Toronto Redux: Tourist Trappings

I don’t get to travel for work often, so I felt very fortunate that I was able to attend a conference in Toronto in early March, and even better, stay on a few days longer so I could visit with my sister. Though it seems like just yesterday when I was out east (in reality, it was back in July), it was a great opportunity to be able to see the city in a low-tourist season. I’ll do my best to recap the trip in a timelier manner than I have in the past!

Depending on your interests, the number of tourist-driven sites and activities to visit could take up the bulk of any visitor’s itinerary. And though Amanda and I made a valiant effort to clear off some of those highlights last summer, there were still a few boxes I wanted to tick off my list.

Westin Harbour Castle

The conference hotel happened to be the Westin Harbour Castle, and after our experience, I think it will become our accommodation of choice on future visits to Toronto.

Westin Harbour Castle

Our home for the week

Although the room itself and the service were nice but not exceptional, the location was second to none. Situated on the shore of Lake Ontario, our room had fantastic views of the water and of Billy Bishop Airport, all while being just steps away from Union Station and several major attractions. The waterfront location and directionality of our room sheltered us from the hustle and noise of the nearby freeways, and even better, we were able to easily take advantage of the trails and park adjacent to the hotel.

Westin Harbour Castle

Our view


Harbourfront in the late winter – still beautiful on a cloudy day


Do not feed the birds

We had crossed through the same area in the summer, but it was more peaceful in the time leading up to spring – smaller crowds and open waters – all the more conducive to relaxing, contemplative strolls.


Even swans love the harbourfront!

Harbourfront Centre

We also made a point this time around to explore the Harbourfront Centre. We had no idea you could watch artists at work in the open studios, or take a look at the art displayed in the galleries.





There were also skate rentals available to make use of the picturesque rink in front of the Centre, but (for me), the lack of railings were a deterrent.



Steven and Chris and the CBC Museum

After sitting through another taping of a daytime talk show, I think Amanda and I have gotten it out of our system. She booked us tickets to Steven and Chris, a CBC lifestyle show that airs in both Canada and the US.

We couldn’t help but compare this taping to our experience at CityLine last year. It was clear that for Steven and Chris, the audience was somewhat of an afterthought. First of all, it was longer than advertised – about three hours from the expected arrival time to being released from the studio. Second, there was only one monitor where we could follow the action on stage – especially important given the camera and behind the scenes personnel obscured much of what was happening. This monitor was unfortunately also partially blocked by cables. Third, unlike CityLine host Tracy Moore, who spent a lot of time after the show taking photos with all guests who requested one, Steve and Chris, between segments, only managed to pose with about half of the audience, then ran off immediately after the show wrapped. The show assistant and audience wrangler did their best to entertain us during the breaks, with giveaways, but they felt divorced from subjects covered in that episode.

Steve and Chris

Our view

The topics, which included storage design tips, muscle building exercises, cocktail recipes and children’s snacks, were of marginal interest to us, but we could see the appeal of the show. Chris is undoubtedly the star of the show, playing up a persona of a bumbling but good natured host.

Steve and Chris

Steven and Chris

We left the show with something in hand – generous samples of a shampoo and conditioner. But if being a part of a Toronto taping is something on your list, unless you are a Steven & Chris devotee, I’d recommend that you sign up instead for CityLine tickets.

That said, one of the bright sides of the Steve & Chris taping was that it got us to the CBC building. We made sure to check out the public museum while there, where we saw artefacts from shows that both my sister and I grew up watching, including Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant.

CBC Museum

The tickletrunk!

CBC Museum

Old friends

CBC Museum

Doing her best Don Cherry impersonation


I will always remember my introduction to Canada’s only NBA franchise – they played an exhibition game many years ago in Edmonton, and although I’m sure the team itself should have been more memorable, what I recall instead was their mascot, Raptor. He has two versions: the more accommodating costume allowed Raptor to perform tricks and dunks, while the other (my favourite) was inflatable, and could be expanded and shrunk in the most comical matter. Needless to say, in anticipating our visit to the ACC, I was most looking forward to seeing Raptor again.

Toronto Raptors


Amanda was able to secure tickets to a game versus the Orlando Magic. They were great seats at an amazing discount, courtesy of her friend who works for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Toronto Raptors

Great seats

Toronto Raptors

The game

We weren’t treated to the inflatable Raptor that day, and as a whole, the Raptor entertainment factor was rather low that day – no half-time tricks or anything more than a pre-recorded video of Raptor’s attempts at making it onto the Canadian Olympic team.

Toronto Raptors

Raptor in the spotlight

The closest we got to Raptor was his foray into our section towards the end of the game, patty-caking with spectators a few rows away from us. His energy was certainly infectious, and it was clear that he was a crowd favourite.

Toronto Raptors


Unfortunately for the team, a late rally and a strong performance from DeMar DeRozan wasn’t able to push them past the Magic. They lost 88-92 that night.

Real Sports Bar & Grill

Also on the sports theme, Amanda took me to one of her favourite place in Toronto – Real Sports Bar & Grill, a sports bar in Maple Leaf Square. It’s definitely a feast for the senses, to the point where I felt overly stimulated – between the flat screens (including our own personal television in our cozy booth), sports-themed fixtures, spotlights and blaring DJ-mixed music. And though there was nothing overly inappropriate for children, given the amount of alcohol flowing all around us and the tightly-clad waitresses, I was surprised to see the number of families with young children on the restaurant side of the establishment.

That said, it’s the bar side of Real Sports that really wows. A wall of screens entertain two floors of patrons, seated at the bar and a mix of tables and booths, all lit with a stylish blue hue. In addition to this open space, Real Sports also has a variety of smaller seating options as well, including a private area featuring recliners and in-seat service.

Real Sports

This is Real Sports

Amanda was able to make an early 5:45 reservation, but because it was game night for the Leafs and the place had been entirely booked up a week in advance, we were only able to have the table for an hour. Thankfully, they weren’t very rigid in enforcing this, and we didn’t feel rushed at all.

The prices were definitely a little higher than what I was used to paying in a lounge, but given the location and the surroundings, the premium was understandable. I couldn’t resist ordering one of the hot dogs in “Burkie’s Dog House” (I wonder if this section of the menu would be automatically renamed if Brian Burke was no longer the GM). My southwestern BBQ dog ($12.99) came topped with coleslaw and pulled pork – the hot dog itself had a nice snap, but the barbecue sauce was a tad sweet. The fries were perfect, however, hot and crispy and served in a cute mini-fry basket. Amanda’s Real Sports burger ($12.99) arrived pretty charred, but she didn’t mind.

Real Sports

Southwestern BBQ dog

Real Sports

Real Sports burger

Real Sports did a great job in replicating some of the energy that would be found in a sporting venue. There is nothing like it currently in Edmonton, but I have to wonder if something similar (albeit smaller) would work in the proposed Arena District.

Pearl Harbourfront Chinese Cuisine

We decided to take it easy on our last day in Toronto, with the aforementioned trek by the water. At lunch, we could have ventured to other more well-known restaurants, but given our low-key day, opted for the convenience of a restaurant inside the Queens Quay Terminal.

Pearl Harbourfront offered a water view and a relaxed dining atmosphere, just what we were looking for that day. We knew its tourist-centred address would make the food a crapshoot, but we were willing to take the risk. Urban Spoon reviews directed us away from the pricey dim sum menu (even though the majority of diners around us were partaking in the shared approach), but we found the regular menu just as expensive.


Amanda liked the view

We ended up with two dishes we were reasonably happy with (even though we weren’t entirely sure the server, with his limited English, understood what we wanted). Both the broad rice noodles and crispy chow mein ($15 each) hit the spot, and our only qualm was that the broccoli had been woefully overcooked.


Rice noodles


Chow mein

In all, it was a great place to sip tea and enjoy our last few hours together in Toronto, and contemplate when I’d return again.

I’ll be writing more about some of the unique food events and restaurants that we visited in future posts – stay tuned!

“Top Chef Canada”: Season 1 Wrap

Spoilers ahead.

Since I wrote my less-than-flattering mid-point review of Top Chef Canada over a month ago, I am happy to say the series did improve with time.

The biggest turnaround for me was Head Judge Mark McEwan. It’s almost as if halfway through filming, producers reviewing the tapes realized that he was coming off as stoic and tense, and started prompting him with “Smile!” cue cards behind the camera. Though he’s still no Tom Collichio, McEwan definitely showed signs of loosening up towards the end, which bodes well for the future of the show. Host Thea Andrews was also okay, though her delivery and smirk continued to be reminiscent more of tabloid entertainment than reality programming.

Resident Judge Shereen Arazm, on the other hand, I still could have done without – she didn’t add anything for me, and I’m not convinced that the canon of Canadian talent could not have provided someone more articulate and less shrill. I’m not sure if she has been secured for next season, but I’m hoping for a replacement.

In terms of guest judges, I know Canada doesn’t have the same obsession with “celebrity chefs” as our neighbours to the south, but Top Chef Canada is a great platform to start celebrating our homegrown talent. Most of the judges were Food Network alumni (some of whom, like Rob Feenie and Gail Simmons, I did enjoy), but I’d like to see future episodes utilize more non-screen chefs.

The challenges were also more entertaining as the show went on. I really liked the street food challenge (the “fusion” aspect not so much), and was pleased that “restaurant wars” did not disappoint. I am also glad the final challenge was open-ended – I don’t think the cheftestants were given enough opportunities towards the end to really showcase their true cooking styles. Mack and I both agreed that we hope future challenges embrace regional cooking more – I acknowledge that this inaugural season chose to highlight ethnic cuisines as its representation of Canadiana, but so much more can and should be done with the breadth of produce and proteins offered by our vast country.

Though I realize that the costs associated with building the studio in Toronto must be recouped, I’m hoping that future seasons will film across the country in a manner similar to Top Chef (season 9 will likely be based in San Antonio). In addition to celebrating talent, the show is a wonderful chance to expose viewers to venues and restaurants across the country, and can go a long way to encourage inter-provincial culinary tourism.

Lastly – congrats to Dale! But I have to be honest; I was rooting for Connie not only because of her Alberta connection, but also because it is rare to see a female chef take the title. There’s always next year (they accepted applications back in June)! Looking forward to season two – go Canada!

“Top Chef Canada”: Not Quite There Yet

It’s always an exciting moment for Canada when we get our own version of an American reality television show. Isn’t it supposed to connote that we’ve made it into the big leagues, and that we too, in the Great White North, have our share of marketable talent too?

Some shows, like Canada’s Next Top Model, haven’t done so well, for a variety of reasons – lack of equivalent star power, poor production quality, less of a potential audience base to start with. But others, like So You Think You Can Dance Canada, have exceeded expectations. When it was announced last May that a Top Chef Canada was in the works though, I really had high hopes. Top Chef is one of my favourite programs – between the challenges, judges and cheftestant drama, I find I am drawn in, every time.

The casting seemed to deliberately draw the 16 contestants from nearly every province in Canada, likely an effort to snag viewers from across the country. Although I was disappointed no Edmonton-based chefs were chosen to compete, the two Calgary-based chefs would at least be representing Alberta (and having eaten at Connie DeSousa’s restaurant, Charcut, it would have been difficult not to root for her). Besides my home-province favourites, Dale MacKay appeared to be another strong contender, just based on his past experience and mentors.

To me then, the biggest question mark for the show’s success would boil down to the host and the judges. Without a doubt, Top Chef’s duo of Padma Lakshmi and Tom Collichio are a force to be reckoned with, and are a big part of why the show works. They are charismatic, come off (to me) as genuine, and the majority of their criticism is constructive. I recognize that editing has definitely helped them hone their television personas, but I was hoping the same magic would touch upon the Canadian equivalents.

Not so. Head judge Mark McEwan appears languid, unenthusiastic, and has barely cracked a smile  since the opening episode. But at least I can understand why he was chosen – he already had a relationship with Food Network. The other resident judge, Shereen Arazm, might have seen success in the restaurant industry, but hasn’t brought anything to the table; her comments on the show are usually along the lines of “yummy” and “bad”. Perhaps she has been getting the short end of the stick from the show’s editors, but based on her blog entries, I don’t think so. Host Thea Andrews seemed at first out of place, as if she should be hosting an entertainment news show instead, but in the last few weeks, has been growing on me.

I suppose my frustration with the judges also stems from the fact that some of the guest judges they’ve had seem to be a better fit for this type of program – for example, Susur Lee, one of Canada’s other premiere chefs, has a personality that translates on screen, unlike McEwan. Or Laura Calder, James Beard Award Winning host of French Food at Home, was great to watch in the last episode – articulate and candid, I almost wish she had been the premier guest judge, as she was overshadowed by the superstar power of Daniel Boulud.

In terms of production quality, I have to say it was quite unfortunate for Top Chef Canada to air immediately after Top Chef: All Stars. Although the kitchen fixtures and space look nearly identical to the American filming space, the challenges have been mostly lacklustre so far (open ended cheese and pork challenges? cooking with vodka?) Last week’s French challenge was the most entertaining to watch, because of its difficulty and the element of team work that it promoted. Moreover, in several of the quickfire challenges, not all of the dishes are shown – how else is the audience supposed to get to know the style and skill of the chefs? I realize there is still more than half the season to go, so I really hope that these aspects improve as the show progresses.

So, while Top Chef Canada isn’t quite the appointment television that its American counterpart is for me (yet), I’m optimistic that with the room to develop, the show can inch closer to the standard set by Top Chef.

Sherene has been conducting exit interviews with all of the Top Chef Canada contestants; read them here.

Appointment Television Mondays

Since House moved to Mondays, the day has become so stacked, network entertainment-wise, that it’s almost unfair. As a result, my Monday evenings have become a sedentary retreat, my downfall as someone who prefers her television “live”. As it’s been a while since I’ve written about any of my big four shows (Prison Break is on hiatus – in its last season, sob – until April 17), I felt it was time to put down some thoughts:

  • 24 – I am loving the resurrection of Tony “Soul Patch” Almeida – it’s always better when Jack has his trustworthy partner in crime behind him! I do wish Chloe had more to do (I thought finally going rogue would mean we’d get to see her as a true field agent, but alas, she’s still hidden behind a computer screen), but at least she’s away from the confines of the CTU bunker. I also love the Renee Walker character – it’s inevitable she will move to the dark side under Jack’s tutelage, but she’s got some fight in her. Now that the Dubaku storyline has wrapped, I just hope the second part of the season is as gripping as the first.
  • House – It’s strange that after five seasons of the same almost sitc0m-like template (patient with mystery illness miraculously cured by the end of the 42 minutes), audiences are still tuning in. It is nice to see some of the supporting characters getting their own storylines finally, including Cuddy’s adoption (something that didn’t involve House at all) and also increasing the Cuddy-Wilson interaction.
  • The City – I had high expectations for this show, mostly because it was taking place in New York, but I didn’t think Whitney could carry a series all on her own. It turns out she can, but not without making it seem like she is selling herself short. More than anything, I can’t wait for the return of The Hills (Lauren and Heidi friends again?! Say it ain’t so!), and continuing to watch clever spoofs of The City in Barack Obama’s The District.

“The Hills!” “The Hills!”

My not-so-guilty pleasure returns August 18. Though a part of me knows not to hold any stock to the season trailer (as it has led to disappointments in the past), I can’t help but get excited and look forward to the drama that is to come (can Lauren trust Stephanie Pratt? Will Lo push Audrina and Lauren apart?).

I realize that most of my readers cannot understand the appeal of such shallow, faux reality. But Time magazine’s James Poniewozik recently laid out, in irresistible prose, exactly why The Hills appeals to an audience beyond teenage girls.

“…if you can get past the idea that fakeness is a bad thing–use a fancier term, like artifice, if that helps you–then The Hills is one of the most magnificent pieces of fakery on television, a jewel-like celebration of superficiality.

“The surfaces are precisely what make The Hills entrancing: it is possibly the best-looking series on television. It doesn’t just look better than life. It looks better than TV. Where most reality shows use garish close-ups to show hot emotions, The Hills uses middle- and long-range shots in wide-screen, giving it a cooler feel and framing the subjects like art photography. It’s full of liquid L.A. sun, in love with the way light plays on surfaces–car bodies, plate glass, glossed lips.”

I’ve written about how Laguna Beach initially sucked me in with its cinematography and sound track, and The Hills, now in its fourth season, is better than ever in terms of production values. And if people can learn how to be chosen for reality television, Lauren, Audrina, Whitney and Heidi could teach such a class with their eyes closed.

I will be watching.

“The Hills”: Season 3.5

I’ve been chomping at the bit waiting for any of my appointment television shows to begin airing new material, so the return of The Hills was a welcome sight.

Nothing particularly unexpected has happened yet, four episodes (and two weeks) into this extension of the third season, but as in years past, a lot of content shown in the trailer for this season has already been aired. Whitney’s moved on from Teen Vogue, Lauren and Spencer’s sister Stephanie have become fast friends, and Lauren and Brody had their very mature confrontation about his personal life.

I’m looking forward to the return of Stephen Colletti(!), a cleaned-up Justin Bobby (funny how we get attached to the girls’ old flames), and more screen time for Lo, who always provides the necessary voice of reason.

The After Show still continues to puzzle me somewhat; I wonder if the hosts and their “friends” are barred from referencing material outside of the 22-minute episodes? Otherwise, how can they take scenes like Spencer moving out seriously, with the plethora of fresh paparazzi photographs of Speidi out on the town available on a weekly basis?

For that reason, I have to disagree with a recent New York Times article declaring Heidi a “feminist hero”:

“Defying our expectations, Heidi has emerged as a kind of feminist hero this season, climbing her way to a bigger position at the event-planning company where she orchestrates Nascar parties, and refusing to acquiesce to the demands of her fiancé, Spencer, that she get herself home on time. Her career-mindedness sets their relationship off course. Heidi identifies the problem with no name: a boyfriend who sits around an apartment decorated to look like an ’80s video arcade while trying to deny Heidi a real wedding with the glory of registering. Her groundswell of self-assertion begins when he insists on eloping, prompting Heidi to declare, ‘This isn’t, like, Spencer’s relationship and you decide what we do.'”

Such false “self assertion” – mugging independence for the cameras, then running back to her so-labelled deadbeat fiance once the “captured reality” is over is almost worse.

In any case, I will still be tuning in every Monday night. The Hills is a guilty pleasure in every sense of the phrase.

“The Hills” are still alive

Before the third season of The Hills began, it seemed that this would indeed be the final season. Lauren’s clothing line launched a few months ago, and she vehemently claimed that her reality series was merely a stepping stone to her fashion career.

But as the finale approached, no one ever referred to the episode as a “series” finale. Today, we found out why – In Touch announced that The Hills has been renewed for a fourth season! As for Lauren’s coy quote, “I have some friends [on the show], some friends off,” we’ll have to see if The After Show‘s reported rumors are true – that Whitney will be replaced by Spencer’s sister, Stephanie Pratt as a “character”.

Other news from Hollywood:

  • Good timing: Kiefer Sutherland’s 48 day jail sentence for drunk driving couldn’t have begun at a better time. As the Writer’s Guild of America strike continues, filming for 24 has already ceased for several weeks. Smarten up, Kiefer. We may lovingly refer to you as a “man child”, but we certainly don’t expect you to act like one.
  • Eeee! The first teaser trailer for the upcoming Sex & the City movie was released today!

“Sex and the City”, Complete

I recently completed my DVD collection of Sex and the City, at just $19.99 a pop for the seasons I was missing. In most cases, it is cheaper to wait for the release of the series collection (Costco had the complete West Wing on sale for just under $200), but that wasn’t the case for the chronicles of Carrie and company.

I actually did not become a full-fledged fan of the show until it was already into its last season. While I’ve managed to catch most of the back episodes in syndication, I can’t say the “safe for non-cable television” versions are quite the same as the HBO uncensored variety. Though understandably changed to reflect more tasteful language and image restrictions, the amount of content that needs to be cut from a 29 minute episode to fit into a 22 minute format is substantial. If anything, the full versions allow me to appreciate the show more – in its extended character development, humor, and of course, envelope-pushing subject matter.

Given the amazing official website, with detailed episode summaries, fashion guides, and a newly added map plotting memorable Manhattan locations, one would think some of that information could have migrated into the DVD sets. Between cheap plastic cases and a lack of accompanying paper guides with episode listings, I am disappointed HBO didn’t put more thought into the design of the poorly packaged products.

Though the extras are also sparse, I did enjoy listening to the commentary provided by Michael Patrick King. It is evident, however, that he is completely biased towards Sarah Jessica Parker – he adores her so much I wouldn’t be surprised if his close connection with her was what sabotaged an SaTC movie immediately after the show’s finale. It was rumored that Kim Catrall had wanted more prominence on the show, but with the production stranglehold held by King and Parker, that would have never happened.

After watching the evolution of the show from start to finish, I now fully understand the appeal of Mr. Big. Chris Noth does a fantastic job (he simply exudes charm) but with his abrupt shifts at the end of Season 1 and mid-way through Season 2, I think the writers committed convenient character assassinations for the sole purpose of complicating Carrie’s life. Season 2’s “La Douleur Exquise!” was lovely though, melancholic in a cloud of bittersweet sadness, while Big’s friendly departure for Napa in Season 4 was quintessential New York romance – scored, of course, by Mancini’s “Moon River”.

We’re planning on going on the Sex and the City tour while in New York (fingers crossed), and I am certain it will be just as surreal as I imagine it to be.

“24”: Season 7 Preview

Sometimes it seems the anticipation of serial dramas – with the naive hope for a season ripe with possibilities and the excitement of seeing those familiar faces again – is never equalled in the payout itself.

With the recent release of 24‘s seventh season trailer (hour one and two debuting January 13), I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the show lives up to the hype. With the return of an unexpected character, and a change in format involving the elimination of CTU, it appears the producers are doing their best to re-energize the inconsistent series.

Let the clock start ticking!

Random Notes

I would prefer to avoid shorthand posts, but they are such a convenient fallback when no elaboration is needed. So here, again:

  • The Edmonton Journal created a new section in Saturday’s edition called “Style” two weeks ago. From what I can tell, it is an amalgamation of everything the Globe’s daily “Life” is – a snapshot of home decor, a piece on fashion, a restaurant review – but all very haphazard and scattered. I never knew what happened to “Ed” (it seemed to just disappear from print, at least), but “Style” is a very poor follow-up, if that is indeed what it is.
  • On that note, my weekly round-up, as seen in the Globe & Mail: a table shaped like a grand piano that brings new meaning to “dinner music”; and a photo group on Flickr that celebrates the greatness of a brown bag lunch.
  • Speaking of Flickr, Mack was nice enough to buy me a Flickr Pro account this week, slyly pushing me to integrate further into the throes of Web 2.0 life. Thanks Mack!
  • My beloved TelevisionWithoutPity got a makeover recently. At quick glance, they got rid of the clever show icons in favor of network pictures, and ads are more prominent on the frontpage, unfortunately. It’s definitely shinier, but now looks suspiciously corporate…what do you think?
  • I was very happy to read that the rest of the Sex & the City‘s season 6 regulars, David Eigenberg, Evan Handler and Jason Lewis, were secured for the upcoming movie. I had to suppress a squee when I saw the first production still. Ah, to heck with it – squee!