Tag Archives: travel travel travel

VIA Rail: Derailing my Tunnel Vision and Setting the Platform for Train Meals

10 Jun A refreshing start!

Sorry about the title.  I know I have a problem.

I recently had the pleasure of taking a VIA Rail train from Windsor to Toronto for the the return leg of a business trip.  I’ve always preferred to travel by train versus plane for shorter distances.  Tell us why, Alice!  Oh, okay I will.

  • If you factor in the time required to show up early for airport security, a journey by express train takes about the same time as a short-haul flight.
  • There is GLORIOUS wifi onboard which means I can download stock photos to get that last minute PowerPoint completed (aka stream Mad Men from Netflix and gasp audibly whenever the plot thickens).
  • No pesky seat belts! I can (safely) rebel against personal safety and stand up whenever I want (which proved to be not very often).
  • And lastly – and most importantly –  I can actually afford Business Class on VIA…

…Business Class – the land of hot meals and cocktail carts!

Let me set the scene.  I was a bit cranky after a tough couple of days in Windsor and was really looking forward to going home.   Once on the train, I sank into my luxurious leather seat (with enough leg room for an entire basketball team) and I didn’t even have time to exclaim, “AUGGGH I COULD USE A DRINK!” before someone came around with a cocktail cart and a packet of nibbles.  Gin and soda, please!

A refreshing start!

The last time I was in Business Class, I was offered a descriptive paper menu detailing three meal choices and a server came around to take my order (just like at a restaurant!).  Unfortunately, I think they stopped doing that.  I admittedly love reading menus so this was a bit of a bummer (but okay, fine, we’ll let the trees live).  Instead, the server came around with the meal cart and I had to pick on the spot.  And instead of fancy schmancy descriptions, he only said, “Beef, seafood or vegetarian?”.    I chose beef…and red wine.

Nothing like a hot meal!

Never would I have thought I’d say this, but man, I was impressed.  This was probably one of the better onboard travel meals I’ve ever had.  The beef tenderloin was well-seasoned and cooked to a perfect medium and was not dry.  My broccoli was crisp and my potatoes cheesey.  The salad was a creative mix of butternut squash and feta on a bed of wheatberries (I think?  Again, would’ve loved a menu!).  The chocolate cake looked pretty good but I renounced those calories for a second…er, third glass of wine.

Coffee and tea were offered to accompany the dessert, as well as an organic fair trade piece of dark chocolate.  Just when I was about to go for my post meal cool-down nap (much to the chagrin of fitness gurus everywhere), a digestif cart appeared and next thing you know it, I’m sipping a port and watching the scenery of Southwestern Ontario whizz on by.

It was such a pleasant end to a rather stressful business trip.  Looking forward to taking the train again for a weekend getaway!

 

If you’re like Alice and always on the lookout for a quick and cheap getaway, keep your eyes on this site, where every Tuesday VIA releases some extremely discounted fares!

 

 

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The cheap and greasy NYC pizza adventure

13 Sep

Everyone knows that a cheap pizza slice done right can be one of life’s great pleasures. Unfortunately, establishments that do cheap pizza right are few and far between in Toronto, aside from the obvious gems located in and around Little Italy (think Bitondo’s). New York City is possibly the only leading city in the world that is known just as much for its cheap, greasy fast food as for its haute cuisine. Of course, to treat its fabled pizzerias as producers of the former would do a number of them a great disservice. Some are just cheap and some are just greasy. There are also the unfortunate ones that are neither cheap nor greasy. So, during my recent NYC weekend, I made it my goal in life to find cheap, greasy pizza that was also intensely satisfying in flavour and quality.

My search for pizza nirvana was extremely scientific, in that I set a very scientifically-calculated price limit of $3 per slice and opted to avoid all major chains (that I knew of, being a lowly Canadian). And then I went to the first place I saw. It happened to be a pizzeria that was hilariously named Not Ray’s Pizza, located in the hipster-infiltrated Fort Greene neighbourhood of Brooklyn. On its face, it looked perfect – the promotional A-frame sign with a few slide-in letters missing, the facade untouched since about 1962 and the bright fluorescent lighting – so I boldly walked in and ordered a plain cheese slice. The man behind the counter took my order in a curt fashion and carelessly tossed my slice into the oven; an approach to service that was exactly what I was looking for. I had high hopes for the pizza when I saw it emerge from the oven, its generous helping of cheese glistening with glorious grease. I eagerly took my first bite, and was immediately in two minds.  The cheese was suitably stringy and melted. The sauce had a hint of sweetness that highlighted the quality of the tomatoes. However, the crust was reminiscent of the worst French baguettes in the bargain bin at a suburban Carrefour. It had all the texture appeal of a miserably undercooked piece of tofu and the flavour of tepid cardboard. It was also far too thick for a slice of New York pizza, which is meant to be folded over and enjoyed as an impromptu sandwich of glory. A pizzeria where the attention to detail stops where the crust starts does not deserve praise and, accordingly, Not Ray’s Pizza gets 2.89 out of 5 brown thumbs down.

notrayspizza

Not Ray’s Pizza

My disappointing experience with Not Ray’s Pizza prompted me to look for its positive doppelgänger in the hopes that Ray was doing a better job. In classic MC fashion, I stumbled upon it after walking the Highline Park on Manhattan’s West Side. Original Ray’s Pizza had the right look and feel, and I was optimistic when I walked through the door. The decor was nice and kitschy, with garish tile murals of the Rialto bridge and other Italian tourist traps.

originalrayswall

The dining room was surprisingly large given its prime location – it must be packed on evenings and weekends.  When ordering Alice and I ordered our slices, the service was subpar, in that we weren’t treated with the brusque efficiency of your average pizzeria employee.  Since I love nothing more than being able to fire an order across the counter and get an equally rapid-fire response without so much as a millisecond of eye contact, I was slightly disappointed.  The pizza, however, was a different story.  The slice was a saucy mess in my mouth, which was fantastic since there was enough cheese to match.  The sauce itself was tangy, which, unsurprisingly, demonstrated a different sauce development strategy than the one espoused by Not Ray’s Pizza.  Crucially, the crust had the right balance of crunchiness and chewiness, which sets great pizza apart from the merely mediocre.  All in all, Original Ray’s Pizza scored well on the food, but fell short on blatant indifference toward its clientele.  3.53/5 brown thumbs up and half a fuck you.

Original Ray's

Original Ray’s

I ended up finding pizza nirvana in a place that managed to nail down a slightly grimy décor several generations old, a quality slice with solid sauce and a thin, crispy-chewy crust, and gruff apathy towards its customers – my troika of tremendousness, if you will.  Joe’s Pizza in Greenwich Village was this place, and it unabashedly yet accurately described itself as a neighbourhood “institution”.  It’s a hole-in-the-wall spot near a subway entrance, with just a handful of seats inside and what can only be described as a more or less horizontal piece of timber attached to the wall outside, so that the overflow customers don’t have to sit on the ground.  I was momentarily discouraged by the raft of glowing reviews taped to the front window (I have a non-hipster-ironic distrust of reviews), but once I passed through the door I was heartened to see the old diner-style wall menu, the crusty staff and the thin film of grease and sweat that generally covered the place.  My order was met with the cavalier it’s-nice-that-you-want-pizza-but-don’t-expect-a-smile attitude that I was hoping for.  This primed me for the awesomeness that landed on my paper plate.  The slice that the portly pizzaiolo proffered was thin, cheesy and had little gobs of sauce protruding from every orifice.  The crust was perfectly chewy and crispy and, when I folded it over, it made for a truly tremendous pizza sandwich.  The sauce was a bit sweet and screamed freshness, like the one at Not Ray’s.  The whole slice worked so well that, even though we had just had a delicious brunch at Puerto Viejo, when Alice took a bite to try it, she was so impressed that she made me give her half the slice.  I guess restaurant reviewers can get it right, because Joe’s Pizza is officially the winner of my NYC pizza-fest with 3.77 brown thumbs up.

Joe's Pizza

Joe’s Pizza

Pizza is firmly established as a New York grab-and-go snack/drunk food of choice, and it has evolved to the point where even a dirt-cheap slice of pie can be good enough to make a foodie moan with glee.  Unfortunately, Toronto isn’t quite mature enough yet to claim anything more than mediocre street meat as an institutionalized snack.  We need to do better on this front, and hopefully our answer to NYC pizza will be quality food-truck fare that takes advantage of all the great food cultures that have come to be assembled in this city.  Of course, the oafish, Ottawa-inspired technocrats at City Hall would have to join the rest of us in the 21st century in order for this to happen.

Two types of travellers I can’t stand! (Part 1)

12 Aug

After my admittedly mushy first post about Ecuador, where I made it seem that I loved everyone I met and they all loved me back and it was all sprinkles and rainbows, I’m going to clarify that I can, and do, get annoyed with people. Sometimes I tell them off when I think their ideas are not properly formed. I’m not necessarily mean about it, but I am put off that they are talking in platitudes in an effort to seem “smart” or “cool” without considering what is coming out of their pie holes. It’s the type of thing our very grumpy gourmande (love you, Clementine!) would do to undergrads who write stupid first year papers. Neither of us have much patience for dumb-dumbs who think they’ve figured it all out.

Here is the first of two types of travellers that I met in Ecuador (but I am sure are everywhere!), and who I really can’t stand:

1. The one who is looking for “an authentic experience” and wants to “do what the locals do”.

I met Don* on Isla Isabela in the Galapagos. I was waiting for my new travel buddies to show up for happy hour on the beach and he was sitting with his girlfriend enjoying the sunset. I love engaging with other travellers and knowing what brought them to the same place that I am, so I asked what brought them to Isla Isabela. His answer? “I didn’t lI ike Puerto Ayora and I wanted a more authentic Galapagos experience, so we came here. I didn’t come all this way to hang out in an overpriced and touristy port town, ya know?”

After figuring out he wasn’t a prominent Galapagos historian or that he used to live there, I really bristled at the word “authentic”. Who was he to decide what an “authentic Galapagos experience” was, anyways?! I decided to remain polite – as you never know how if a stranger is stupid or just drunk, so I asked him what he really meant by “authentic”: did he mean it didn’t meet his expectations? did it not look like the pictures he saw? did he actually mean “rustic”?

Oh, poor dear Don. I don’t quite think he knew what he meant in the first place! He started moving his hands around a lot and playing with his prayer beads and saying that authentic was “where the real people lived”. This also confused me. Because, were people who lived in Puerto Ayora (the main port in the Galapagos) not real? Were they hallucinations only seen by tourists? If they weren’t real, what were they?

According to Don, they were “puppets of commercialization” and that no one who worked in a shop selling t-shirts would be doing that if tourists weren’t around to buy them. On that, I could agree. But he didn’t agree with me that they were benefiting by having so many tourists, he instead thought they were “suppressed” by the tourists. I am not sure who he was talking too, but I am sure that economic vitality and growth didn’t make a port town “inauthentic” or its people so “suppressed”. I said he might find it tacky to have so many tourist shops, but that didn’t make the city inauthentic. At this point, I was wondering if he even read the guidebook. If he had he would know that Puerto Ayora was a really bustling city (of close to 30,000 people!). If he wanted to get lost in the wilderness by himself, this really wasn’t the place to do it. My bitchiest comment was the following: “If you’re reading about it in Lonely Planet, it’s already been done and vetted by thousands of people”. I really don’t have time for dumb-dumbs, especially when they are ruining great a sunset.

Don was also insistent that he wanted to go “where the locals go”. I didn’t get into this with him, because I wasn’t quite sure that he could think so far as considering that that action might actually be invasive. As tourists, we don’t instantly get access to a local culture by merely buying a plane ticket and showing up. You are permitted to see what they present to you, which are the tourist destinations. Sometimes the tourist experiences are constructed to show us what the “local” people want us to see, and at the same time, not see.

I found his opinion misinformed and weirdly idealistic about the way the world works. That he didn’t enjoy that a city was set up for tourists was odd. Did he not consider how hard it would be to navigate visiting the Galapagos if it wasn’t set up for tourists? (Note: Don didn’t speak a lick of Spanish. Surprised? Me neither).

Finally, I dropped the subject once I got him to agree that what he really meant was “rustic” instead of “authentic”. (Mind you, he was kind of pissed that I was correcting his travel nomenclature in front of his girlfriend, who remained silent for the discussion. Sweet girl had probably been through something similar before.)

I spoke to my brilliant friend K about this because I wasn’t sure if I was the only one who would be so taken aback by Ron’s worldview. She put it well : it’s insulting to another population, not to mention condescending, to be upset that they are entering the modern world. She wrote out how Don (and his ilk) must consider travel to places that don’t meet their “authentic” expectations: “You’re entering the modern world and improving infrastructure? Shame on you! I need you to remain prehistoric for my own enjoyment!”

All experiences are “authentic” even if you deem them to be cheesy or silly. Even Disney World is authentically Disney World: it came to be with the intention to be a theme park, and it remains so.

For Don’s sake, I really hope he finds the authentic that he is searching for. But I also hope he doesn’t need advanced medical care when he’s there. Because then, as K put it, the “authentic” suddenly becomes “barbaric”. And that, would really be too much for him to process with just his prayer beads to calm him down. 

*obvi not his real name, but close enough that I will never forget what his real name was!

The view that Don was so intent on ruining!

The view that Don was so intent on ruining!

Memories of Paris…

16 Apr

I was last in Paris in the fall of 2010 for a seminar at l’École du Louvre…. (Yes, I just saw you roll your eyes at me through the internet). Food memories of my trip came flooding back when @wherejessate put out a call for information about eating in and visiting Paris. Until now, all the posts on this site were from experiences that were still fresh (less than 24hrs – a few days old), but I decided it was OK to change this to share my favourite spots in Paris!

Before you do any visiting, you will want to eat, because everything tastes better in Paris. But, where to start?

Place de la Madeleine! If you could argue that Paris is a Disneyland for Grownup Gourmands, Place de la Madeleine would have the longest line.

What can you find there?

Some of the main stream attractions are : Fauchon (not my fave, but if you’ve never been it’s worthwhile!), Thé Mariage Frères (one of the originals!), Maille (flagship store!) and, ofcourse, Ladurée Royale!

Still in the area, but off the main square:

One of my favourite tea places: Betjamen et Barton, 23 boulevard Malesherbes. While smelling teas and paying too much for them might seem similar to David’s Tea,  it’s not, not even a little.

If you like honey, then you must go too Maison du Miel, 24 rue Vignon. A place that only sells honey. It’s only something you’d find in Paris.

Now that you’re full… time to catch some culture! (and eat more food).

le 1er arrondissement:

If you’ve never been to Paris, then I am sure you’ll want to go to Le Louvre… but if you have and you want to avoid that frenzy of tourists and being disappointed by the Mona Lisa, there are two others that are just as great and not usually as crowded. One of these is le Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which is a great if you like interior and industrial design (both modern and historical). If you’re more a fan of paintings – that are not by DaVinci – then head to L’Orangerie across le Jardin les Tuileries. If you’re a big Monet fan, then this is the museum for you!

Once you’ve checked out one of these and you want to eat some rich French food, head over to Le Soufflé (not far) – and get a 3 courses of soufflées! You won’t regret it.

Le Marais:

Not so long ago, this was not the posh arrondissement it is now. Back when I lived in France (yes, I saw that second eye roll), it was fun but rough around the edges. Now, it is very very fashionable and safe.

Start your day off with a ridiculously priced breakfast or brunch at DEPUR. Spend the money just to eye the beautiful locals and drink an insanely expensive OJ.

One of the most beautifully designed museums I have ever seen is Le Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. They only have 50,000 visitors a year, compared to Le Louvre’s 8 million, so you’ll be able to enjoy this without too many sweaty tourists. Nearby is the eclectic Musée Carnavalet, also worth a look.

If you were ever a Sex and the City fan:

Remember when Carrie moved to Paris with the Russian? And met his ex-wife at a classy restaurant and they sat at clear plastic chairs? Want to «Carrie Out» a SATC fantasy and eat there? You can! Kong is still open.

Have a great time, @wherejessate! Do you have questions?