) were all on offer.

I stopped early in the afternoon at some nameless curry shack to sample some goat curry, which was very good. Later, I had a late lunch at the Hungary Thai Bar and Eatery on Augusta at Baldwin Street – and yes, I mean Hungary as in Zsa Zsa’s homeland. The propriator spoke with a very heavy and, to my ear, authentic accent.

The specials were
1. “The best schnitzel in town” ($8.95 Canadian) and
2. Spring roll, Pad Thai, and banana fritters ($12.95 Canadian).

I broke my rule to never eat anything bigger than my head and had the schnitzel and a horribly over sweetened, syrupy, undrinkable iced tea. You can’t see it in the picture, but the schnitzel is sitting on a heap of fried potatoes. The schnitzel may be the best in town - I haven’t seen schnitzel on offer anywhere else – and although it was a little bland a squeeze of lemon helped perk-up the flavor. The sweetened tea is apparently a Canadian (or a Torontian) standard. I ordered “plain iced tea” twice more before getting the message.

From Hungary Thai, I wondered into a very nice cheese shop, an extremely crowded and comprehensive sausage store, a butcher shop, a fishmonger’s shop, and then got something decent to drink at a huge produce market. If the guesthouse I was staying at had a large refrigerator, and were it not for the international border I’d have to cross to go home… Well, you get the picture.

After a long walk through Little Italy, Little Portugal and down Queen Street West - in search of bookstores – and stopping only briefly if front of the porno store to watch the nearly nude live manequins bumping and grinding in the display window - I returned to the guest house for a nice Bowmore 15 year old Islay Scotch and a short rest.

Later, about 9 pm, with it still light and warm outside, I headed a few blocks to 7 West, a 24/7 restaurant at 7 Charles Street West. This three-storey Victorian is just off the hustle & bustle of Yonge & Bloor Streets and has a small second story deck in front. There is not much architecturally to look at, as mostly high-rise apartments are near by, but the sidewalk traffic of tourists and trendy locals makes for interesting people watching.

The clientele is also interesting. I actually overheard the woman at the next table ask her dining companions “Should I order food? No. I had cheese earlier today and whipped cream on my coffee thingy. Well, maybe I could split a small salad with someone”. I’d say that cheese went straight to her head; it certainly hadn’t gone to her hips. One other overheard conversation had one guy remarking to his dinner companion “Wow, you know what this tune is? It’s a swing version of an old St Germain tune! I can’t think of the name.” I couldn’t resist interrupting to tell them the tune was called Take Five and it was originally by Dave Brubeck.

Salads, pastas, pita pizzas, sandwiches, appetizers, a few breakfast items and a variety of desserts are on the menu at 7 West. I had the Italian foccacia sandwich ($10.00 Canadian) - Black Forest ham, (isn’t the Black Forest in Germany?), salami, proscuitto, provolone and roasted red peppers on a foccacia “bun”. I didn’t know foccacia came in buns. The sandwich came with a choice of salad or crisps. I was glad I had asked for the salad. It was quite good, fresh and crisp, if a bit over-dressed, and the sandwich had a generous portion of meat and was very tasty. It was the perfect thing on a hot night.

I wondered back to the guest house and a nightcap at about 11pm and it was still a lovely warm night.

Sunday was another long day at the conference and I returned to the guesthouse to cool off – the air conditioner was quite efficient – took a short nap and, at 11 PM, headed down the street to Zelda’s & the Silver Trailer Bar for some fish and chips ($8.99 Canadian). The waitress recommended the sweet potato chips, an excellent call. And again, the folks were very nice, and seating was on the sidewalk for people watching, Then home, a scotch, and bed.

Monday was a long day at the conference, starting at 7:30AM, and at the end of the day there was the California chapter's reception at Steam Whistle Brewing. There were some very good appetizers; various cheese and crackers; little hollowed out golden beets, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers filled with small amounts of dressed greens; small bruchetta; and my favorite – sliced pears and tangy goat cheese fried in a spring roll wrapper with cranberry-apple dipping sauce. It was delicious and I think I could make this one at home!

I got back to the room about 8 PM, watched an episode of MythBusters, then walked to the end of the block to Olympic 76 Pizza Café for a pizza ($8.05). It was crowded everytime I walked by, so I figured it would be pretty good. But, all I can say is, “DON’T GO THERE!” I’m sure there is good pizza in Toronto, but not at Olympic 76 Pizza Café. Bad Pizza, No Biscuit (or cracker for that matter)!

After the conference on Tuesday, there was a caucus dinner at Byzantium, a sorta trendy place in the heart of the gay district. There were about 40 of us, which is difficult for any restaurant, and they did an admirable job. In the place of the usual bread and butter, they brought us some very tasty seeded flat bread and hummus. I had a starter of Gazpacho ($6.00 Canadian)– which was a perfect starter for another warm night – and a main dish of grilled marlin with a corn salsa, green beans and asparagus tips with root vegetable crisps ($21.00 Canadian). Although I’d swear “Terra Chips” were being passed off as “root vegetable crisps”, I never saw Terra chips for sale in the stores, so perhaps most of the diners were unaware. Everyone at our table enjoyed their dinner. I thought the food was very good, the ambience pleasant, and the conservation stimulating. At our table, most of the conservation was about food, how great the weather is in San Francisco and, of course, librarians.

Wednesday was the last full day of the conference and I just had a quick, basic club sandwich ($9.99) at O’Grady’s Tap & Grill. It has seating right on the sidewalk so you can people watch. O’Grady’s was also the only place I found with hard cider (Strongbow).

Thursday, I took a tour of the Merrril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy, a part of the Toronto Public Library and one of the three best collections of this type of material. I saw a first edition of Dracula and issue 1 number 1 of “Astounding Science Fiction” and “The Magazine of Fantasy”. It was very cool (maybe just for a librarian).

I knew I had to leave for the airport by 5:30 PM and there were a few places I still wanted to get to. I stopped off a Sam’s The Record Man and then headed to The Cookbook Store to pick-up some uniquely Canadian cookbook for Kevin. I ended up with “Cook Like a Chef” by Chris Knight. He has a show on the Canadian Food Network and the book looks like it has some good recipes. I was hoping I could get Kevin to cook even more often for me! I asked the clerk for a restaurant recommendation for lunch.

I took her advice and went a block or so away to Saigon Sister for some Pad Thai ($7.95) and a crab and avocado roll ($3.50). The pad Thai was very good and the roll was good, even with the fake crab. And, best of all, I asked if they had plain unsweetened iced tea and although the answer was no, the waitress recommended I order a hot black tea and she’d bring me a large glass of ice. Finely, iced tea the way I like it!

Now I’m back at home, and Kevin just made pasta with a delicious rabbit sauce. Life is good…except for that going back to work thing.



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