Thursday, December 31, 2009

We've Moved! www.JenIsEating.com

For anyone that has been following this blog over the last year - we've moved! In an effort to make it easier for you to find my frequent foodie adventures I've created a simpler domain to remember and share: www.JenIsEating.com.

Feel free to browse through the archives, I've made some revisions as I moved the content, including added links and images for easier reference. Please change any subscriptions or bookmarks you may have to the old blog, http://muchadoaboutfoodandtravel.blogspot.com, it no longer exists. If you are following on facebook, the full blog has archive and tags such as places and cuisine for easier search so take a peek!

Eat Away! And Happy New Year!

2009 Year In Review: Best Meals On The Road

Tony and I have had an exceptionally busy year travelling and eating - we practically live at the airport! If you can believe it, we've been to Asia, Miami, Vancouver, Vegas, Paris and NYC all in the past 12 months. As the year draws to a close, now is a good time as ever to look back on the delicious meals we've had and the wonderful places we've been!

Japan Dec 08/Jan 09: We spent holidays last year in Japan/HK/Philippines. The best meal we had in Japan was definitely the chirashi we had at Tsukiji Fish Market - the tuna was incredibly fresh (tuna tastes amazing and nothing like in North America), and the uni was sweet and rich like butter. We still lick our lips thinking back to that meal. Had I not been so full I think Tony would have been happy to line-up again and have another bowl. The wait is worth every minute! We weren't allowed to take photos in the small 10 seat restaurant, but here's the menu board outside for a look at what we got to taste. Yum!! Other memorable dishes was a custard we had at a Hokkaido restaurant and these amazing egg and chicken rice bowls we had in the market in the Kyoto Train Station. I cannot wait to go back and eat some more!

Miami March 09: We were in Miami for March Madness this past year, and had the pleasure of eating at Joe's Stone Crab. All the food there is delicious, but you simply cannot go and pass up the sweet and succulent meat of stone crab claws. It was so amazing we went back before we left for the airport - we never want to miss an opportunity for a meal! It is a must stop in Miami, I think we'd go back JUST to eat there.

Vancouver May 09: Vancouver is one of our favourite places in the world to eat. Toronto has more variety, but Vancouver has the best value, and we love it particularly for the fresh seafood and sushi. In our last trip there, we were introduced to a new ramen place: Motomachi Shokudo. It is a healthy alternative to Kintaro's fatty pork ramen, made instead with all organic materials including organic chicken based broth. The highlight was the very unique bamboo charcoal ramen, said to be good for the digestive season.
Vegas June 09:
We love Vegas not because we are gamblers but because it is the ultimate foodie haven. One of our favourite restaurants is Shibuya at the MGM - the sake menu is unmatched and the cooked tapas are a wonderful mix of flavours. The dish that always leaves us pining for more is the lobster and scallop in uni butter. It was so delicious we had no shame asking for a spoon to eat the remaining sauce with rice - apparently that's how the staff eat! Who knows how they are not overweight if that were true, but maybe the waiter was just trying to comfort us :P Another favourite is brunch at Thomas Keller's Bouchon. It is probably the best brunch we have ever had. Most memorable was our friend's corned beef hash! Who knew corned beef hash could be SO delicious.

Paris Oct 09: We had such great food everywhere we went I can hardly pin-point the favourite, but one of the most memorable was the lunch we had at Priori in gallerie Vivienne. The soup was hearty and delicious, and the little cafe was quaint and beautiful. I felt like I could sit there all afternoon. Our meal at Cafe Marly was also pretty unforgettable, sitting under the arches of the beautiful Louvre, I happily inhaled the king crab and guacamole starter followed by a delicious prawn risotto. Our favourite dessert was undeniably the mango panacotta we had at Coup d'Etat. We regret not making a final trip there to take one for the road. I guess there is always next time!

NYC Dec 09:
Can't deny that one of our most memorable eating experiences is at the exclusive 14 seat Momofuku Ko. Our food was unique and delicious, watching the extensive preparation of our 12 course meal by the chefs was part of the great experience. One of my favourites and highlight for the night was the shaved foie gras served with riesling jelly and lychee - so original and tasty.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Guu is guuud!

At long last, Guu has arrived in Toronto! I cannot believe that up until now, there has not been a modern Japanese tapas place like the many delicious ones found in Vancouver. Months ago, I had heard that Guu would soon open here, and I was thrilled to discover that on my first night of holidays, Guu has opened at Church and Gerrard!!

The restaurant is boisterous, social and friendly - even more so than I remember of the Guu locations in Vancouver. There are small tables and share tables and also plenty of seats around the bar, where we ended up sitting tonight. We loved our location, facing the bar tender, Jin, who was a hardworking adorable Japanese guy. He turned out drinks all by himself quickly and calmly - when I asked what his favourite drink was, he decidedly told me "beer." I was hoping he might recommend one of the fancy drinks he had concocted during the night and I would quickly order one. Our waiter was also super friendly, who with his charming smile convinced me to have a "big mug" sapporo, on special for $7! Tony had vodka with Japanese red bull, and also a vodka soda with fresh grapefruit that was very popular. They actually serve the grapefruit, but our lovely bartender squeezed the juice for us.

The star of the show is of course the great food - tapas mostly ranging from $5 to $7, cold, warm, fried, stewed, and grilled. We had some specials from the menu: sweet shrimp sashimi, which the kitchen fried the heads for us after - the bartender said "you guys know how to eat shrimp, " and uni (sea urchin) sashimi, which was sweet but still can never compare to what we had in Japan. We also had some old favourites: kimchi udon with spicy cod roe and ebi mayo. Some new items on the menu we tried included oden, a delicious assortment of slow cooked fishcakes and tofu, stewed pork belly, and grilled squid. Although full of beer and delicious food, we made room for dessert - I recommend the almond tofu for something pallet cleansing, and absolutely the banana tempura with chocolate sauce and banana...very indulgent.

I can't say enough how excited we are that Guu has finally opened - on it's first night it was packed mostly with Japanese people (a good sign!), and possibly other loyalists like myself from Vancouver. It's fun, lively, inexpensive and delicious - perfect for any occasion. I am sure we will be regulars, so anytime you want to meet over a beer or sake, ring us up for a visit to Guu :)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

NYC 2009: A Vibrant and Delicious Lunch at The Modern Bar Room

I always seem to save a great meal to look back on after we return from traveling. On our last day in NYC, we had a wonderful brunch at The Modern, found at the MOMA. I have said before restaurants that feature something other than JUST food usually loses some of the "taste," such as turning restaurants in towers and often museum restaurants; The Modern, however, was fabulous. We were lucky to sample yet another Michelin star restaurant on our short visit to the Big Apple and another James Beard award winner (best chef in NYC!).

Our Menu from the Bar Room:
Flounder tartare with yuzu juice - a firm tartare that was refreshing and unique. This dish surprised us at how simple and tasty it was.
Liverwurst (pate) with pickled vegetables - although I was not a big fan of the pickled vegetables, the liverwurst was delicious and very filling.
Poached egg in mason jar with Maine lobster - this was highly recommended on several food blogs. It was indeed a very beautiful and delicious dish. Eggs seem to be the latest ingredient to show up in various forms on fine dining menus.
Braised tripe with chick pea in a sort of ratatouille - this was very hearty and delicious! Felt like French home cooking.
Duck breast with pistachio sauce - I admit my duck craving was from the amazing meal we had at Momofuku Ko, this couldn't compare, but was served with a delicious sauce. Pistachio is another ingredient we've seen show up in several places.
For desert, we had a beautiful concord grade sundae, served with meringue. It was lightly satisfying and a great way to top off our already amazing meal.

I think every item on the menu at The Modern is worth trying - we looked around at our neighbours' dishes and they were all very tempting, the soup seemed especially popular in the chilly weather. This is surely a restaurant we will visit again. The Bar Room was vibrant and lively, filled with patrons of various ages and backgrounds. Surely everyone was there to enjoy the delicious French inspired cuisine! Make this a visit whether or not you are on your way to MOMA (we were very disappointed that the Tim Burton exhibit was sold out).

Monday, December 7, 2009

NYC 2009: An Exclusive Dining Experience at Momofuku Ko. Genius.

David Chang is a genius. Chef and owner of a quartet of Momofuku restaurants, he has won three James Beard awards, which are, as my friend described, the Oscars of the food world. We were among the few lucky patrons to visit Momofuku Ko on Saturday night for an unforgettable food experience. Getting this reservation was no small feat, although completely accessible to anyone who did a bit of research - you have to register on the website and log on for reservations 6 days in advance for one of the 12 precious seats. There is no menu, there are no pictures, and even the restaurant itself is scarcely marked (we walked right by the door the first time we passed). You have to trust in the food. Arriving at the restaurant exposes no more about what you will eat, how much nor the cost, but we were ready for our adventure. One of the first questions the chef asked was if we had any allergies - I cannot imagine what to do if one showed up with one, because there were 12 courses to come, carefully planned and prepared in advance, I'm not sure what options there would have been. In addition to the amazing tastes and unique preparations, watching the busy chefs at work was an experience in itself. Ko is set up as bar surrounding the narrow kitchen, reminding me of the geisha tea house we visited last year in Japan as a part of our walking tour. The 12 seats around the bar were filled by parties arriving at different times. Cooking was like a round in song - the chefs were organized and calm in their preparation of each appropriate course for the parties around the bar, with never a miss and easily making their way around and with each other. They started with only several dishes at once, but as the bar filled up, every group was having a different course - their ability to manage it all in stride was amazing. We had generous portions of sake to go with our dinner, passing on the wine accompaniment, which in hindsight we are glad as we were able to save room in our bellies for all the glorious and delicious food.

Unfortunately, photos were not allowed, and I also did not want to take away from the exclusive dining experience, but below is a detailed account of our menu. I had to take notes as we ate in an attempt to remember all the chefs were telling us!

1. Sweet shrimp in jalapeno sauce with scallions served on a Chinese spoon.
2. Snail sausage, fried pork skin and biscuit - the snail sausage came in tiny cubes, very unique.
3. Long island fluke in spicy buttermilk with poppy seed with spicy red herb - this was one of our favourite courses. The spicy buttermilk was very tasty and just the right flavour for the fish, topped with sparse tiny leaves of a spicy red Japanese herb that I cannot recall in name, but found it very unique. They looked like little red clovers.
4. Tataki Spanish mackarel with yuzu mustard green - I loved the mustard greens, adding a unique flavour to the mackarel that was prepared with a side of thin crispy skin.
5. Daikon tortellini with carmlized onion puree and oxtail, in oxtail consomme - watching one of the chefs make this dish was fantastic, two pods of daikon filled with onion puree/oxtail then wrapped and flipped into tortellinis. So smart!
6. Soft boiled egg with hackleback caviar and small chips and onions - this was the most beautiful dish of the night in its colour and preparation. The caviar was served flowing out of the bright yolk, seeping out of the half open egg. Was as delicious to taste as it was to look at!
7. Pine mushroom ravioli with buckwheat coriander, served with pine mushroom tea with a ball of french toast on the side - this was fantastic! Although I could not hear what the chef said upon serving the dish, I recognized the unique taste of the pine mushroom immediately (see our latest adventure at Ematei). I felt incredibly smart to recognize the great flavour of the pine mushroom, because for most of the meal, I couldn't keep up with what they were telling us!
8. Monk fish with sea urchin served in spicy shell fish stew - the sweet taste of sea urchin was a nice counter to the spicy shell fish stew the monk fish was set in. When I saw the chef make the stew again I saw the 3, 4 peppers he had put in the small pot and let boil down. No wonder it was so spicy! I personally think it took away from the sweetness of urchin, best enjoyed fresh, but nonetheless, the combined flavours were a unique experience.
9. Shaved foie gras and reisling jelly and lychee and candied pecan - this was probably the most unique plate I have ever had. The foie gras was served in a bowl looking much like a mound of shaved ice, hiding the jelly, lychee and pecans underneath. This was unbelieveable to eat - can you imagine light, fluffy foie gras!? Tony and I simply could not get enough of it! It is surely a memorable plate that we will tell stories about over and over again.
10. Crispy skin duck - we watched the chef start to prepare this from the moment we sat down, multiple and careful preparations made an AMAZING canard. The duck, served medium rare, is probably the best duck I have ever had, simple in taste, yet so incredibly delicious.
11. Spiced white wine sorbet with asian pear and elder flower - this was a nice cleansing of our pallet.
12. Goat milk and ricotta curd cheesecake with squash sorbet, cranberries and pumpkin seed oil - I think the best cheesecake I have ever had, light and so uniquely paired with the pumpkin seed oil and squash sorbet...who would have thought of that!?

Our experience at Momofuku Ko was unbeatable. All the food was fresh, the flavours light yet complex in how they were paired. I liked the slight kick in the dishes by various means, was lively for our taste buds. We couldn't have asked for a better meal - incredibly unique and worth every penny. Our meal in particular was a mere $125 a head, pennies for the unique food and experience we had. And of course, we couldn't help but pick-up the Ko cookbook (there are pictures in there!) for our growing collections of cookbooks we drool over. The spicy buttermilk recipe is included...yum! What is more amazing is that we were done right at 9:30pm, just in time for the second seating of guests to arrive and have their ultimate food experience. The whole operation is truly incredible, very deserving of its two michelin stars! Provided you don't have any allergies, fish in particular, this is a MUST visit for foodies. You will enjoy every dish in flavours and uniqueness.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

NYC 2009: I Heart Porchetta!

In 2005, Lorena and I went on Eurotrip part deux over Christmas holidays. Easyjet dictated the places we would visit and we ended up in the South of France to explore Nice, Monaco and Cannes. In addition to the wonderful and convenient little hostel we stayed at (I'd consider it a hotel really), one of our favourite parts of the trip was exploring the market in Nice. While wandering, we came upon an amazing discovery: porchetta! In Nice, it was a delicious roasted pig, stuffed with an assortment of meats, sausage and spices. It was served by the deli in slices. While we ooh'd and ahh'd in excitement at the piglet in the display case, a friendly American lady came to help us - thank goodness she spoke English because we really wanted to try some of the then unknown delicacy! She gave us small portions to try and explained what it was. AMAZING.

In Tony's relentless research of places to eat in NYC, he discovered Porchetta, a small deli on the East side that featured its namesake. I was thrilled to discover this little gem since I have not had porchetta since our trip to Nice! We were the first to arrive on a rainy and cold Saturday morning, and happy to take a seat at one of the few bar stools in the intimate deli. Most patrons came and went with a sandwhich to go but I couldn't have been more excited to sit and enjoy my food and stare at the porchettas. It wasn't exactly like the stuffed piglet I had in Nice (the meat was wrapped rather than fully stuffed and roasted), but it was pretty darn close. Less exotic stuffing for those less adventurous as well, but delicious all the same. Tony and I split a savoury mushroom soup, a porchetta sandwhich and a porchetta plate, which came with beans and vegetables. It sure satisfied my 4 year long craving!

If you are a meat lover in the NYC area and looking for something unique and delicious, be sure to stop by Porchetta, a sandwhich is only $6! They also feature a cozy cookbook, which unfortunately we did not pick up as we had no way to keep it from the pouring rain that day, but we'd love to hear if anyone does and picks up any recipes!

NYC 2009: A Contemporary Experience at Perry St by Jean-Georges

The thing about big cities we love most is that restaurants are open late. It was wonderful to get a 10:30pm reservation at one of Jean George's restaurants, Perry St, upon our late arrival into the city (and thanks to opentable, of course). It is located near the water, a little far from where we were staying (Madison and 50th/51st) but a close cab ride away. I have had the pleasure of eating lunch at Jean Georges before (the best halibut of my life!) and was excited to try this place out.

Perry St is simplistic in decor, and clearly a great place for groups and dates alike. We were seated in the small lounge while waiting for our table, which featured popcorn snacks (who needs nuts!?). I loved that the tables were spacious allowing for intimate conversations. Our picks for the night:

Starters:
King oyster mushroom and avocado carpaccio with light jalapeno oil
Japanese snapper sashimi
Black pepper crab dumplings - the best of what we picked, had a slightly spicy taste.

Mains:
Butter poached lobster with lemongrass and kaffir lime broth and potato ravioli - this was my entree and it was amazing! The lobster was meaty and generous and I couldn't soak up enough of the delicious sauce, it reminded me of the delicious prawn risottos we had in France. The potato ravioli was also surprisingly enjoyable, lightly filled in thin pasta. My plate was so amazing I refused to trade with Tony as we normally do!

Tony had snapper with asparagus and shitakes, which was very ornate with small asparagus and shitake slices placed carefully on top of the snapper. Yum!

Dessert:
We shared an apple confit with green apple sorbet and creme fraiche - our favourite part was the sorbet.

Overall, Perry St is a good deal - affordable and accessible as a Michelin Star restaurant (one star!). I found our mains to be most complex and unique, although the crab dumplings were really quite delicious. Another favourite was the cherry-yuzu soda we had with dinner, it was better than any cocktail we could have had!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Revisiting a Favourite: New Discoveries at Ematei

If you have been following, I have written about Ematei before - by far our favourite and most frequented restaurant in the city. Tonight, we had a different sort of experience that was so amazing I couldn't resist but share. Last I wrote about this restaurant, I shared my obsession with the hot pot, the ultimate Winter comfort food. We have other favourites as well, but we always have it with the hot pot (it definitely requires more people to share).

Without ordering hot pot, we had stomach room to try other things on the menu. We noticed a "special" sign on the wall tonight for a matsutake (mushroom) soup - we love mushrooms and we love soup, so how could we resist? In a restaurant full of delicious tapas under $10, I was expecting this $20 mushroom soup to be a big bowl; in reality, everything about this dish surprised us. The waitress told us that this was a unique soup made from rare pine mushrooms found only in Winter. The soup was a flavourful simmered broth of pine mushrooms, scallops and shrimp. It was served in a small teapot accompanied by little cups - the unique presentation allowed us to enjoy the soup throughout our meal in small portions, and each taste left us wanting more. A truly worthwhile and unique experience. Fresh pine mushroom are apparently very rare in North America, so we were doubly impressed that Ematei had the delicacy.

In addition to small portions of sushi and sashimi, we also had oden. I LOVE oden, and first experienced it at Ematei. This is also a Japanese Winter dish consisting of assorted fish cakes, daikon and boiled eggs served in a light broth. I think of it as a mini hot pot! We also had eringi butter (king mushroom), grilled black cod, and for the first time here, savoury egg custard. Tony and I had an unforgettable egg custard while in Japan last year at a restaurant that served food from the Hokkaido region, made with bits of roe and tako. It was just the right blend of flavours. Ematei's was made with traces of mushroom, shrimp, artificial crab meat and topped with orange zest. As always, we were happy to have a taste of something from Japan that we have not had at any other Japanese restaurant. And the night got better! For the first time, we actually had room for dessert, and I cannot believed we have missed out for TWO YEARS. We had anmitsu, a jelly and fruit mix served with red bean paste and (we were told) best with ice cream (black sesame was our flavour of choice). Although I recognized the name, I was not sure what this dessert was; in fact, we had it at a delicious izakaya restaurant in Shibuya on our last night in Japan....needless to say, I was elated to see this recognizable dish arrive! We also enjoyed a unique mochi, which we had not tasted before - it was freshly made sticky rice cake, rolled in what I think is ground soybean powder and served with a light syrup. Although we thought we were quite full already, we practically inhaled the entire plate. It was light and the perfect way to finish our meal. That is definitely going on the favourite list!

I regret that we didn't take any pictures tonight because our meal was so beautiful, from the mushroom soup teapot, the small oden ceramic hot pot to our cup of egg custard! Since I have shared my love of Ematei in the past, I was not planning to blog about our meal; but it was a different kind of experience for us that included pleasant reminders of Japan and also new tastes worth sharing. I think we will be back again shortly and perhaps then I can update with pics! We have a new completion goal to try everything on the menu, we don't want to miss out on anything. Think we can do it!?

Butter Chicken of the Sea at Bread Bar!

I pass Bread Bar on my way to and from work everyday. Tony and I finally decided to try it sometime last year. I did not have this blog at the time, but let me tell you, it was an unforgettable meal! It is a bustling restaurant that is great for groups/parties. You may be lucky to have your own table, or be seated at the long communal table - either way, the ambiance is warm and friendly.


On our return visit last night, the first thing I looked for was the "butter chicken of the sea" I affectionately remembered from our initial visit - lobster and prawn in the same makhani sauce. I remember the taste fondly and couldn't wait to have it. Imagine my disappointment to find it was not on the menu. I read and re-read the menu several times before resigning to the fact that the must have replaced this dish with the seafood curry. Of course, I was not ready to give up on the single dish I had returned for so we asked the waiter....and I was THRILLED that it was available, a "special" not on the regular menu. Aren't I glad I asked! I especially loved being able to order something not on the menu...has some kind of insider exclusivity to it.


In addition to the deliciously rich lobster and prawn, we also had a lime lamb shank curry, a nice contrast to the flavours of the makhani sauce, and also saag panner - a spinach and rapini puree with paneer (Indian unsalted cheese). All of this served with basmati rice and garlic naan of course. Bread Bar is actually so named for some of its unique naan offerings, but we were so overwhelmed with the mains already that we ended up going minimal with our accompaniment and sticking to the basics. There's always next time!

Bread Bar is a lovely choice for an indulgent Indian dinner, and probably better celebrated with friends (so you can try more food of course!). It is part of the Amaya group of restaurants, which I have yet to try the others, but I'm sure the name and taste is familiar to some of you. Remember to ask for the butter chicken of the sea - I didn't make the name up, I swear that was on the menu last time!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Savouring True Meat Flavours at Cowbell

We often rely on Toronto Life's best restaurant list for our adventures. Last year, we made our way to Cowbell and were excited to discover a unique bistro experience - the restaurant buys their meat locally, butchers their own animals and sustainably aims to use all parts. It's a small operation involved vertically in the entire food process. The feature there, of course, is meat, with a menu that changes constantly depending on what they have brought in. On our first visit, I had the Cowbell burger. Normally, I would never order a burger, but the lady next to us told me it was the best burger she had ever had, so how could I turn that down? As I recall, it was indeed an amazing burger, with bacon and topped with Quebec cheese. That experience had left me wanting another bite so we made the trek to far Queen West again last night with our friends James and Lisa.

The Cowbell menu is found on a chalkboard in the restaurant, with an assortment of appetizers and mains - I caution vegetarians that this is not the place for you, although there are some minimal choices! What I love most about Cowbell is that the chef really celebrates and highlights the natural flavours of meats - no fancy sauces, just delicate cooking and handling that brings out the best of beef, duck, pork and the like. Last night, Tony and I did the butcher's plate to start - an assortment of terrine, pate, liver and hearts. I had the angus beef with bone marrow as my main, served with a side of wild mushrooms and leeks - the beef was AMAZING. I can't tell you how disappointed we have been with beef in Toronto in general, but this was just perfectly medium rare and tender. Tony had pork, which again was very simple, highlighting the natural taste of pork, tasty, but less amazing than my beef. I miss the carpaccio we had on our first visit, very basic rare beef slices served with nothing and yet, tasted better than any carpaccio we have ever had. It is truly a sign of good fresh meat and good preparation. We had creme caramel with blackberry compote for dessert, which was rich and satisfying, but truly, the highlight of the restaurant is the meats, so invest your bellies in that!

Cowbell is a great place for anyone who loves food and loves meat. Don't think of it as a heavy "meaty" place - I made that mistake at first, delaying our visit there, but it really is a foodie destination, so you can appreciate fine preparation and simple yet delicious tastes.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Paris 2009: We Made it to the Louvre, and Our Last Meal in Paris

It's been weeks since we returned from Paris, seems like a lifetime away that we were enjoying the food and sights of France. The great thing about vacation is that you can choose to do things and live the way you dream of, but not may be feasible in everyday life. To sleep in til noon and have amazing French meals everyday was a dream come true for us.

On our last day, we made our way into a museum after all - none other than the Louvre. I think it was our most visited place this trip, through the gardens, the courtyard, and finally a fast look inside as well (not to worry travelers, we have been before!). We did the speed tour to start: Mona Lisa, Winged Victory and Venus de Milo, seeing favourites along the way such as the Wedding at Cana. We eventually made our way to the Rubens Room, an amazing exhibit of21 paintings commissioned by Marie de'Medici, wife of King Henry IV of France. We stopped for lunch at Cafe Marly, as recommended by our friend Stella. We were saving it for our "last meal" because we wanted to make sure we left Paris with an amazing meal to remember. Cafe Marly did not disappoint - sitting under the elevated arches of the Louvre and facing the pyramids. In the cool fall weather, the experience was sublime. We started with a king crab guacamole salad - the king crab was meaty and fresh and tasted like it was just cracked out of the shell. For mains, I had a delicious prawn risotto and Tony had steak. Before this trip, I did not know that prawn risotto was such an amazing French dish, from our delicious first meal at Coup d'Etat, to this last meal at Cafe Marly, the prawns were delicious and like nothing I have tasted before. The steak was not extraordinary, but the bernaise sauce was amazing...heart stopping, but amazing. We left with our bellies full and happy. We managed to sneak in another couple rooms at the Louvre before it was time to leave.

The Louvre is possibly the most beautiful building in the world, housing the most amazing collection of art and history, plus an delicious meal...not a bad way to say good bye to the City of Lights.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Paris 2009: We're Not Meant to Visit Any Museums on This Trip...

Day 8: We started the day with an incredible lunch at Priori, suggested by Tony's friend Megan last night. I clutched onto her hand sketched map and found our way to this "secret" location - not likely secret for locals, but having walked the area for the last week, I can't believe we had no idea it existed! First we walked through the garden in the courtyard of the Palais Royale, which we did not know we were allowed in. After passing through the garden and a number of small shops, we came onto rue Vivienne and finally the cute gallerie Vivienne! The restaurant is a little cafe with tables taking up half the narrow walkway under the glass dome, a nice way to enjoy the sun on a cold day! I had the plat du jour, a rich bean soup served with guacamole and salad. A totally unlikely combo in my mind, but was good, trust! I really dislike beans and actually had no idea what was in the soup initially, but decided to order it after seeing it arrive on our neighbours' tables. The rosey, savoury soup was very good indeed, despite the beans :P It really hit the spot for the cooler weather we've been having! Tony had an amazing pasta with mushrooms, served as a salad with plenty of cheese. We loved having lunch in this quiet not-so-tourist spot - delicious and quaint, the kind of place we wish we could visit everyday to enjoy a long leisurely lunch.

Paris has a museum for everything and everywhere, but we haven't made it to any on this trip, always waiting for a rainy day to do indoor stuff. At the tower yesterday, I noticed a fashion museum I had not seen before: the Musee Galliera, housing the evolution of fashion through the years and its significance to the city. We chose this one over the fashion and textile museum close to the Louvre since the building exterior was so beautiful, not knowing much about either. We made our way to the lovely renaissance-style palace only to find it was temporarily CLOSED due to some fragile exhibit! What good is it if no one can see it? I was so sad to waste part of our LAST DAY in Paris commuting to a closed museum. Sigh. We fast forwarded our plans for the rest of the day and head over to Opera to do some real-time fashion exploration ala department stores! We first stopped in Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing store known for high quality casual wear at low prices. Apparently, it only just opened here in Paris last week and it was insane...MOB insane, we moved like cattle into the store. The line-up to pay was wrapped around the edges of the store, with a helpful staffer holding a "line ends here" sign 3 walls away from the cashiers. Thankfully, they see to have adopted Japanese efficiency because the line moved quickly. By the time we left, there was a line-up just to get into the 3 level store.

We made our way over to Au printemps for some last chance shopping. Shopping in Paris really is amazing, always the latest styles and colours in every brand imaginable. Department stores feature uber high end to affordable and fashionable options...love love love. After some thorough browsing of clothes, shoes, bags, and accessories galore, we made our way back to the gourmet gallery at Lafayette across the street. One of our priorities for the day was to pick up some cheap wine and champagne to bring home, and also some more pate for the plane ride. I wish we could just freeze a bunch and take it home, but we'll just have to savour the last of it tomorrow as we fly back over the Atlantic.

We decided for once to try out one of the restaurants recommended in the Eyewitness Guide in the Opera district; but of course, we found it closed. Luckily, the concierge at the hotel it was attached to was very helpful and recommended a lovely french bistro not far away, Auberge St. Roche. It was a cute little restaurant indeed, and hidden down a side street that we never would have found on our own; in the end, we feel blessed that our original plans didn't work out but ended up trying something more local. Most of the restaurants here offer 3 course prix fix, and you choose the options. To start, Tony could not help but have foie gras since it was our last dinner in Paris! I had escargot served with french wild mushrooms in a cream sauce. For mains, I had swordfish, which caused me hesitation at first because it is generally tough, but at the auberge it was good - solid yet tender and seasoned just right. Perhaps the swordfish I have had in the past was just always overcooked. Tony had veal medallions in a light cream sauce, which was also delicious. We were sure one of us had to have veal since there were 3 different options on the menu - had to he a house special, right? We couldn't pass up dessert and had creme brulee and profiteroles. We both agreed they couldn't compare to the dessert we had at Coup d'Etat the first night (pannacotta and tiramisu) or the amazing apple crumble I had last night; but nonetheless, it was enjoyable.

After the late dinner, we made our slow stroll back to the hotel. Again, love how convenient everything is relative to where we are staying and how beautiful the city is to walk at night! I would come back to this location in a heartbeat, walking distance to most of the areas we have been this past week - there's no better way to enjoy the city.

Alas, we have to say au revoir to Paris tomorrow. One last meal, and maybe a last chance at some sort of museum in the morning? Over lunch, we both reflected on how relaxing our week has been - we would wake up and then decided where to go based on weather, walked to different sites and markets, found food as we went, and shopped as we liked. Feels like a life we could enjoy everyday. Europe, maybe you are in our future afterall...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Paris 2009: A View of the Beautiful City

Day 7: Paris is such a beautiful city. Everyday, I marvel at how amazing the architecture is, and how even the oldest buildings have such charm. Over the years, I think Paris has also become more "clean." Today was very sunny so we decided to make our way to the Eiffel Tower.

We walked down to the tower from Trocadero, where the Palais de Chaillot is. That view, if you have not taken it before, is better than anywhere else. By night, many of the photos you see of the tower featuring fountains are those in front of Palais de Chaillot. Like the Louvre, I had forgotten how stunning the tower is. Did you know it was initially built as a temporary structure? I'm not sure what taking it down would have been like, but now, it is stands as the symbol of Paris. Seeing it by night from the top of the Arc was beautiful, and by day, against the blue sky, it was even more magnificent. We took the elevator all the way to the top terrace of the Eiffel Tower and marveled at how BIG and beautiful the city is. It was breathtaking and I am glad we made the day trip - my last time up the tower was just at night. Both are worthwhile! Words and pictures don't capture what it is like to experience the city from the tower.

We found ourselves in St. Germain for dinner with Tony's friend Megan, who has lived inParis for a couple years. She took us to a young, hip place for locals named Cinq-Mars. It was very comfy and social. We started with kirs to drink, blackcurrent with white wine, which I loved - expect it at our Christmas party this year! To start, we had the daily special of mushroom soup, which was served with a large bowl and ladel for sharing, along with a house terrine made with beef, served like a meatloaf for the table to share. It was a very homey experience! For mains, Tony and I had seabass with spinach in cream sauce, and a house pork sausage with mashed potatoes. For dessert, I had an amazing...AMAZING...apple crumble with creme fraiche. It was better than any apple crumble I have ever had, I feel like I always have to have it with creme fraiche from now on. Tony ordered a chocolate mousse, which was literally a giant bowl of chocolate!! Megan had a unique meringue served on cream with almonds. I have developed a new appreciation for French desserts since being here, because they are always delicious but not too sweet at all! They always taste amazing and light without being overwhelmingly sugary, an appropriate end to our meals without being too heavy.

We took a leisurely walk back home, across the river and through the Louvre - beautiful by night, especially without all the crowds! I don't think I can ever get enough of the Louvre. We only have one more full day in Paris tomorrow...so many options. If it's nice maybe we will wander some more neighbourhoods, or if it is cold or raining, maybe we will step into a museum or two after all!

Zurich Side Trip...and Random Thoughts on Travel

Day 5: I love traveling by train - it is convenient, easy and reliable. If the train leaves at 8am, you just have to show up before it leaves; mind you, if you're running late, you would be out of luck, there is no 'delay.' We caught a direct train from Paris to Zurich to visit my aunt and her family, 4 short hours away. Travel in Europe is just so easy, and now that Switzerland has joined the EU, there isn't even a mandatory passport check on the train anymore. I wish we could always just hop on a train and cross countries! I've always just showed up a couple days before and bought a ticket with no issues.

We arrived in Zurich shortly after lunch, with the train emptying along the way in Strasbourg and Basel. Our first stop was an old Spanish tapas restaurant with my aunt for some lunch - some meatballs, seafood, rabbit and best of all, a chicken liver omlette. The egg was sooo fluffy! We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering old Zurich, with some shopping and tea stops along the way. Zurich is an incredibly clean city, not crowded, and the people are polite and multicultural. It is an easy place to travel and live. As a bonus, English is also one of the 4 official languages!

My aunt spoiled us with an amazing home cooked meal: ostrich, ribs falling off the bone, chinese mushrooms and fresh bok choi, and chestnut chicken wings. Who can't use a loving home cooked meal after a week on the road? It was nice to spend the evening catching up with family and just taking it easy. We head back out to Zurich city the next day to do some wandering on our own, mostly in "new" Zurich, including a stop at Jemoli department store for lunch, I had bratwurst while Tony had a falaffel. I adore Zurich and this being my 4th time visiting I could go again and again - doesn't hurt to have family to visit of course. It is always green and beautiful! The one major downside is eating is generally very expensive.

Having another 4 hour trip back to Paris gave me time to reflect on some things we've learned and things that have helped our travels:

1. My aunt, the avid shopper, reflected that "thanks" to globalization, shopping in foreign countries isn't what it used to be. Zara, H&M, Mango...they are everywhere! You really have to look for local shops and boutiques to see and experience local fashion.

2. Department stores are always reliable for washrooms and food, either in the basement floor or on the top floor, and always with many options. This has been almost fail proof for us in both Japan and Paris! Japan's department stores were lined with restaurants while most of the department stores here in Europe have small markets or cafeterias for snack stops.

3. I was reminded in Zurich that Starbucks is always reliable for clean washrooms and AC (yesterday we actually needed heat, but regardless, it is always a good spot to stop and refresh!). Familiarity is a good thing.

4. Out of respect, you should always attempt the language - no one can blame you for trying! While our bad French has often elicited responses in English, many also have done their best to help us understand what they are trying to say in French, and it is all very cordial. We've had nothing but good experiences here and have never felt like strangers or uncomfortable in the city.

5. The closer you are to a tourist hot spot, the worse value the food is, if not poor in taste! Walk a block and you will already have better options!

6. A good old fashioned paper map > GPS.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Paris 2009: The Day We Would Have Lost on the Amazing Race

Day 4: There is a lovely cafe at the foot of our apartment here, and today we decided to try it out. Surprisingly very reasonably priced (2 courses each, wine and a beer cost us 30 euro), and delicious! We sat on the patio to enjoy the sunny dry weather today (finally!). Our new strategy is to randomly pick items we can't identify/translate, because it means it is something we would not normally have. For our lunch, Tony ended up with a sausage in corn bread to start (was really good) and steak as his main (ok, he knew it was beef, but we didn't know how it would be served). Actually, Tony had tried to order something else foreign on the menu but the waitress (and I assume owner) was convinced it would be too foreign and the taste too strong - I assume it had something to do with cheese. I had hareng filets (fish, small and sardine like) done with olive oil to start and a curry sausage with rice as a main - I think it was a ground pork sausage, but to be honest, neither of us could really tell. In any case, all our food was wonderful, delicious and too much for me to finish. We're glad to have this little gem right downstairs!

Since it was a sunny day, we decided to skip the museums and spend the day outside. Our first stop was Notre-Dame. As usual, it was crawling with tourists - to the point that it started to annoyed me. Quite a contrast from Sacre Coeur that did not allow photos and had someone at the door to strictly reinforce "silence" and "no photos." Notre-Dame allows photos but no flash...of course, there was flash going off everywhere. Honestly, is it so hard to turn it off?? There were a number of people who sat in the pews (actually, they are just chairs there) to take in the church...but the altar was crowded with people eagerly taking photos. It took away from the experience for me, but I suppose they are catering to the millions of visitors they get every year. I lit a candle before we left - at least I could have some kind of spiritual experience to take away. We again missed the opportunity to go up the tower, it was closed by the time we went to line up. Neither of us have had the opportunity, it simply is not our destiny to see the view from the top of Notre-Dame!

Next we wandered into Marais, a historic district that I did not have a chance to explore previously. It was once a place of royal residence but lost it's glamour during the revolution. Aimless wandering apparently is not my thing, so we decided to head towards Place des Vosges - a square that is perfectly symmetrical and has been the site of many historic events. It also used to be the site of jousts and tournaments. One of the houses was also home to Victor Hugo, author of the amazing Les miserables. The square, to be honest, was a bit underwhelming, but that may have also been because we took twice as long to get there as we should have - we overshot the square thinking OF COURSE we'd see it, but it's surrounded by buildings, so no, it wasn't as obvious as we thought. I think we were a good 30min away from it before we realized we were well beyond :P It did, however, allow us to explore many streets of Marais, filled with little boutiques. I found the area a bit older but quaint, and although not bustling like other high tourist areas, I wouldn't mind staying in future visits. We did manage to get in another tourist site before leaving the area - site of the Bastille, marked only by the Colonne de Juillet now, commemorating those who died in the famous storming. There is also a modern opera house in the square, Bastille Opera, a glass facade that is in stark contrast to the grandiose and traditional National Opera House. After our wandering, we made our way to Bon Marche to pick up some food for our trip tomorrow and for my aunt - it is like a giant Urban Fare. The metro station only has one door out to the main street...and yet, we walked the WRONG way to the store. sigh. As you can imagine, I was not thrilled. It was 7:30 by the time we made it to the store, and I simply had not a care in the world to shop, so we picked up some macaroons, some champagne and called it a night. I guess we didn't have to go all the way there just for that in the end! I can just imagine what the Amazing Race episode would be like, with the camera panning to the sites JUST next where we were walking each time, or showing the sign that we blatantly missed...and the audience saying "you idiots!" In the end I think I was just tired and ready for my next meal!

We truly love the area we are staying because the abundance of restaurants has allowed us to make our way "home" to have dinner each night. We had a simple dinner tonight but was, of course, no less disappointing. I had garlic soup filled with croutons to start, which hit the spot as I was craving some comfort food, followed by a simple salmon and scallop with fresh pasta. It was exactly what I was looking for, something a little less indulgent. Tony had steak tartare that was also light and delicious. One thing we have noticed is how delicious fries are - they are always GOLDEN and fresh. Fries are not really just the easy side we get in North America and actually enjoyable!

Tomorrow, we make our way to Zurich! So excited to see family and have a fabulous home cooked meal.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Paris 2009: Living the Parisian Life - Wine Festival and Shopping at Galeries Lafayette

Day 2: We thought we could beat the jet lag by powering through our first day and staying up late; but alas, we didn't get a move on for day 2 until lunch time....not much different from our weekends at home :P For lunch, we stopped by a nearby patisserie - I had a croissant with ham and cheese, and Tony had some other savoury pastry with ham and cheese. We had our mini lunch at the Louvre in front of the pyramids, surrounded by happy tourists taking pictures. Sigh. If life could be so simple everyday!

After lunch, we went to check out a modern furniture show near canal Saint-Martin. It was more like a flea market, tents lined up along the canal with a mix of new and used modern furniture pieces for sale - likely a very good buy for someone local. We saw many versions of my coveted Eames chair - we need something like this in Toronto, a market of modern furniture knock-offs! We hung out around the canal for a bit as it was a beautiful day, and stumbled upon the hostel Tony once stayed. Next we made our way to Montmartre. Our goal was to visit Sacre Coeur, since Tony had not been inside, but we stumbled upon a giant wine and food festival! Highlights include a human pyramid, we had made it to the top of some long stairs just in time to see them pile up! I also received alot of attention for my sandwich foie gras - while eating it, people kept asking me where I got it, or mumbled some words and shook their heads at me...not really sure what was going on, but I LOVED my sandwich! For 7 euros, I even got a nice little glass of wine! yum. Had we been able to move through the tents, we may have tasted more meats, cheeses, and wines, but there were simply too many people, we were lucky to make it from one end to the other and get anything at all along the way! We sat on the steps of Sacre Coeur to enjoy our sandwich and then made our way into the church. Sacre Coeur is a stunning byzantine cathedral, we spent some quiet time inside taking it all in before heading out to face the crowds again.

It was a clear night in Paris so we made our way over to the Arc de Triomphe. We got our tickets and enthusiastically hopped through the doors marked "entrance." I had forgotten that the way up is JUST stairs. In fact, I think most people are unprepaired for the stairs until they excitedly run out of breath just half way up! Luckily, someone brilliantly installed a line of benches to greet you as you enter the museum/exhibit at the top, a must stop for everyone! Five years sure has aged me because I remember bouncing up all the domes, churches and towers while backpacking with ease and this, I found myself a bit tired! Regardless, the Arc is worth the climb, particularly at night, because you get to see the 12 roads leading into the arch. While up top, we caught the sparkling lights of the Eiffel tower (happens on the hour) and the fireworks show from the wine festival on Montmartre as well! It was a nice way to end the night, how can you beat that view?

Day 3: Today was more leisurely. We had a delicious lunch near the aparment - poached salmon for Tony and a truffle omlette for me, and then picked up our tickets to Zurich at the train station (going on Tuesday!). It's been rainy most days so we decided to take it easy and made our way to do some department store damage at Galeries Lafayette. An interesting tidbit: did you know when Coco Chanel first came to Paris, she had purchased the straw hats she needed for her designs in this very store? Check out a tour of Chanel's haunts: http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/la-vie-en-chanel/1/?comments_page=1. The historic building faces the back of the Opera House and is stunning, with floors and floors of merchandise, and separate buildings for men and housewares. The place was an absolute zoo, but we navigated through, and also made our way to the gourmet market for some pate and cheese to bring home for the night. We also got a nice bottle of white wine for 6 euros! I can hardly believe we spent most of our day at Lafayette and didn't even make it to Au printemps as planned! We are hoping to go to Bon Marche before we leave, as I've heard there are some good deals in the food market. Guess we'll save that for another rainy day. Tomorrow, maybe we will tackle a museum or two...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Paris 2009: We Have Arrived!

Until we arrived in Paris this morning, I could still hardly believe we were REALLY coming....and here we are, in a lovely apartment in the Tuileries Quarter near the Louvre. Taking the red eye over-seas is always our preference since we both have no issues falling asleep on the plane. Two movies and a nap later, we were landing at CDG! We wasted no time of course wandering the city.

Day 1:
One of the things I love about Europe is that you can always find your way via public transportation. Taking the RER into city center from the airport has 0 difficulty. Our apartment is as good as we had anticipated - clean, convenient and comfy. I spotted the first restaurant we would end up trying for a late lunch as we made our way from the train station to our apartment, duck confit was on the menu! We also had an assorted platter of cheeses and meats. yum! I have a feeling we're going to be eating alot of duck and alot of cheese while we're here!

We decided to have an easy day wandering Tuileries and on to Champs Elysee. Our first stop was the Louvre - truly breathtaking and I had almost forgotten how beautiful the architecture is. We walked through the Tuileries Garden towards Arc de Triomphe, passing Place de Concorde, sight of the guillotine from the French Revolution, and Palais Royale, another beautiful building. Along the way, we stumbled upon an exhibit of French Vogue covers through the years - it was amazing and such a nice surprise! I never knew how many times Linda Evangelista (Canadian!) had been featured!

Champs Elysee is like no other shopping district in the world. From the LV flagship, to primo car dealerships (do people ever buy cars there?), and cafes galore. We stopped in the Adidas store and discovered Mi - you can customize your own shoes!! The store also featured all their feature collections like Stella McCartney, Y3, and SLVR. Even a plain old Adidas store is not so plain! And speaking of the LV flagship, we were approached twice by questionable Asians looking for someone to buy a bag for them. Has it happened to you? They offer you CASH to buy a bag for them because the store limits # of bags per passport to help fight counterfeits (so I've been told). Clearly sketch, but it makes me wonder, what if I happened to be tremendously wealthy and wanted to buy 3 or 4 LV bags? In any case, an interesting operation. If there are 4 people asking on the street, I wonder how many "hits" they get in a day, or in a week, and how many and what bags do they need?

After a quick photo op of the Arc de Triomphe, we decided to make our way back to the apartment for a rest before dinner. On the way back, we veered to the original Chanel store at 31 rue cambon in honour of all the Chanel movies we have seen lately! Actually, we stopped in 3 along the way before we actually found the "right" address. We also stopped in Hermes...and it was INSANELY busy, 2, 3 deep at the scarf counter. I guess when in Paris, you can buy any design you have ever wanted but could not find!

After being in drenched in rain, we decided to stay close to home for dinner. Lucky for us, there were options galore even at 10:30pm after our short rest turned into a 2 hour nap :P Who knew walking all that way would be so tiring right? I guess I don't normally walk 10km a day. We had a wonderful meal at Cafe Coup d'Etat: duck carpaccio to start served with arugula and mozzarella, rosemary lambchops (came with 3!), and prawn risotto with cream anise. My risotto was one of the best I haev ever had, I can still taste the wonderful sauce and delicious prawns it was served with. Normally, prawn/shrimp dishes has little taste, so I was worried, but how silly that was! We couldn't pass up dessert: I had mango panacotta, probably the best I have ever had - not too sweet, with a firm yet silky finish topped with mango and surrounded by coulis; Tony had a strawberry tiramisu, which was also not too sweet, served in a cup and incredibly fluffy. This is what we were looking forward to in Paris - lovely food where-ever we end up. And of course, cheap wine. Our glass of wine at dinner cost less than our bottle of coke at lunch - it's wine from here on in!

Not bad for day 1. We have no idea what we are doing day to day, but am sure it will be filled with more delicious food and wandering through various neighbourhoods.

PS. Stella I had a pain au chocolat from Paul for you today!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Paris 2009: Prepping for Travel

In 2 weeks time, Tony and I managed to narrow down our many options for a holiday that had no destination and find ourselves 3 days from hopping on a plane to Paris. Life could be worse, right? This is by far the fastest holiday I've booked (Japan last year was booked 8 months in advance!). So what have our last couple weeks been like?

Destination: We had no destination in mind, which can open the door to many deals and options, but also made it incredibly hard to research - East, West, Sun, Adventure....the options were endless. With only a week, we did not want to be flying too far (Japan and Maui were out), and did not want to be in North America (we can do that on any given long weekend), and did not want to spend more than $1500 each on flight and hotels, since all-inclusives are a dime a dozen at under $1000. We toyed with the idea of several European locations - some we had been, some we had not; in the end, it came down to a balance of cost and practicality. Although I have seen most of the major sites in Paris, I really only spent 4 days in the city of love while backpacking and have been keen to spend more time just enjoying the city, culture and food (you can't eat very well on a student budget!). I was also looking for a low key holiday, but also with things to see and do - Paris was perfect, since we have both been before, eliminating the need to strategically plan out our days and ensure we don't "miss anything," but the city is also so diverse and amazing that there is plenty for us to do. Ultimately, understanding your budget and "objectives" is important in narrowing down options and ensuring the best location for a holiday!

Tips for last minute deals: subscribe to travelzoo, travel alerts and the like if you are flexible in dates and location; expedia still boasts some of the best hotel and flight deals around; we love kayak.com for flight tracking and comparisons.

Where to stay: my last trip in Paris was with a backpack and in a hostel. The key, I recall, was to be close to a metrostation. We obsessively looked up hotel and flight deals on expedia, keeping in mind that hotel standards in Europe are not the same as North American standards. Clean is all I ask for! Our go-to site, of course, is tripadvisor.com, which I sometimes feel is more hindering than helpful. Aggregate reviews and real-life photos are key to the review, but the divergence in opinions ranking accomodations from 5* to 1* can be stressful to navigate. Tony sticks to the worst reviews while I like to read the most recent. My only rule is if any review includes bed bugs - OUT. We have also tapped into our many well travelled friends for tips and ideas. Our friends Stella and Jon found a nice apartment to stay in Paris, an idea that appealed to us as well (although we are not expecting to use the kitchen much). And further, our friend Marissa recommended a great vacation rental site: www.vrbo.com. We had NO IDEA what a big industry vacation apartments were, and were immediately excited to find lovely apartments at reasonable costs in great locations. In the end, we landed a great apartment a stone's throw away from the Louvre for less than a 3* hotel would cost us in the same area. Anyone want to join us at our 2 bedroom apartment next week??

What to do: I used to consider myself an avid researcher, but ultimately, I am lazy and prefer to just show up and decide. In far off places, as long as I am safe, everyday is an adventure, planned or unplanned. But my favourite guidebooks are Eyewitness Travel. I love the inset pictures and short explanations, along with maps (street and subway) and suggestions galore. I usually ignore the restaurant and accomodation recommendations since they can fast become outdated, but love the area reviews with highlights not to be missed. I consider it the one-stop book and can thank my friend Jen for introducing them to me when we were backpacking. I delved into my book this past weekend, looking this time more for local markets and shops than must-see attractions. Reading the book gave me a great overview of the city and excited to cross the Ocean this week! lonleyplanet.com is another great site I have used in the past for sample itineraries and ideas of things to do. For food, we have often relied on chowhound.com for local recommendations; but in Paris, we will be happy to eat where-ever we end up :)

Logistics: Tony has become a google maps expert in all our vacation planning. You can quickly find the proximity of hotels/hostels to public tranportation by layering on multiple maps, and of course, google earth can show you exactly what the areas look like. Seeing it all laid out is a good way to get oriented.

With 3 days to go, Tony is populating our "map" with places we want to visit while I go the old fashioned way and tab my travel book and highlight key subway stops. After all our research and thanks to the tips of friends, we feel great about the plans we have made so far, and are looking forward to a nice, relaxing holiday in Paris. Vive la france!

PS. with free wifi in our apartment, stay tuned for holiday updates. what food can be better than in Paris??In 2 weeks time, Tony and I managed to narrow down our many options for a holiday that had no destination and find ourselves 3 days from hopping on a plane to Paris. Life could be worse, right? This is by far the fastest holiday I've booked (Japan last year was booked 8 months in advance!). So what have our last couple weeks been like?

Destination: We had no destination in mind, which can open the door to many deals and options, but also made it incredibly hard to research - East, West, Sun, Adventure....the options were endless. With only a week, we did not want to be flying too far (Japan and Maui were out), and did not want to be in North America (we can do that on any given long weekend), and did not want to spend more than $1500 each on flight and hotels, since all-inclusives are a dime a dozen at under $1000. We toyed with the idea of several European locations - some we had been, some we had not; in the end, it came down to a balance of cost and practicality. Although I have seen most of the major sites in Paris, I really only spent 4 days in the city of love while backpacking and have been keen to spend more time just enjoying the city, culture and food (you can't eat very well on a student budget!). I was also looking for a low key holiday, but also with things to see and do - Paris was perfect, since we have both been before, eliminating the need to strategically plan out our days and ensure we don't "miss anything," but the city is also so diverse and amazing that there is plenty for us to do. Ultimately, understanding your budget and "objectives" is important in narrowing down options and ensuring the best location for a holiday!

Tips for last minute deals: subscribe to travelzoo, travel alerts and the like if you are flexible in dates and location; expedia still boasts some of the best hotel and flight deals around; we love kayak.com for flight tracking and comparisons.

Where to stay: my last trip in Paris was with a backpack and in a hostel. The key, I recall, was to be close to a metrostation. We obsessively looked up hotel and flight deals on expedia, keeping in mind that hotel standards in Europe are not the same as North American standards. Clean is all I ask for! Our go-to site, of course, is tripadvisor.com, which I sometimes feel is more hindering than helpful. Aggregate reviews and real-life photos are key to the review, but the divergence in opinions ranking accomodations from 5* to 1* can be stressful to navigate. Tony sticks to the worst reviews while I like to read the most recent. My only rule is if any review includes bed bugs - OUT. We have also tapped into our many well travelled friends for tips and ideas. Our friends Stella and Jon found a nice apartment to stay in Paris, an idea that appealed to us as well (although we are not expecting to use the kitchen much). And further, our friend Marissa recommended a great vacation rental site: www.vrbo.com. We had NO IDEA what a big industry vacation apartments were, and were immediately excited to find lovely apartments at reasonable costs in great locations. In the end, we landed a great apartment a stone's throw away from the Louvre for less than a 3* hotel would cost us in the same area. Anyone want to join us at our 2 bedroom apartment next week??

What to do: I used to consider myself an avid researcher, but ultimately, I am lazy and prefer to just show up and decide. In far off places, as long as I am safe, everyday is an adventure, planned or unplanned. But my favourite guidebooks are Eyewitness Travel. I love the inset pictures and short explanations, along with maps (street and subway) and suggestions galore. I usually ignore the restaurant and accomodation recommendations since they can fast become outdated, but love the area reviews with highlights not to be missed. I consider it the one-stop book and can thank my friend Jen for introducing them to me when we were backpacking. I delved into my book this past weekend, looking this time more for local markets and shops than must-see attractions. Reading the book gave me a great overview of the city and excited to cross the Ocean this week! lonleyplanet.com is another great site I have used in the past for sample itineraries and ideas of things to do. For food, we have often relied on chowhound.com for local recommendations; but in Paris, we will be happy to eat where-ever we end up :)

Logistics: Tony has become a google maps expert in all our vacation planning. You can quickly find the proximity of hotels/hostels to public tranportation by layering on multiple maps, and of course, google earth can show you exactly what the areas look like. Seeing it all laid out is a good way to get oriented.

With 3 days to go, Tony is populating our "map" with places we want to visit while I go the old fashioned way and tab my travel book and highlight key subway stops. After all our research and thanks to the tips of friends, we feel great about the plans we have made so far, and are looking forward to a nice, relaxing holiday in Paris. Vive la france!

PS. with free wifi in our apartment, stay tuned for holiday updates. what food can be better than in Paris??

Monday, September 28, 2009

Celebrating an Indian Wedding at Taj Mahal Calgary

We had the pleasure of attending a wonderful East Indian wedding of our friends Paul and Aman last weekend. It was our second experience of the traditional ceremony at temple and of course, the amazing food. We're not well versed in all the do's and don'ts, but the celebration is always colourful and spirited, and we certainly appreciate how friendly and welcoming everyone is. We had to cover our heads and remove our shoes as we entered the temple, and men and women were seated separately. This particular temple in NE Calgary also had projectors translating the entire ceremony, allowing us to understand the blessings and prayers by the gurus. Ceremonies at the temple included a snack in the morning - delicious mixed pakora and veggie samosas and a buffet lunch...yum!

We were invited to join a smaller group for dinner at the Taj Mahal in Calgary. The restaurant has been around for 38 years, and I only recall driving past the giant Taj Mahal facade on the front and never thought to try it - always seemed so cheeseball! I still can't tell you much about what the restaurant looks like inside because the reception was held in a small event space on the third floor...but I can tell you that the food was absolutely wonderful!

Snacks:
Fish pakora with hot mint jelly - I think I could have hot mint jelly with everything and I just love fish pakora.
Crisps with chick pea salsa, yogurt and tamarind sauce - a unique snack that I had not had before, thankfully there was someone to show me the way. The crisps reminded me of the crisps we put in our congee :P

Main:
Saffron rice/naan
Goat curry - this was my first time having goat curry and my favourite dish of the night.
Chicken makhni (butter chicken) - if you have never had butter chicken you are missing out on one of my all time favourite dishes, it is boneless chicken simmered in a rich butter/tomato sauce.
Gulnar paneer (Indian cheese) - was delicious and served with yet another flavourful sauce.

Although our gracious hosts tried to appeal to everyone by offering both an Indian buffet and a "North American" one that boasted roast beef and vegetables, it was of course the Indian buffet that was lined up and enjoyed by all. Tony and I were stuffed and found it hard to prevent ourselves from refilling again and again because we could simply fit no more of the delicious food in our stomach.
Indian weddings are a wonderful experience - a unique celebration embraced by the entire family, young and old, and celebrated through food, music and dance. We were happy to be a part of our friend's wedding and have the opportunity to indulge in such amazing food.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Seafood Galore at Adega Portugese Restaurant

One of the greatest things about living in Toronto is the variety of ethnic food. From Little Italy, Greek Town to Korea Town, there are plenty of authentic coves of food to be found. We have driven through Little Portugal many times but bewildered by the number of restaurants, never made the stop to indulge. On a whim, I looked up Portuguese food in the city tonight, and was surprised to find that there was a restaurant just off Yonge on Elm Street that seemed promising.

There is a cute row of restaurants on Elm Street, including the famous Barbarian's steak house, mostly targeted to tourists. We must have walked by Adega many times and never noticed that it served Portuguese cuisine. As a seafood lover, the menu was heaven! We started with a seafood bisque that perfectly hit the spot and an octopus carpaccio served with mild chili sauce. I was more interested in our neighbour's amazing looking squid appetizer...next time I suppose! For mains, we had a seafood saffron risotto, which was surprisingly light for a pasta. I was expecting a bit more flavour, but found it delicious nonetheless. I was pleasantly surprised by the Cataplana Fish Stew, a rich spicy tomato broth with a generous amount of fish, shell fish and other seafood and vegetables served in a brass pot. Yum! Although stuffed, I found some room for dessert, a unique lychee creme brulee with mango sorbet - the lychee was understated complimented by the flavourful mango sorbet.

Adega doesn't compare to some of our best Portuguese food experiences in other cities, but was sufficient to satisfy my craving for flavourful seafood. I think we still need to make our way to Little Portugal, but in the meantime, am happy to have something close to home. There are definitely some other items on the menu I'd like to try, and the specials, including lobster, tenderloin and grouper, were all tempting as well - overall, a solid restaurant, and a worthwhile try for something a little different.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Good Pub Food: Three Brewers

The Three Brewers opened several months ago near Dundas Square and we didn't have a chance to check it out until this weekend. Our friends Denis and Abby has recommended it as a good place originating from Quebec. Actually, Denis had referred to it in French, les 3 brasseurs, and I "heard" 3 brothers....as a result, for months, I have been telling people to go try "Three Brothers."

Regardless, we went with friends visiting from the West this weekend, hoping to catch-up over some good food and watch tennis. The good part is that the food was excellent and the place is much bigger than it looks (4 floors) so we had no trouble getting a table. The bad part is that they were unable to change selected tv's to tennis - not sure why watching a random screen saver was better than the US open at a PUB....but whatever.

Tony had a tasting of 4 beers, which seemed to be pretty popular. I had the blonde ale, which was perfect for a hot summer day. Food, as I mentioned, was delicious. I had the house special, a beer braised pork shank, served with sauerkraut (surprisingly yummy!) and a large baked potato...more than enough food for me and was seriously satisfying. Tony had a flam, think pizza on a super thin crust - almost pita like. We were also happy the poutine had good cheese curds. We're happy to have tried this great casual and inexpensive dining spot so close to home - the menu has a wide variety of options and comes quick! The vibe is good - nicer than a typical pub, but casual enough to stop by on any given night. The front windows also open like garage doors so you have the option of enjoying patio- like weather right on Yonge. If you're ever in the core and want something quick, casual, yet GOOD....Three Brewers is a good choice.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sushi in the Prairies at Zipang

Sushi Bar Zipang is one of few good Japanese restaurants in Calgary, a place we frequented when we still lived in the city. It's located just off Edmonton trail in up and coming Bridgeland neighbourhood. It offers a good mix of small cooked dishes and sushi/sashimi. Some of our favourites in addition to their fresh sashimi include gyu tataki (beef), cold soba with seaweed, miso paste on grilled eggplant, and salmon belly. The special menu often has exotic items worth trying. Last night, we went to celebrate my friend's birthday - lucky we had a reservation as it was packed, no surprise for a Friday night! We tried the squid with spicy cod roe for the first time, and the red tuna sashimi with quail egg. The squid was crisp and fresh, the tuna was a bit bland. Zipang also offers one of my favourite drinks, Calpico! I literally drank litres of it while we were in Japan, so I am always happy to have it whenever we indulge in good sushi.

Zipang is a worthwhile experience with good cooked dishes and traditional fresh fish. They offer an assortment for the adventurous or conservative, and some good value set meals as well. If you are in Calgary and crave good Japanese food, I think Zipang is a good bet.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Gastronomic Heaven at Colborne Lane

We've had many amazing food experiences in Toronto, from affordable cultural fare to phenomenal fine dining. One of our favourite places to splurge is Colborne Lane; in fact, it's not nearly as expensive as say Susur or Rain ever was, but the food is truly outstanding. We had decided to stop in last year after reading about it in Toronto Life's best new restaurant list, an excellent source for foodies for any of you who don't follow/subscribe but live in the city!

Colborne Street itself is a quaint location, almost secretly tucked near King and Church, a cute brick strip with oldish charm. On one of our first visits, we saw a wedding party doing photos outside - I can definitely see the attraction. We've had nothing but great service at Colborne Lane, and luckily, we've also walked in and taken a seat at the bar before - does not take away from the amazing food experience at all. On a previous visit with my friend Surina, we were spoiled with delicious food, drinks and even some complementary ice wine as we waited for our dessert (apparently it was a slightly long wait, but our dessert actually arrived as the wine did). Tony says it's a benefit reserved for ladies dining out - whatever the case, I appreciated the effort!

All the food at Colborne Lane is complemented with clean and simple sauces/drizzles - while these are typically visual embellishments, sauces here are a critical part of the meal. We would try to maximize the different accompaniments on each small morsel of food. We had 4 tapas to start, with our favourites being a delicious scallop with a selection of light sweet sauces and fruit that I can't name but can still taste in my mouth. We also tried the prawn ceviche, much better than we expected and accompanied by dabs of butternut squash/roasted red pepper/black squid ink sauce.

For mains, we had miso glazed black cod with sesame panna cotta. On the weekend, I had not-so-eloquently described to Amber that panna cotta was "a white custard-like thing"....not quite right and doesn't do it justice; but truly, I have had different iterations of panna cotta at different restaurants so I really couldn't say for sure how it would be served! The point here is that the sesame panna cotta was delicious - and the best I have had - uniquely served as a part of the main course! It sort of looked like tofu, but a fairly firm texture, and not overpowering in taste, and of course very complementary to the black cod. The lamb loin was no less amazing, exceptionally tender and served with quinoa. We were ecstatic about our all our savoury dishes so far, but more was to come!

The highlight of the night was dessert: warm doughnut + nitro creme fraiche + pineapple. The experience started with the manager bringing a giant mixing bowl table-side flowing with liquid nitrogen (really!) . Next, he mixed in fresh made cream with no preservatives or even eggs and other blenders. We couldn't see what was going on IN the bowl, but as the liquid nitrogen evaporated we eventually saw the cream start to turn into ice cream, looked something like cookie dough. He invited us to dig our spoons in - it was SOO AMAZING! I'm not even one to typically like whipped cream, cookie dough etc, but THIS...heavenly! It was light and fresh, truly a taste like no other. The dessert is delicate and time sensitive - a warm doughnut (think fluffy fried sugar doughnut ball) was the main served with the ice cream, which quickly started to melt as it cools to room temperature. Not to worry, we didn't waste anytime inhaling the doughnut and the cream! This was a splurge worth every penny!

Colborne Lane is on both our top 3 lists in Toronto. Tonight we were out on a mini celebration, so I couldn't have been happier to make a visit. Looking back at the pictures, I wish the restaurant had more light so I could have fully appreciated how beautiful the food was!