Sunday, December 26, 2010

Chiang Mai: Wonderful Food, Markets and an Elephant Camp Visit

We made our way to Chiang Mai on Christmas Eve, and it was the perfect city to spend Christmas - a small, quaint city, we felt comfortable as soon as we arrived. As they say, "location is everything," and our hotel, Le Meridien, had the perfect location right by the popular night bazaar. Our days in Chiang Mai started great, with our dinner the first night at Just Khao Soy. Khao Soy is a northern noodle dish, noodles in a rich curry-like soup base with coconut milk. Several sites we had read recommended this restaurant, including the Nancy Chandler map, known to provide some unique local details. We found this homey restaurant not far from our hotel, and were welcomed into the air conditioned room for our dinner. Imagine sitting at a fancy noodle bar - that's what our experience was like. The restaurant is a full experience and education on khao soy, a must visit for anyone in Chiang Mai. Our menus were a guide to what and how to order: what kind of broth, thick or round noodles, and toppings etc. It's even vegetarian and allergy friendly! I chose chicken with bone broth while Tony had seafood. The meal that came was comprehensive and exciting, accompanied by assorted side dishes that small, street stalls also serve, but here, I had the benefit of a great placemat educating me what each item was for. Our side dishes included bananas to help sooth the mouth of spicy flavours, coconut milk to make the soup more mild as needed, pickled vegetables, onions, sugar, lime, fish sauce and more. It was a great learning experience to eat at Just Khao Soy, I think I could have eaten there everyday! We also had mango sticky rice for dessert, and unique assorted ice cream (basil, coconut and amaretto). A great first meal really set the tone for our trip!

We spent Christmas Day at an elephant camp north of the city.
We saw an elephant show that demonstrated how smart the animals are (playing soccer looked kind of fun!). We also had a very "chill" bamboo raft ride through the valley and an elephant ride on a trail through the mountains. It was nice to spend the day outside and in the beautiful valley. We probably could have done probably without raft ride or the elephant ride all together because the highlight was just playing with the elephants before the show - they were playful, gentle and kind. We were careful about choosing the elephant camp initially, some are better than others in how they treat the animals; but ultimately, they are still animals in captivity. If we had to choose again, we would go to the elephant sanctuary instead where they rehabilitate elephants because we really enjoyed just feeding and playing with then. Nonetheless, I think we developed a greater appreciation for elephants by going.

After returning to the city, we had a fabulous Christmas dinner at Sila Aat, a great restaurant in the Kalare Night Bazaar a stone's throw from our hotel. The open restaurant is known for its seafood, so we took our server's recommendation on the fresh catch of the day, red snapper (steamed with lemon and chili...it was AMAZING!). I also had shrimp khao soy and Tony had an order of seafood with flat noodles. I can't recall if I had mentioned it before, but we discovered that squid tastes incredible in Thailand, and we tried to have it as much as we could. And of course, we had to finish with some mango sticky rice - here I think we had the biggest mango to sticky rice serving so far!

On our last day in Chiang Mai, we decided we should visit the Doi Suthep Temple on the mountain overlooking the city. The spot for the temple was chosen many years ago, apparently by sending an elephant (believed to be holy) up the mountain and the site was chosen where-ever the elephant stopped. Honestly, after going to Angkor Wat and seeing the fantastic temples in Bangkok, we didn't expect to be overwhelmed by this temple, but what we did experience was Sunday worship. It was fun to experience the lively and festive crowds. After visiting the temple in the morning, we went to an afternoon cooking class at Smart Cook. Chiang Mai is known for its many cooking classes and schools - the one I had originally read up on at the Four Seasons was ridiculously expensive but we wanted to have th experience anyhow. Smart Cook was a good choice for us, it is a quaint teak house with a garden kitchen (we each had our own cooking station) and prep area - perfect for a small group. We started with a market tour, and because Tony and I were starving, the lovely owner stopped to pick up some fresh pork and red bean buns for us. These were seriously some of the best buns I have ever had! The market was an essential part of the cooking class, our teacher told us about the different vegetables that make up the lovely fragrant flavours of Thai food (and finally we learned what some of the mysterious vegetables we had seen in our food!). Did you know there are some 6 or 7 types of eggplant? And the only one they DO NOT cook with are the ones we have in North America! I think a cooking class without the market tour would be a real miss. The class was intimate and lovely, we each got to choose 4 dishes to make. I made tom ka gai soup, pad thai, green curry (from scratch!) and mango sticky rice. Tony made shrimp tom yum soup, cashew chicken, red curry and spring rolls. The class gave us an even deeper appreciation for Thai cooking - it is always made to individual servings with fresh ingredients. We ate what we made, and it was delicious (whew!). It was kind of fool proof to be honest! There are also full-day classes available but the half day was already a full experience for me.

We had our last meal in Chiang Mai at Huen Phen,
a restaurant in an old northern Thai house decorated with an abundance of cultural artifacts. We had Burmese spicy pork, which was quite good but was kind of like spicy bolognaise. We also had banana flower and pork rib soup - which was spicy although it did not look it. It reminded me of clear Chinese pork bone soup with some spiciness from Thai vegetables. Although spicy I couldn't get enough! We also had a unique papaya salad with local salty crab - it was a very different mix of flavours, salty, sweet and sour at the same time. Finally, we finished with a young coconut sorbet and Chinese grass jelly - both perfectly refreshing for the end of a hot day. On a side note, the funny thing about all the spicy food is that because it is made fresh, our stomachs never got upset - it is all very "clean" flavours!

We really loved our short stay in Chiang Mai and would happily go back again. The night bazaar was fantastic itself - everything was cheaper AND nicer than other markets we had been (Chiang Mai is an artisan center!), and we also braved the Saturday and Sunday markets with the locals, which seemed to go on forever and were PACKED. We thought we'd be "done" with markets, but each are different in some way and have a different feel and character to them. The markets of Chiang Mai had great finds for half of what you'd find even at the night bazaar, and good food! We picked up some great items like bamboo placemats and silk pillow cases for a mere fraction of what we'd have to pay here in Canada....all well made and beautiful. Chiang Mai is definitely worth a visit if you are going to Thailand - we have no regrets skipping the beaches of the south and making our way North to this lovely city instead!

Bangkok: Highlights in Eating

We did not get to eat around Bangkok as much as we would have liked, using the city to fly in and out of other destinations meant we were often rushed or too tired to be super adventurous; but nonetheless, we did have a couple great meals found with minimal effort and here are the highlights:

One of our first nights in town, we decided to check out a Chinese seafood restaurant nearby our hotel, Lebua. Somboon was probably a hidden gem at some point, but is now very tourist friendly....not that it's a terrible thing, but good in a different way. We were welcomed into a bright, clean restaurant with an extensive seafood menu (with bright colourful pictures!). Everything looked so good we didn't know where to start! Of course, we had to have the well-known curry crab (regular followers will recall our love for curry crab at Saigon Star in Toronto). This curry crab was prepared a bit different - less heart-stopping rich, but still very delicious. The crab came cracked, and the curry chilis were mixed with egg that toned down the "hotness". The fresh chilis used also tasted wonderful, without the awful mouth burning we sometimes experience from chili oils. We also had steamed sea bass and a small plate of grilled squid...yes, we were on our way to a trip of very high cholesterol! The food was very affordable and we wanted to eat it all!

Best value: $4 meal at food stall outside Tha Chang pier. The seafood fried rice with shrimp paste and egg is still one of the best dishes Tony had on this trip, and I loved my bowl of fish maw noodle soup. I regret not having another bowl!

Best "sit down" meal: Taling Pling - the most delicious spicy soft shell crab and butterflied fried sea bass with fish sauce. Although I initially wanted to stay away from fried food, I could have eaten the whole plate of spicy soft shell crab by myself, every bite was crispy and tasty. We couldn't possibly go a meal without curry, so we had red curry with duck breast, which was very tender albeit a tad spicy for me. While it's tucked on a quiet street by night, the area is completely safe and Taling Pling is definitely worth checking out, great food in a comfy restaurant at of course, very reasonable prices!

Best Tom Ka Gai soup (coconut chicken): food stall at Soi Pradit Market. This street lined with food stalls was a short walk from our hotel so it was one of our early stops for a meal. We stopped in for lunch the second day we were in Bangkok, and just randomly stopped in one of the many lining the street. We had a delicious bowl of coconut chicken soup, full of incredible fresh flavours - lemon grass, cilantro, bay leaves, ginger peppers and more (I can't name it all!). The flavours all blended beautifully and tasted great! That was one of the most amazing things about eating at food stalls - the food is all made to order, made fresh, and has a wonderful complexity of hot, sweet and sour purely from the fresh vegetables used. This was one of the first instances we really appreciated Thai cuisine and its true complexity.

We really learn about Thai cuisine and what makes up the fragrant flavours when we take a cooking class in Chiang Mai...but more on that later!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Siem Reap: Food, Shops and a Visit to the Spa

note: updated 12/26/10 with pictures!

Our sole focus in Siem Reap was really to see Angkor Wat, as with most visitors, but we were lucky to cram our planned destinations in our first 36 hours, which left us plenty of time just to wander the town. Here are some of the highlights:

First the food: When we first arrived, we ate at a nice, comfy restaurant called Champey. It offered traditional Khmer fare, but was a bit pricey vs "local" menus (the far simpler restaurant across the street offered meals for $1USD while our meal came to over $20). We had Siem Reap sour soup, amok (local coconut curry flavour) with fish, and bar fish with vermicelli in a clay pot, which had a lovely onion sweet both. It really hit the spot as we were starving from landing after lunch. The restaurant, like many in town, offers AC upstairs, but we were happily cool sitting downstairs in the open restaurant. Champey was also our first realization that Siem Reap operates in USD - there was no need to change money!

Our 2nd day in the city was our visit to Angkor, which started at 5AM. We had a breakfast stop after the sunrise back in town at a Chinese-Cambodian restaurant called Thida Spean Neak. We were happy to wolf down a delicious hot breakfast: I had Chinese noodle soup with shrimp (which ironically, boasted the flavour of "Cambodian noodles" I have often had at pho restaurants in Calgary). The noodles were some of the best I've had - in addition to the great soup flavour I love, the egg noodles were freshly made...I suppose that is a great side benefit of eating food where ingredients are made fresh everyday because preservatives/freezers are not so common. Tony had a local dish, loc lac, which consisted of beef cubes marinated with a black pepper gravy, served with rice and a fried egg. We made a second trip back to this place on our way out of Siem Reap (around the corner from our hotel) and although I had different noodles, they were still incredibly fresh and the broth very tasty. This was definitely an unexpected, yet simple, highlight the city!

Our day of hanging out in town started with lunch at Red Piano on Pub Street (or Bar Street) in town. This entire lane is filled with restuarants targetted at tourists - there is almost always AC upstairs, and always an English menu (with some propped up prices as well). We chose the Red Piano because I was sold by the Tomb Raider drink on the menu, created in honour Angelina Jolie who visited while filming. Although I did not end up having the drink, the restaurant was good - I had crab fried rice which was hot and tasty. It never ceases to amaze me that food that sounds so unhealthy comes rather light on oil vs what we usually get in North America.

After lunch, we wandered up and down the few lanes of Siem Reap. A great discovery were the cute boutiques in The Alley, one street over from Pub Street. The lane is quiet and lined with many individual and unique shops, not just tourist trinkets and souvenirs. I will warn you that these unique designer items also came with Western prices. Two of my favourites were the cheeky store Poetry and jewlery from Garden of Delight. It was great just to wander in and out of the local designer shops, a nice escape from the heat and the hustle of the rest of town.

As in any hot city (can't believe it's winter here!), a couple hours of wandering around meant we needed a pit stop to cool off and re-energize. We decided to stop in the popular Blue Pumpkin, which has a cute bakery downstairs and a "cooling" lounge with a fusion menu upstairs. We were happy to plop down along the white couches and let our bodies rest. We also had a taste from the menu, an Amok Fish Ravioli, which I LOVED! I don't know if I was just really hungry, or the fusion was a welcome change, but I basically inhaled the delicious dish and would be happy to return for a taste again. Yums! Plus, Blue Pumpkin boasts free wifi, a great bonus!

Speaking of wifi, the first night we were in town, we ended up hanging out at Island Bar found in the night market. We were exhausted from walking around and just wanted a couple beers...but also found free wifi while hanging out on our daybeds lined with mats. Who needs to pay $15 a day for internet at the hotel when I can hang out over a couple beers with internet for $5?? It was amazing, and chilling out at Island Bar will be one of those "small" treasured moments from our trip.

Back to our day in the city - our day did not end at Blue Pumpkin. We had plans to hit a dinner show to see Cambodian dance, but had an hour to kill...no better way than to visit the spa! We hopped next door to the Bodia Spa, which was a GREAT choice. The spa was beautiful, with excellent service. It's a little pricier than some smaller and simpler massage places around town, but our couples massage was still only about $20 each, so a great deal anyhow. It also gave me a laugh to discover that the face cream I have been using was $15 cheaper than at Sephora in Canada...in Siem Reap! Imagine that. We LOVED Bodia and recommend anyone who is visiting to stop in for some R&R. The service and ambiance were both fantastic.

As I mentioned, we had decided to have our last dinner in Siem Reap at a dinner show. We chose The Dining Room at Le Residence de Angkor for the a la carte menu vs buffet at other places. The restaurant, not unexpectedly, was quite ritzy. In fact, the crowd seemed a little snotty, but we decided to stay anyhow. There was a reasonable 3 course meal for $35 (mind you, a $35 meal in Siem Reap is more than we had spent on any meal to date), but we opted for a couple items that peaked our interest on the menu. I started with a fish soup, that came with a tower of fresh fish served with a lobster froth. It was also served with shredded cheese, and all combined was delicious, I couldn't get enough. Unfortunately, that was the best part of our meal. Tony had a crab risotto to start, and although the crab was fresh, the risotto was a bit hard and even truffle oil couldn't save the dish for me. Our mains were king crab legs (the feature) with wasabi mayonnaise, which was too heavy for the crab. We also had a wok of seafood in Cambodian coconut broth, which came with an abundance of beautiful vegetables...but it was actually too much and in the end, I did not enjoy it. Overall, we were disappointed by our experience, even though the dance show was lovely. The people of Siem Reap work so hard for every penny, and our "lavish" meal just didn't seem worth what we spent.

We loved being in Siem Reap, and although we still have more to travel in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, expect that it will be a highlight in our trip. It has become a bit of a tourist town, with most businesses catering exclusively to tourists, so there is a weird economy. Bring lots of USD, especially $1 bills - it is the default denomination and while little to us, means so much to the people of Siem Reap! Tip generously, the people depend on tourism for a living and your generosity rewards how hard they work for every penny. And finally, haggle with a smile at the markets, it'll go a long way and be more fun for everyone :)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Siem Reap: An Eye Opening Experience at Chong Kneas Floating Village

As if visiting Angkor Wat wasn't enough excitement for a day, we made our way to Tonle Sap lake in the late afternoon to see the floating village of Chong Kneas. It's a small ways from central Siem Reap but a very worthwhile trip. As we made our way towards the lake we began to see what we were about to experience - very poor villagers living in one room huts and large families with children born to help the family sustain a living. We were a little unprepared for the floating village.

Our guide from Angkor Wat, Thy, helped us secure a private boat and came with our for the visit. The water level changes significantly between dry and wet season, changing how far the road stretches into the village on land and where Chong Kneas is found in the water. As our boat made its way through the village, the "novelty" quickly melted away and life on the lake dawned on us. Power is run from car batteries and tv from antennas. Fish are pulled in on individual long boats with nets. The boathouses are one room homes, with the lake as their livelihood and wash basin; some homes were barely staying afloat. Children paddled around in wash tubs and played with snakes hanging around their necks. Women paddled around with kids in their boats, appealing to tourists to give them money for taking their photos. I was overwhelmed by all that I saw and made me reflect on how we live in North America, how much we have and how fortunate we are. I just wanted to give them everything...take it all! But as much as it tugged on our heart strings, we didn't want to encourage the women who were throwing their children at us for money, the kids who were foregoing school to help their families survive...the only life they know. I will profoundly remember the little boy who was barely old enough to walk or to speak, but knew on cue in front of tourists and at the sight of a camera to stretch his little hands out and boldly ask for money.

We were overwhelmed by what we saw at Chong Kneas, a reality that we know little of in North America. I guess this is why we travel, to get in touch with the world and reflect on the fortunes we have in our lives. I highly recommend a visit to the floating village - this is something we all need to experience. I also suggest donating to reputable charities to ensure your money is going to the right people for the right causes. I am no expert on "good charities," but we were touched by the work at Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital in Siem Reap, founded by Swiss doctor Beat Richner (provides free medicare to children, one of 5 across the country). We saw women carry their children in from rural areas before dawn to line-up for care. They have had great success, so if you can help, consider this a good cause. And of course, there is always World Vision Cambodia.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Siem Reap: The Wonder and Majesty of Angkor Wat

Despite mild panic the morning we left Bangkok (we didn't have photos for visa to Cambodia - which we did get, but would have just cost an extra dollar at the border), we arrived safely in Siem Reap, home to UNESCO World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat.

Our first day in the city, we made our way to Angkor to see the sunset at Phnom Bakheng temple (getting a pass at 5pm is valid for next day entry!). It turned out to be a bit of a hike up the mountain (runners are key!), and we were joining hundreds of other tourists making the trek. It was possibly a nice experience at some point in time, but when you're fighting crowds, it doesn't exactly feel serene. A tip for those who still insist on going, there are stairs around back, they were useful for us to avoid the hordes trying to leave - the stairs were fairly steep and I didn't trust the crowds not to push me down in the mad rush to leave! Following the disappointing sunset view, we head back into town for an early start to the night market. Nothing compares to the amazing market in Bangkok, but we did duck into the Island Bar for some beers and food while hanging out on comfortable Thai mats. Did I mention free wifi?? Was perfect!

We had an early start the next day with our driver, Pop, who we hired after chatting with him en route from airport. He seemed like a nice guy and you never know who you might get from the hotel randomly. He was also happy to recommend a licensed tour guide, which was convenient for us as well. He picked us up just after 5AM so we could see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, one of those "once in a lifetime" experiences. We just hoped it wouldn't be crazy like the night before! We got there early enough to get a "front row" seat at the tip of the north pool, known to be the best spot. It was busy, but relatively thin crowds - takes some serious dedication to wake up that early and trek in through the dark! But it was totally worth it - was incredible watching the sun slowly rise behind the majestic towers of Angkor Wat. It truly is oen of those "wow" moments. After taking in the grand view, we made our way back to town for breakfast (yummy Cambodian noodle soup) and to pick up our guide, Thy. Our first visit of the day would be Angkor Wat itself (tour groups usually do Angkor Thom first so this seemed like a brilliant plan to avoid the big crowds!). We spent 2 hours or so walking the grounds. Thy told us about how the Wat is literally a representation of heaven on earth, about its Hindu origins in honour of Vishna (uncommon), and its transformation eventually into a Buddhist temple while maintaining the original designs and structures. The etchings and carvings were incredibly detailed, from the dancing aspara to simple designs on the walls. Thy also showed us cool little things like the one dancing aspara that smiles with teeth showing, took us to the echo chamber, and told us the legend of the churning of the ocean of milk (suddenly a lot of statues we've seen even in Thailand made a lot more sense!). One thing that stood out to me was on the 2nd level of the Wat, the meditation level, that had 4 pools (now dry of course) representing the 4 major elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Patrons were to cleanse themselves at the pool matched to their astrological sign before meditation, a real testament to how big astrology was. We also climbed to the third level, historically meant just for the King, and got to experience the wonder from above (note: you must be properly dressed as it is a religious site). It was beautiful and peaceful, and as access is regulated, you can afford to spend some quiet time admiring the towers and the view all around. Other than up the highest point, there are many paths to explore the expansive Angkor Wat, and many places to sit and take in the beauty and incredible work...or just as relief from the heat. The sheer enormity of the Wat is amazing to take in...how did they possibly build it?? Oh right, 40 years and 400,000 people!

Our next stop was the ancient city of Angkor Thom, once a capital, and centered by the temple Banyon. Banyon's highlights are the 4 faced towers, said to resemble a combination of the King and his god (no modesty here). It is a much smaller temple vs Angkor Wat, but details make up for what it lacks in majestic size. Our walk through Angkor Thom was about a kilometer and although we made a brief stop at another temple on the way out, I was wiped by the time we were through...exhausted mentally from taking in all that our awesome guide was telling us and physically from hiking the temple grounds in the heat. We had a very welcome lunch break nearby, and we were grateful that our guide and driver took us to a restaurant NOT packed with tour groups.

After a long leisurely lunch, much needed for us to recuperate and re-energize, we made our way to the much anticipated Ta Phrom, commonly recognized for a scene in Tomb Raider (although in reality, scenes were shot at various temples). Ta Phrom is widely known as the jungle temple, seemingly overgrown by moss and trees - these amazing spung trees that over time, grew on the boulders of the temple with its massive roots stretching over and on top of the walls. The tree is light enough not to crush the temple completely, but certainly a lot of damage was done. Ta Phrom was probably the most "tourist friendly" of the temples, as it is flat, and had wood boardwalks throughout the ruins. We could see why this temple is a favourite spot to visit, it was beautiful and almost a bit magical - it felt like you were seeing the temple just as it was discovered, hidden away in the trees for thousands of years.

I can see why there is need to get a multi-day pass for Angkor Wat, we only made it to the main temples and were exhausted by the time we finished at Ta Phrom. They varied in structure and design, and were all incredible in different ways with different stories. It was also interesting to see the restoration work in progress, truly a world effort with projects done largely by the French, but also the Japanese, Germans and others. It's amazing in itself to think of the world coming together to preserve this wonder. I also can't imagine what it would have been like for Henri Mahout, the naturalist and explorer that "stumbled" on Angkor Wat and helped popularize the temple. This eventually lead to further French exploration of the area and discovery of the other temples. We were also blessed to have our guide, Thy, who had a real passion for the history of Angkor and knew nooks and crannies that we never would have found ourselves; in fact, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have made it past just Angkor Wat! He kept us engaged and learning the whole way - I highly recommend him for any future travelers! And our driver, Pop, too, was also great, so all in all, our experience was really made by the great people we met.

For an awesome English speaking guide: Thy - email: thyda_ing@yahoo.com/phone: (855) 12 933 730

Friendly English speaking driver: Pop (real name Kosal) - email: kosal_som11@yahoo.com/phone: (855) 97 57 57 572

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bangkok: A Day for Shopping

Although we did not quite plan it 0ut, Saturday was our only "weekend" in the city of Bangkok, so without a doubt, we made our way to Chatuchak Weekend Market. Although our guidebooks told us it was the biggest and most intense market, we were still surprised by the sheer size! And because everything we do in travel reminds us of some adventure on amazing race, we felt JUST like we were embarking on our next challenge - to find something.

We made our way to the market on the wonderful BTS skytrain, fairly new and super convenient. Our first stop was the tourist information center to secure a general map of the market. We knew right away there was no way we could see everything, so we centered in on the clothing, massage and art areas. The market was sort of orderly, but also CRAZY! You can walk around the outsides and enjoy drinks and snacks along the way, or brave the smaller thoroughfares to escape the sun and heat. There is something to be found for everyone, this wasn't a junky market of trinkets but full of things you need (or don't need) and is a showcase for local designers. it really wasa great shopping destination. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and stalls but still managed to find a good bargain for silk scarves (typical, I know...but when in Rome!). After a couple hours of wandering we also stopped for a 45min massage, a relaxing and welcome break for my feet right in the middle of the market. On our way out, we made our way to the art section, and I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was expecting some typical cheesy "tourist" art, but the art corridors were really like exploring an art show, every stall was unique. We saw some great art we'd love to take home...oh but the trouble. Overall, I am so glad to made our way to the market, despite my initial hesitation to brave the crowds. Chatuchak Weekend Market is definitely a must-see in Bangkok, even if you don't need/want to buy anything, it's an adventure just to look around and experience the orderly chaos!

It was dark by the time we left the market, you can really get lost in time just walking around. And since malls here are open until 10pm, we decided to stop in Siam on our way home to check out some of the mega department store complexes. We decided on Paragon Shopping Centre, which was ridiculously big! After stopping for a quick bite, we started to explore. I don't know if I was just "shopped" out or it was just too much, because the store just seemed too sparkly and full of product that I had no interest in really "shopping." We did some walking around, but like walking around a museum you're not that interested in. Paragon is well known for carrying interational and high end brands, which was actually a little boring. Why would I buy Nine West shoes in Thailand?? Nonetheless, I can vouch for the shopping mecca that Siam is, it certainly was a sight to see.

What a day we've had of "shopping," although not actually a lot of buying (probably a good thing). We're off to Cambodia tomorrow and will be back to Bangkok in a couple days for more city adventures :)

Bangkok: A Day on the Chao Phraya River

After 20 hours of travel, Toronto -> Zurich -> Bangkok, we arrived to Winter in Thailand...and this I can certainly deal with, a balmy 20+ degrees for WINTER! Our first day in the city was perfect for sightseeing: not too hot or humid. We wasted no time and set on our way to power through our jet lag with a busy day of exploration.

The Chao Phraya River is central to the way of life, and so it was only appropriate that we embarked on our day of sightseeing by getting a boat day pass to hop-on-hop-off, much like bus tours in other cities. We started with the Grand Palace, also home to Wat Phra Kaew, Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The temple grounds were extraordinary - from the murals surrounding the grounds to the colourful and intricate halls and monuments, it was all beautiful and picture perfect. We found the Emerald Buddha seated high in the main hall, dressed in "winter" robes and surrounded by spectacular murals - the King himself changes the monastic robes draped on the Emerald Buddha every season.

Next we made our way to Wat Pho, featuring a 46m reclining gold Buddha! It was quite impressive in person and definitely worth the visit. A little more time in the area would allow indulging in a massage at the temple, but hunger simply took over so we head on our way. We found ourselves at the food stalls right outside Tha Chang pier. After a quick look around, we settled where a nice lady waved us in. I was sold on the duck noddle soup, which unfortunately ended up being sold out; but, it took me no time to settle on the too-honestly named "gastric fish stew." The lady at the front was sweet and took me over to the simmering fish maw stew to ensure I knew what I was getting into - no problem at all! It was a bowl of gooey goodness with vermicelli. Tony had shrimp paste fried rice with seafood, which was hot out of the wok and realy hit the spot after our hours of temple wandering. The best part, was that our meal (plus a bottle of Pepsi), cost $4 CAD! Amazing.

After the food energy boost, we decided to contiue our day of exploration. As dragonboat nerds, we decided to make our way to the Royal Barge Museum. This was an interesting adventure - our "river guide" was a little off describing where exactly the museum was. It ended up being quite a zig zag trek through a riverside neighbourhood, although we were encouraged along the way by signs telling us we were not lost. It allowed us a glimpse of how some local Thais live. The modest museum (I'm being generous here) showcased some of the famous royal barges, still used for traditional processions along the river. The boats really were beautiful, but our trek to the museum was probably more interesting given that there were only 5 or 6 barges parked for us to walk around and admire. There were some "survivors" of the world war...which I think it would have been obvious that the teak boats wouldn't hold up well to guns and canons??

We decided we still had energy for one more stop before we head back to our hotel, so we made our final stop for the day at Wat Arun, a temple very different from the lavishness of Wat Phra Kaew or Wat Pho. Truthfully, Wat Arun was more impressive from afar because of its architecture, similar in style to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We were able to climb the stupa and get a great view up and down the river; plus up close, I could see the interesting china detail. The stairs were a short but steep climb, worth the careful effort.

As the sun was beginning to set, it was time for us to put our feet up on a day of historical sightseeing along the river. We hopped on the express river boat with tourists and locals alike and made our way back to central pier. We were grateful to have seen some wonderful sights, ate some delicious food, and experienced the gentle kindness of the Thai people along the way.

Thanks for a great first day Bangkok!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Lamb and Belly Dancing for Dinner at Sultan's Tent

Sometimes I have strange, indiscernible food cravings...and when I'm hungry, deciding where and what to eat becomes increasingly difficult as I get more hungry and agitated. Last week, I was craving something homey and simple, but didn't want Asian and didn't want to spend a ton. I'm not sure what inspired me to look up Sultan's Tent, but it's been at least 3 years since I've been. Lamb was suddenly calling my name! I took a quick look at the menu online and decided it was enticing enough...$39.99 for a 4 course meal.

We raced to the restaurant, as they don't seat once the belly dancing starts at 7pm. Yes, belly dancing! The main dining area is lined with intimate couch seating along the perimeter with a wooden dance area in the middle. We, unfortunately, were seated at a table in the "dancing" area. It made me fear just for a second I'd be forced to "participate." I had already decided what I wanted....but upon careful reading, I realized that certain items on the 4 course menu cost additional, and OF COURSE everything I wanted to eat cost more. sigh. So much for that $40 four course meal!

Course 1:
Duck Breast Salad and Beef Burgone - although both sounded great on the menu, they were only average. The beef burgone didn't look very exciting but it was very tasty. The duck was generally disappointing.

Course 2:
Trio of Hummus and Maftoul (hand rolled pastry stuffed with beef and topped with spicy aioli) - these were part of the 'base' men, since nothing really stood out to us, and in fact were great! The hummus was actually quite tasty (and filly) and the spring-roll-like pastry rolls were satisfying.

Course 3:
Braised Lamb - part of the base menu, and I'm sure is what I had the last time I was there. It is falling-off-the-bone good, served on a bed of couscous. It was exactly the kind of comfort meal I was looking for.
Seafood Royale - I can never turn down a seafood platter, particularly when served with rice in a saffron and fennel broth. In truth, it was pretty plain...tasty, but uninspired. It also cost an additional $10 to my meal and I wouldn't do it again.

Course 4:
Assorted Moroccan Treats and Brulee Royale - the Moroccan treats were surprisingly good, and the brulee was just average, a little too thick for my liking, but it was topped with pistachio, which was a nice touch. We also finished off with a delicious tea, which was really nice and enjoyable.

Our dinner at Sultan's Tent was decent for a relatively quick bite and something a little different. The belly dancer (yes, she did come out during our dinner!) was beautiful, and had some audience participation which I happily avoided (whew!). I recommend sticking to the "base" menu items - we found those were actually the best tasting, and the best value, particularly the lamb. Those items, I guess, are what they are best at!

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Savoury Seafood Feast at Casa da Ramboia

It seems like a long while since we stopped in a new restaurant - having visitors the past month meant we've made lots of visits to our favourite places, but not a lot of time to try new ones! After spending Friday lunch hearing about my friend's recent Portugal travels, it was the only food I could think of that night!

But where oh where?

When I first moved to Toronto, my friend Julie brought over AMAZING leftovers from some Portuguese restaurant "around Bloor and Dufferin," I STILL remember it fondly, an amazing platter of seafood that I think about now 3+ years later. Unfortunately, I've never found it and don't know the name, and so I am continually on a hunt for a great Portuguese restaurant. We often rely on Toronto Life, and this week, I decided to take my recommendation from Yelp. Searching "Portuguese Restaurant" didn't yield as many results as I had hoped, but luck would have it, the top one was not too far away on Dundas West, and that is how we ended up at Casa da Ramboia.

You can't miss the restaurant, with a brightly lit Orange sign (and actually, is next to Enoteca Sociale). The restaurant is like a small neighbourhood pub, complete with the L-shaped bar and semi-circle benches along the side, where Tony and I were happily seated at a table that could have easily seated 6. We're always happy to have extra room for extra food :) You know what kind of restaurant you're in when the person who greeted us had conveniently popped up from his party of 10+ right by the door to ensure we were seated. The big party sure looked like they were comfortable and having a good time!

Took us no time to decide on food, not after our server (and probably owner?) gave us the daily fish specials, includ
ing bass and grouper. While both were enticing, I couldn't go for Portuguese and pass up trying the Cataplana, a delicious and soupy melange of pork, chorizo and assorted seafood served in a brass pot. To start, we stuck with seafood and had jumbo grilled prawns flavoured with delicious piri piri sauce (African bird's eye chili). Despite its very plain demeanor, it was savoury and satisfying, I never realized how much I like the taste of piri piri! We initially asked for rabbit as our second entree (I was craving some good meat!), but unfortunately it was not available, so we took it as fate that we order the "cornucopia of lobster, clams, mussels and rice" served in a traditional clay pot. The rice was saucy, homey and delicious. We couldn't have asked for two more flavourful dishes! The only downside was that our mains were hard to share on plates - we wish they would have given us bowls. But we didn't find it hard to adjust, Tony and I simply took turns diving into the brass pot of soupy goodness or the clay pot of hot and satisfying rice dish. DEFINITELY best eaten out of the original containers :)

We were happy to have discovered this little gem (thanks Yelp!) and will certainly be back. Who can complain about a restaurant's authenticity when it boasts little granny cooking away in the kitchen!? And if anyone has some good Portuguese recommendations for me...please send!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

More Cowbell

I've shared our experiences at Cowbell in the past, but we made a return visit last night and couldn't help but post more about the great food. It was perfect for a late dinner on Friday night...and I was starving! I was thinking of the Cowbell burger before we even got to the restaurant!

Last night, we had the Cowbell charcuterie, which of course, changes all the time: head cheese, elk and cherry, tenderheart liverwurst, curried coppa and venison chocolate chorizo. I liked the liverwurst the best but the rest were all tasty - the curry, cherry, and chocolate flavours were unique but not as foreign to the taste-buds as they sound! We also had the beef tartar which has such a great meat flavour because of how it is prepared...a must have.

I didn't stray from my craving and was rewarded with mortadela on my precious Cowbell burger...YUM! It felt so indulgent yet sooo good! Did I mention it's one of the best burgers ever?? Tony's duck confit with consomme smelled absolutely amazing and he inhaled it so fast I only managed to snag a quick bite!

Cowbell is always a reliable stop for good, fresh meat. The menu changes all the time, depending what fresh meat is being prepared - this week elk was popular on the specials chalk board, but who knows what will be on the menu next time we go :)

A Delight at Luma

It's been a busy couple weeks and I never had a chance to share our experience at Luma, the new Oliver & Bonacini at Bell Lightbox on King. It is an upscale restaurant in the heart of theatre district - what I loved is that the moment we sat down, our waitress asked if we were under any time crunch to hit a show. Even if you think that is a given for restaurants in the area, I would never take that for granted so I really appreciated the ask (even though we were not on our way anywhere!). Luma is spacious and contemporary, with large windows facing out on King. We sat along the back of the restaurant and had a great view of the space.

The menu is varied and offers many options. We, of course, had taken a preview on-line before settling in on the restaurant for the night...and here's how we filled our bellies:

Appetizers: We had tuna tartare, grilled octopus and foie gras torchon. The tuna tartare (pictured) was a surprising dish - very colourful and fresh and perfect as an appetizer. There was so much stuff in it! The grilled octopus, with a bit of kick, was also quite colourful and uniquely prepared. It was good, but I would have liked the octopus a bit more tender (I was thinking Mediterranean style). The foie gras was also quite a surprising experience - not because we don't know how foie gras tastes, but this was one of the better perparations we have had. It came with brioche (which we could have used more of) and pineapple salsa, which added a unique flavour we have not had before. We happily inhaled our beautiful appetizers.

Mains: I am usually a fish girl and Tony goes with meat, but on this night,
I opted for the steak frites (how could I walk away from lemon pepper rub, mushrooms and truffle butter??) and Tony went with roasted cod. My steak frites came piled high and delicious, it smelled amazing even before my first bite and really hit the spot. It's always a bonus to have LOTS of mushrooms! Tony's cod was a stunning dish, served also with mushrooms and porcini cream...and foam! I love foam on my fish! We were both very pleased with our mains, and happy they continued to elevate our experience at Luma after our wonderful appetizers.

And yes, we made room for dessert. Actually, I was quite full, but Opera Cake was just calling my name to try. It was a 3 part dessert, centered by the almond sponge cake with mocha butter cream and chocolate ganache accompanied by popcorn ice cream and caramel popcorn. I'm not big on caramel popcorn but it was an interesting flavour mix in any case, the most unique dessert on the menu.

Overall, we had a great meal at Luma and would be happy to visit again. The flavours were fresh and colourful - loved the use of some new flavours with some very typical dishes which made it unique. Next time you're down to see a show and in for a little splurge, try Luma!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

CURRY CRAB at Saigon Star!

Although we love to eat, we don't know enough about places off the beaten path and rely in particular on our "local" friends for recommendations on Asian food places in the burbs. Our good friends Jon and Stella brought us to Saigon Star during the Summer, and we were in LOVE. Saigon Star serves Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, and is most famous for its curry crab. This crab is no joke - it is heart stopping rich and indulgent, and is like no other crab or curry you have had before! The crab comes hot and fresh, drenched in delicious curry yet still has the sweet, fresh taste of crab meat. After our first time there, we knew we'd be back to try other crab preparations. The next time we accidentally found our way to the restaurant was just Tony and I. We confidently ordered a crab, pineapple fried rice (you always need something to have with the curry sauce!), and water spinach with shrimp paste sauce (tung choi). Obviously, we were way too ambitious and finished nothing but the crab. The servers were so gracious, although we got to the restaurant around 10:30pm (closes at 11:00pm), they assured us we could take our time...but we felt really bad anyhow, the staff was getting ready for their dinner!

On Friday, we made another trip to Saigon Star with friends. I was excited to revisit with more people - we wanted to try the beer crab and needed people to share it with! We made reservations and did our best to get their early - the restaurant is always packed. So many things on the menu look delicious at Saigon Star, I've always wanted to try the hot pot seafood rice pilaf with coconut milk & curry...but after curry crab it just seems like too much. We went with the standard: curry crab, hot pot beer crab served with clear noodles, pineapple fried rice and roti (a must for mopping up the curry), grilled honey pork neck meat (another famous dish), Thai tom yum shrimp soup , our veggie favourite the shrimp paste water spinach. Yum! Our meal was spectacular as usual, starting first with the curry crab, which you can't possibly eat without making a mess! The beer crab was also fantastic and I'm glad we had a chance to order it - it's very different from the curry crab, not as intensely flavoured, but delicious in a different way. The hot pot broth was very tasty, filled with vegetables and chewy clear noodles...I couldn't get enough. I can barely decide which I prefer more; but ultimately, the curry is the real outstanding dish. If curry crab were a 10 beer crab would be a very close 9.5...and felt a bit less dangerous to my heart.

It was a perfect meal for a Friday night, we were all ready to just collapse from food coma. Saigon Star is a real gem and is starting to be a regular spot for us to take visitors. Best crab in the city, I think! Having a cold beer or some young coconut juice is the perfect accompaniment to the meal...it's like being on a tropical holiday, a brief escape via food and drinks :)

A Feast at Banjara Indian Cuisine

I had a craving for butter chicken last week, and too hungry to wait on the great food at Matagali (although delicious, sometimes the wait is just too long!), we started to look up where else we could go. Bread Bar is always a favourite, but then we were also too lazy to drive north. There are plenty of great Indian places around town, and I thought of a place our friends Stella and Andrew recommended - the best butter chicken in Toronto!? Worth a try!

Pulling up to the front of Banjara Indian Cuisine, Gloria immediate recognized it as a place she had been before and said the food was good....so we were off to a good start. They don't take reservations (I tried), but it seems we arrived at just the right time, and the first round of diners were just finishing up so we were seated within 10min. Banjara is what you would expect from an Indian restaurant - lively and colourful! There is also abundant space on the patio for a hot Summer night. The menu is extensive - we had already browsed it while waiting so we wouldn't have to waste time deciding what to eat :)

Here's what 4 hungry people settled on:

- 2 orders of butter chicken: we were foolishly hungry and the metal bowls at other tables didn't look that big!
- goat curry: I had been craving this since we had it at our friends' wedding in Calgary at the Taj Mahal restaurant. It was the first I had it and was so delicious!
- shahi shrimp: we ordered this because we had never had it, shrimp cooked with coconut and green spices.
- palak panner: done with spinach and cream.
- bheendi masala: another dish we had not had before, okra done with onions and tomatoes.
- sides of saffron rice (my favourite), plan naan and garlic naan.

Yeah...it was a lot of food! Don't let those little bowls fool you, we forgot how rich things like butter chicken can be and ended up with leftovers. The food was all good and satisfying, we often found ourselves staring at the table and wondering what we should eat next! The best of the night was the okra, most unique and delicious. While we were very happy with our food, it was served just warm, not hot enough in temperature...and in fact, also not spicy enough. We had ordered all our food "medium," I was the weakest link, but it really was mild so next time I think we would definitely go spicy.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Good Quick Meal at O&B Canteen


We're gearing up for TIFF this week, and thought no better chance than now to get acquainted with the new O&B Canteen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. We're not expecting it'll be an easy place to get a seat once things get busy down on King Street, although it is unfortunate the rest of the building doesn't appear to be quite ready for the festivities. No worries - Canteen is ready to serve!

Canteen is modern with simple lines for decor and lofty high ceilings. I especially loved the giant blackboards that cover the back wall (kitchen) boasting grab and go items to the left and market cafe dining menu to the right. The half open-kitchen concept has various le Creuset serving pieces sitting along a long stainless steel rack. I was tempted just to order just whatever was served in the Moroccan Tangine! The restaurant offers different specials by day in slightly different variations - Saturday was burger day, a turkey burger. We, however, decided to skip the special.

There was no question what I would have to start, picked easily off the paper menu/placemats - potted shrimp! Tony ordered the chicken liver parfait, which was AMAZING!!
It was probably the best chicken liver parfait we have ever had, incredibly smooth, rich and we just couldn't get enough. It was served with cumberland sauce, which had a bit of kick and was quite complementary, but we loved the parfait just as it was. My potted shrimp was served chilled in a mason jar, and more just like a cold shrimp salad, although it was still quite delicious. For mains, I had mussels in white wine sauce (served in a creuset, yay!). The broth was great, and I only wish it had been served with some French bread rather than the little toasts - didn't soak up the broth as well! It's about a pound of mussels, so not for the super hungry, but was sufficient for me. The mussels were also served with a side green salad, which was probably one of the nicest side salads I've had, including candied peacans. Yum! Tony loved his gnocchi with braised lamb, although I found the gnocchi a little bit crumbly. A really nice touch was the fresh parmesan grated on top. We were quite full after dinner, and the dessert wasn't calling out to me, but next time, maybe I will try the brownie.

When I think about good restaurants vs bad, there are always several elements: food quality, service, efficiency, and ambiance. Overall, O&B Canteen is a solid choice for any meal - I didn't find the food extraordinary but I enjoyed it, the service and ambiance were both good, and most importantly for a theatre district restaurant - it was quick and efficient. It's definitely a great "go to" restaurant, and maybe next time I'll try that burger special and definitely have some more chicken liver parfait!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Eating at The Beast!


I was sad to learn not long ago that Amuse Bouse had closed down - it was a great little French restaurant tucked away between residences, delicious although a little pricey. Our fabulous realtor, Holly, had introduced us to Amuse Bouche, and so it was only fitting that we tried the new restaurant in its place with her! I was sold on The Beast after taking a scan through the menu online - pig's head pasta? That sounded interesting enough for me to try it out! We had a lovely table on the patio, perfect for a hot summer day. The menu, from starters to mains to dessert was all very appealing - and the healthy eaters we are, we wanted everything! The waitress was a bit concerned for that all that we ordered, but she did not know how much we love to eat :)

Starters:
Of course, I had to have the Pig's Head Pasta, which was actually agnolotti and was DELICIOUS and my favourite dish of the night. It was served with an egg cracked on top, and was amazing...comfort food at it's best! We also had lamb ribs, which were tasty and had us licking our fingers, but admittedly, not that memorable. The smoked black cod was served uniquely with beet root and caperberries - I have never had caperberries before! And finally, we also had fried green tomatoes, which I actually really enjoyed even though I don't really like tomatoes that much! It was served with bacon and spot prawns that of course, made it extra yummy.

Mains:
Holly had the rainbow trout while I had duck confit with papardelle (that's a combo that I cannot resist!) and Tony had the braised wild boar with mac n cheese. Honestly, with those items on the menu how can anyone resist trying the restaurant? My duck confit was amazing - he duck leg was tperfectly done, served at the right temperature (I hate when it is mildly warm) and the papardelle was delicious. I, unfortunately, was first to tap out and too full to finish my main - not to worry, I packed it up to be indulged in later :) Tony's braised boar was another case of comfort food at it's best - it was saucy and tender and we lapped up every piece on the plate. We also had sides of green beans and mixed mushrooms - the mushrooms are a MUST if you visit. I know I'm biased because I love mushrooms, but it was truly a delicious preparation and plenty to go around.

Dessert:
Yes, somehow we still had room for dessert - a frittura dolce with corn ice cream and blueberry compote. I have never had anything like it and loved every bite - it wasn't really sweet, and was so unique, you couldn't stop eating it! The waitress told us it was a bit of a home made recipe from the chef's Italian mother. LOVED! We also had cream puffs with cherry mousse - these were delicious as well, and basically melted in your mouth. I was resistant to dessert being so full from mains, but I'm so glad Tony and Holly dived in because I loved both and it elevated my meal experience!

The Beast (I just love saying it) was delicious and unique - it is a bit of a splurge, but then again, you don't have to try and eat everything on the menu like us :) I guarantee anything you pick you will like. The food was just phenomenal. Items on the menu can change weekly, and I am eager to go back and eat more agnolotti and dessert!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Vancouver: Tapas off the Beaten Path at Judas Goat

Vancouver is one of our favorite cities to visit and eat - we get delicious, fresh food for much less than we spend in Toronto. Perhaps it just appeals to our preferences, with great seafood and sushi options! Only making it out for a couple days each year has limited our "tasting" experiences as we always want to visit our favorites, but we met up with our friends Jen and Andrew this time around and had the chance to visit Judas Goat, in Blood Alley Gastown, for a fabulously fun dinner!

I never knew what or where "Blood Alley" was, feels like one of those unique destination that I should have known about having lived there for 4 years, but I chalk it up to being a newer destination (no idea true or not). The popular Salt Tasting Room is also located there, tucked away in Gastown. There are no signs, at least none that we saw, and so Tony and I drove around several times before concluding the restaurant had to be located down this sketchy looking alley. Judas Goat is a small, modern restaurant, with large windows and bar seating opening up to the alley. The rest of the restaurant is made up of a share table and several small round tables along a banquette. My one complaint about the restaurant is I wish we had bigger tables for all the food we were about to have!

Six of us at dinner was just perfect to try everything we wanted - thankfully everyone is a good eater (which one of my friends aren't??) and we proceeded to check random stuff of the menu. It was another case of order by "elimination," where we mostly just agreed on what we didn't want. The menu is divided into Bocadillos (here was a re-invented Spanish sandwich) , Hot, Pressed/Potted/Cured, Salads, Condiments and Sweets. We ate almost everything on the menu - that's the beauty of tapas! Some of our favourites were:
  • Braised pork belly: while I feel like pork belly is everywhere these days, I'm not quite sick of it yet. This pork belly was prepared very similar to some Chinese dishes, (fatty and saucy!) and of course, we had to have seconds of this!
  • Warm lamb cheek with cabbage and white truffle oil: it smelled so delicious and just melted in your mouth.
  • Cacciatori from local artisan butchers: this was ordered on our second round, since none of us were sure that this was - but it ended up being a good plate of cured meats to nibble on, plenty to go around.
  • Rabbit rillette with carrot panna cotta: rillette is a pate like preparation of meat, which was very good and the carrot panna cotta was surprisingly delicious, Jen and I really dived into it (and maybe just the two of us!).
  • Scallop tartare with pork rinds: when we ordered this, Jen described it as "crunchy." The pork rinds were indeed VERY crunchy, like "can't hear yourself" crunchy...but very good! At least I was a fan, and have had an odd craving for it since then.
  • Potted prawns with pistachio butter: The pistachio butter was deliciously rich, although it was hard to share the 2 prawns in the "pot," so of course, we had seconds!
  • Foie gras with rhubard foam: foie gras is rarely, if ever, better than in Quebec, but this was quite good indeed, and I particularly loved the rhubard foam - very unique and added a nice, unique flavour!
Judas Goat was a really fun place to eat and I loved that each dish was served and prepared quite differently with unique flavours paired together - rabbit and carrot (haha!), foie gras and rhubarb (do geese eat rhubard?) etc. It appealed to our particular preference for indulgent meats and spreads. I recommend going with a group so you can maximize what you eat...but be warned that you'll have to sit and eat intimately - the two little round tables we shared table simply weren't big enough for all the food we ordered! Thanks for introducing us to this fun place Jen & Andrew!

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Day in Stratford with Dinner at Rundles Sophisto-Bistro

It's rare that we hang around town on long weekends, since we usually make our way back out West, so with the beautiful weather, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to make a day trip. We had heard great things about the town of Stratford so we started asking around about things to do and places to eat. A friend recommended Rundles to us, a highly regarded restaurant in the little town - reviewed by Fodor's and Frommer's. Of course, Stratford is also home to the annual Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a celebration of theatre through classic and contemporary plays and musicals May through early November. The most popular play this year is likely The Tempest starring Christopher Plummer (for those who don't know, he was Captain von Trapp in Sound of Music, and is famed originally for Shakespearean plays). While The Tempest was playing during the Sunday matinee we were hoping for, it was sold out. Fortunately, we found great tickets for Evita. One of the great discoveries we made while researching plays was becoming a Play On member - it is a program designed to promote theatre to those under 29, and offers $25 tickets for great seats at various shows! We ended up with fabulous orchestra left seats, row E, right beside some uber expensive seats and the view was great.

Evita: The show was good and very intense, with scenes moving quickly through. The music, of course, was wonderful, done by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Although most reviews had celebrated the actress Chilina Kennedy over the play, we loved Josh Young the most, who played Che and narrated the story. The story was powerful and captures just a small part of the glamour and mystery behind Eva Peron, but enough to give you a taste into her strength, determination and ambition. For better or for worse, the story is captivating.

Matinee was the perfect time for a show - we left Toronto around 10am, pretty leisurely for us, and made it to town in time for lunch and a quick walk around. We came out of the play around 4pm and had time to paddle boat along the river before heading to dinner. It was a beautiful day, and we were lucky not only to paddle boat but also to enjoy music on the barge that was going on - a really nice summer day to be out!

Rundles is located right by the river, in a beautiful building - a mix of traditional and contemporary style. We arrived at the restaurant a tad early but they were able to seat us. We originally made reservations for the restaurant (which was actually quite full) and ended up being seated in Sophisto-Bistro. We didn't know this until we saw the menus, but after taking a peek through, we were happy with what we were seeing and decided to stay. Sophisto-Bistro offers a 2 course prix-fixe menu for $44.50 and 3 courses for $55.50.

Appetizers:
Lobster bisque with salt cod croquettes - the bisque was light yet flavourful and frothy. I wouldn't normally consider bisques really healthy, but it did seem that way! The salt cod croquettes were also a pleasant surprise - i've never had good ones before, they are normally underwhelming friend dough balls, but these actually tasted of cod and were quite good!

Grilled calamari with shredded green papaya, kohlrabi and mango - the calamari was served on a skewer, grilled to just the right tenderness, and the salad had just a slight kick to it.

Mains:
The braised short ribs of beef was amazing!
It was tenderly falling apart as it should, and we were given a utensil resembling a fish knife for the meal - a telling sign of its tenderness. We've had great braised beef before, but what took this meal over the top was the fantastic horseradish cream. It looked like whipped butter, and because of the large portion served, we weren't even sure what it was. Eating the horseradish, as Tony said, was like eating a vegetable. It was light and you could put as much as you wanted on the short ribs and not be overwhelmed by its flavour.

I had seared sea scallops with peking duck and green mango salad, in a brown butter flavoured with yuzu. The sauce was amazing and I couldn't get enough. I cut my scallops into little portions to maximize the surface area to soak up the brown butter! Needless to say, I also made the most of my bread to soak up the sauce!

Dessert:
Vanilla-flavoured crème brûlée and chilled lemon grass soup. It was a really complex dish, very fragrant and with an assortment of flavours that all came together nicely in the crème brûlée, the ice cream it was served with, and the lemon grass "shooter" it came with. A truly unique and delicious dessert.

Dark chocolate cream praline, with espresso granita and "Indian Summer" zabaglione (light whipped custard). I LOVED the zabaglione, served with candied pistacios on top. I also dug deep for the dark chocolate, but I guess in my hurry to pick a dessert I skipped by the "espresso" part, and those who know me will know I'm not a fan of coffee. It was all delicious of course, but in the end I swapped for Tony's fabulous crème brûlée so we wouldn't waste the granita as I desperately picked through the top and bottom layer :P

We had a great time at Sophisto-Bistro and wonder how amazing the "restaurant" menu might have been, but just means we should take another trip back. In the end, we were happy with the menu choices and our delicious meals for a really great price.

We had a wonderful day in Stratford, and we were glad to have made the drive out (was under 2 hours), see a show and have a fabulous dinner.

Contemporary Italian at Buca

Saturday night, I was craving something homey but couldn't quite put my finger on what. I finally settled on Italian and debated between Mercatto and Buca. Truthfully, I was hoping that Mercatto at Eaton Center had opened already so it would just a hop away from dinner...but alas, it's not ready. Ultimately, we decided to go to Buca. We have been before for a friend's birthday, but we arrived too late to eat and only had a chance to check the place out but not the food. Fortunately, even on Saturday night, they found us 2 spots at a communal high table. I have to admit I'm 50/50 on communal tables - you really have to be in the mood for them. I often find myself physically closer to the person sitting next to me rather than Tony; as a result, I struggle to focus on our conversation because I can hear down the table easier than across. I don't dislike them, but as I said, you really have to be in the mood to be friendly and interactive. Regardless, we were happy to get a table and were not joined by other guests until well into our meal.

To start, we decided to on the 3 salumi platter (a selection of 3 house cured meats). Our favourite was the eye of round. Our charcuterie plate was also accompanied by various house preservatives that were a nice complement to the salty meats. Our waiter also kindly recommended we order some bread, which we were hesitant at first, but ultimately ordered the nodini, bread knots flavoured with garlic and rosemary.

As I was craving some comfort food, there was no doubt I would do pasta as a main and I was immediately drawn to the Bigoli: duck egg pasta noodles with duck ragu, mascarpone and basil. I was actually a little disappointed by my dish, because the noodles were thick and chewy...which I should have expected from duck egg noodles, but it was not quite what I was expecting. In the end, I was craving some light, fresh pasta, which fortunately, Tony had! He had the Farfalle: hand cut pasta with baby octopus, artichokes and preserved chili (pictured). This was my second choice on the menu, so I'm lucky Tony cooperated :) The wide bow-like pasta was freshly made, thin and lightly tossed with chili (not spicy) and braised octopus. It was a delicious and well-made dish that I'm sure to return to eat next time.

Although we stuck to pasta mains, Buca does offer a traditional Italian experience - there were diners around us who did salumi to start, pasta as seconds, and meat/fish for mains. Buca is also a versatile restaurant with a warm yet contemporary feel. Patrons were young and old, casual and dressed to the nines - I loved the couple that had their baby with them by their side sleeping away in a stroller. It's something I've learned to love about Toronto, that young couples still dine out and have a downtown lifestyle even after kids...amazing!