Toronto Today – Art, Food, and Canadian Hospitality

The art starts at Toronto’s modern, light-filled Pearson International Airport with a delightful sculpture of a baggage cart loaded nearly to the ceiling greeting arriving passengers in baggage claim. It is a harbinger of that unique Canadian sense of humor and hospitality.

Baggage sculpture in claim area of Toronto International Airport

Baggage sculpture in claim area of Toronto International Airport

Welcome to today’s Toronto.

The central Toronto skyline is much-changed in the last 10 years. While the CN Tower still dominates, new dramatic skyscrapers have sprouted in the downtown core and condo towers are going up apace.  There is a bustling of construction including a renewed Union Station, new shops and galleries in the rehabbed Distillery and Warehouse Districts, street upgrading and more.

The CN (Canadian National Railroad) Tower casts a big shadow over central Toronto and offers wonderful views.

The CN (Canadian National Railroad) Tower casts a big shadow over central Toronto and offers wonderful views.

Places to see on a four-day visit might include a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) with its Henry Moore sculpture collection and dramatic remodel by world famous Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry. Recent exhibitions include Alex Colville’s engaging paintings and works by Michelangelo. Also In the AGO’s collection of over 80,000 works are European masterpieces and a very strong Canadian collection.

Art Gallery of Toronto with Henry Moore sculpture.

Art Gallery of Toronto with Henry Moore sculpture.

Part of architect Frank Gehry's masterful work in the Art Gallery of Toronto.

Part of architect Frank Gehry’s masterful work in the Art Gallery of Toronto.

Street art abounds in Toronto and many of the artworks are sanctioned by the city. On our visit we met street artist Aurora painting a large mural. She told us that taggers leave work by other artists alone as a sign of respect. Random public art on telephone polls and other places will surprise and delight. A great place to see this is on a stroll through the Kensington Market area, which is a delightful walk through bargain-filled Chinatown from the AGO.

Street Artist Aurora works on her piece in the thriving Kensington Market area of Toronto.

Street Artist Aurora works on her piece in the thriving Kensington Market area of Toronto.

Art galleries and unique shops in the West Queen West Art + Design district are plentiful and can easily absorb a full day. We found a walking tour led by Betty Ann Jordan to be practical and timesaving. We were able to learn about the history of the area and the support given these dedicated Districts by the city of Toronto. We were able to visit places like Artscape Young Place, a re-purposed public school building, now an art hub making studio and gallery spaces available to a wide range of individuals and groups. While open to the public, this venue might be off the beaten path and the walking tour made finding it easy.

Betty Ann Jordan leads great art walks in Toronto. Links to her site at the end of the post

Betty Ann Jordan leads great art walks in Toronto. Links to her site at the end of the post

Artscape Young Place, a former school, has been re-purposed as studio and gallery spaces.

Artscape Young Place, a former school, has been re-purposed as studio and gallery spaces.

We also visited chic boutiques like Gravity Pope (best shoes in Canada) and BYOB (unique bar and hospitality wares) and galleries like Angell Gallery, the Edward Day gallery and Craft Ontario, all emblematic of the West Queen West District.

BYOB, a great hospitality emporium in West Queen West Art+Design district.

BYOB, a great hospitality emporium in West Queen West Art+Design district.

Within a few blocks of each other downtown are the CN Tower, with spectacular views of the Toronto vicinity, the new Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, the Air Canada Center (Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors basketball team), the Toronto Railway Museum, the elegantly-sited Hockey Hall of Fame, the Toronto Convention Center and the TIFF Bell Lightbox (home of the Toronto International Film Festival). All of these attractions seem to have been designed in a worldclass fashion, befitting a historic center of finance, culture and commerce.

Home of the renowned Toronto International Film Festival with a ubiquitous Toronto trolley car.

Home of the renowned Toronto International Film Festival with a ubiquitous Toronto trolley car.

Two historical standouts that we enjoyed visiting were the St. Lawrence Market in Old Town Toronto and the site of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall (built in 1850). There are over 120 vendors selling everything from fish and meats to baked goods and kitchen supplies. There is also a wonderful exhibit room on the third floor which rotates historically relevant exhibitions during the year. Bruce Bell, Toronto historian, writer and speaker, conducts walking tours of the Old Town area for groups and individuals and does a great job rounding out the historical perspective of the Market and Old Town Toronto. Don’t miss the North Market, across the street, site of a Saturday Farmers Market dating back to 1803 and a bustling scene with southern Ontario farmers bringing their goods to town. Bruce showed us the site of Toronto’s original town well and the place where offenders were placed in blocks by the harsh authorities in the early days of the city.

Bruce Bell leads wonderful tours through the Old Town and historic St. Lawrence Market. Link to his site at the end of the post.

Bruce Bell leads wonderful tours through the Old Town and historic St. Lawrence Market. Link to his site at the end of the post.

Another highly-recommended stop is the newly-rehabbed Distillery District. Dominated by the huge Gooderham &Worts, Ltd. sign. This visionary re-purposing of Victorian industrial structures, a national historic site, is clearly a success with its preservation and the modernization. Starting as a grist mill in 1831 and through the storied distillery history until reopened in 2003 as the Distillery Historic District, this is a great place to spend a day and get a great meal. Which leads us to our next section: Food!

Because we only report on places we’ve experienced, let’s start with our first dinner in town at Luckee Restaurant, downtown at 328 Wellington St. West. Famed Chef Susur Lee calls it “Nouvelle Chinoise” and what it seems to us is a great new take on traditional Asian regional cooking incorporated into splendid menu items such as Long Xia Gow (lobster and asparagus dumplings), a jumbo shrimp plate with exquisite tastes and a blood orange and lemon curd tart for dessert. The menu is designed for sharing and the staff, like server Martin Bathke and manager Tiffany Knight, will guide you with informed suggestions. The decor is chic modern with an open kitchen. It is clearly a gathering place for urban-cool diners and families, too.

The chic interior of Luckee Restaurant attracts a cosmopolitan mix of patrons and feeds them very, very well.

The chic interior of Luckee Restaurant attracts a cosmopolitan mix of patrons and feeds them very, very well.

We took breakfast almost every morning at our hotel, Le Germain Maple Leaf Square, not just because it was included with the room, but because it is served, buffet style, in 2 large second floor great-rooms with big windows capturing alot of sky and the downtown buildings. There is abundant staff bringing you your favorite coffee drinks and juices and efficiently refilling the wide-range of breakfast offerings. This room was really well thought-out for the business and tourist clientele the hotel attracts and doubles as a business center 24/7 and accessed by room key-activated elevator. Located at 75 Bremner Blvd, just steps from Maple Leaf Center. Highly recommended.

Part of the dramatic lobby of the Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square .

Part of the dramatic lobby of the Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square .

We had a lunch at Drake One Fifty, close to Le Germain at 150 York Street, and the food was excellent with a great brussel sprouts dish, sautéed mushroom skillet, a delicious kale salad and a hefty, aged beef burger with hand-cut fries. A business lunch environment, judging by our fellow patrons, but not in the least stuffy.

The second dinner we had was a Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, a restaurant with an interesting Toronto history and located in the re-emerging and hip west end Liberty Warehouse District.  Noted cookbook author Chef Donna Dooher and her partner Kevin Gallagher bring decades of experience and innovation to their farm-to-table menu. We had a red wine poached pear salad with pomegranate vinaigrette with arugula frisee and blue cheese and an excellent mushroom skillet that included grape tomatoes and kale with a black garlic vinaigrette topped with grated Pecorino. O, should we mention the knockout, house-made Profiteroles? We tried the Eephus Oatmeal Stout from Toronto’s Left Field Brewing at Mildred’s and it was a star. Fun place and hugely popular on weekends for brunch.

Sushi anyone? Ki Restaurant offers a broad menu that includes a large sushi selection and other fare, as you’ll see. What’s more, you’ll find a Sake Sommelier in the person of Michael Tremblay (certified by the Sake Education Council in Tokyo) who can guide you through a tasty tutorial on Sake basics. We tried the unagi (eel) nigiri, roasted cauliflower with sesame and shiso gremolata, seared fresh scallops with shiitake, oyster and honey mushrooms with shiso furakaki and miso-kasu sauce plus the excellent strip loin with ginger sauce. Shiso, by the way, is a Japanese green. Think basil meets anise. This was all served by Eric Cash and colleagues who guided us through the choices with tempting descriptions from the menu. Ki is located in central downtown at 181 Bay St. and is a vibrant after-work cocktails scene.

The very modern and popular Ki Restaurant even has a Sake Sommelier.

The very modern and popular Ki Restaurant even has a Sake Sommelier.

Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie. Home of the tempting Absinth Fountain.

Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie. Home of the tempting Absinthe Fountain.

Our last dinner in Toronto was in the aforementioned Distillery District at Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie at 35 Tank House Lane. No cars are allowed in this lovely walking area so reaching Cluny is a delightful stroll over cobblestones amidst historic, rehabbed industrial buildings. And a trip well worth it (and only minutes from downtown by cab – we liked Diamond Cab). Chef Paul Benallick oversees the kitchen and dining area beyond the stylish bar and retail boulangerie. The space is cleverly broken-up into unique seating areas which allows for banquettes and tables. There is an intimate oyster bar as well where a group could have some serious fun. We started with delicious martinis recommended by ace server Crysta Boytchuk. Our drinks were accompanied by a clever amuse of Kingfish ceviche and followed by a crisp dinosaur kale and queen kale salad, one of the best French Onion soups we’ve had and a remarkable gnocchi with escargot dish that we would fly back to Toronto for.  We moved on to the Drunken Tuna (seared ahi, red pepper pesto, pureed potatoes and a sherry vinaigrette) and the steak frites plate with a 6 oz. filet mignon served with lemon and garlic aoli.

The Absinthe Fountain at Cluny Bistro.

The Absinthe Fountain at Cluny Bistro.

But wait, there’s more: The Absinthe Fountain. Here’s how it works. You see it across the room at another table; a large glass samovar filled with ice water and you want it at your table. In our case it appeared by the hands of gracious floor manager Andrew Thisby. You are served a glass of clear Absinthe with your choice of a house made sugar cube. The ice water from the samovar is dripped through the sugar cube into the Absinthe. A great way to end a meal.

Adieu beautiful, exciting Toronto. We’ll be back. There is so much more to see.

When you go:

Tourism Toronto

Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)

Art Walking Tours with Betty Ann Jordan

Bruce Bell’s Walking Tours of Old Town and St. Lawrence Market 

The Distillery District

Luckee Restaurant

Drake One Fifty Restaurant

Mildred’s Temple Kitchen

Ki Restaurant

Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie

Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square

Richmond, B.C., Asian Food Lover’s Paradise


The Richmond Night Market runs May thru September

With so many readers traveling through Vancouver B.C. we like to inspire side trips and special places that we think our readership would like.  Richmond, B.C., is one those special gems we want to share with you.

Minutes from the Vancouver, B.C. airport, Richmond is an Asian food lover’s dream.

With a setting along the famous Fraser River, Richmond has about 400 Asian restaurants for its 200,000 residents, or, one for every 500 people, and the quality bar is very high, even in the mall food courts.


The bar is set very high for Asian food in Richmond, B.C., and that includes mall food courts.


Great store, with products not easily found in the U.S., abound in Richmond, B.C.
Yes, you can stock up on Malteesers, too!

With a nearly 70 percent Asian population, almost half of which are from China, a visitor can count on some scrumptious and varied fare.  Add to this amazing variety of restaurants the renowned Richmond Night Market with its 80 food stalls, and you’ve landed yourselves in the middle of a foodie heaven!


Many Richmond, B.C. restaurants put their fare right on the window.

We checked into the Radisson Hotel, just a short walk from the Aberdeen light rail station.  There are plenty of well-known hotel brands in Richmond, but the Radisson is particularly handy to the airport and light rail.  What this also means is that you can get to downtown Vancouver without getting into a car by walking the short distance to the light rail.


The Radisson at Richmond, B.C. is steps from the light rail station that will take you to downtown Vancouver.

A foodie friend and I found ourselves dining a deux on the first night of a 3-night stay and headed for the Shanghai River Restaurant after walking the borders of the main restaurant district.  Note: Walking, very good idea.  Much food. Fortunately Richmond is flat and great for burning off a big meal on foot or bicycle.


The Parker Place BBQ store.

The first thing we noticed at the Shanghai River Restaurant was that its gorgeous dining room was full of happy Asian families and tables full of intriguing looking plates of food.

Courteously greeted and seated, we tried the soup dumplings which were absolutely delicious, followed by vegetables wrapped in bean curd, pork with preserved vegetables and Black Cod.  That’s about all two people could handle, but it was exquisite and, reminded us that the best way to eat Asian food out is with a larger group so you can sample more menu items.

Soup Dumplings at the Shanghai River Restaurant

Soup Dumplings at the Shanghai River Restaurant

The large group issue was handled the next morning when the gracious hosts of Tourism Richmond gathered a table full of us for Dim Sum at Fisherman’s Terrace Restaurant in the sprawling Aberdeen Center, another short walk from the Radisson.


O, boy!  And out came the prawn dumplings, 3 mushroom soup, pork buns, barbecued pork pastry. tapioca cake, turnip cake, deep fried prawns, egg custard and steamed mini-sponge cake, to name a few items.  A hearty Richmond, B.C. breakfast!


Dim Sum Breakfast at the Fisherman’s Terrace Restaurant.


More of that Dim Sum at the Fisherman’s Terrace.


The OMG Egg Custard at the Fisherman’s Terrace Restaurant.


Yes, all of this!

Not only does Richmond have remarkable gastronomic attractions (more on those in a moment) but a short bus, bike or taxi ride will get you to Steveston Village, an engaging working seaport steeped in regional history. Plan to visit the beautifully restored historic Gulf of Georgia Cannery, built in 1894, at the Steveston Harbor. The Cannery reflects the multicultural heritage of the area and the guided tour will convince you of the rough and tumble life of the Gulf of Georgia fishing and canning industry.


Gulf of Georgia Cannery, Steveston, B.C.


Take the guided tour of the Gulf of Georgia Cannery. The history of Steveston, B.C. is fascinating.

As you walk along the wharf on your walking tour of Steveston, check out the fresh fish being sold right off the docked fishing boats.  On the wharf numerous restaurants specialize in fresh seafood dishes and the friendly locals are welcoming. (It’s Canada!).


Fresh fish for sale along the Steveston, B.C. fishing docks.


And don’t forget the crabs!

Heading back to central Richmond, just about 2 miles away, perhaps it might be time for your afternoon Pineapple Bun at the intimate Lido Restaurant and Bakery.  This place is so popular that sometimes you have to order and pay for your Pineapple Buns in advance and the hostess will tell you to come back in 10 minutes when the next batch is due out of the oven.  The buns are a real treat, with a nice pot of tea.  There is no pineapple in them, but the tops resemble pineapples, hence the name.


Pineapple Buns at the Lido Bakery in Richmond, B.C.

While we are helping you burn off all this wonderful food, it is time to guide you over to the spectacular Richmond Olympic Oval, just west of central Richmond.  Built for the 2010 Winter Olympics and the speed skating events, it has been transformed into a public fitness center, in true Canadian fashion.  It is chock-a-block full of exercise machines, basketball courts, a climbing wall, badminton and, watch out, the best ping pong players you’ve ever seen up close!  You can get a day pass to use the facilities and it is big enough to not feel crowded.  The refreshing groups of young people engaged in athletics was wonderful to see.  This really is a “worth your time” attraction like Steveston.


You’ll see some rocket ping pong at the Richmond Olympic Oval.


The climbing wall at the Richmond Olympic Oval, now open to the public daily.


Exercise bikes open for public use at the Richmond Olympic Oval.

While on the subject of athletics, if you have ever been curious about Dragon Boating,the Richmond Rowing and Paddling Centre at the nearby University of British Columbia Boathouse offers visitors the opportunity to get out on the Fraser River, under the supervision of veteran coaches and trainers.  See sidebar for contact information.

All of these attractions can be reached comfortably by bicycle and there are several bike rental outfits in the Richmond/Steveston area to serve you. A good cycling map is available listing additional resources.

Returning to our foodie world, along Alexandra Road, (aka “Food Street”), are a couple of notable restaurants to try (among many).  The first is Jang Mo Jib Korean Restaurant.  The name means “grandmother’s house” and serves very traditional Korean cuisine and the excellent claypot cooking.


Pork neck soup at Jang Mo Jib Restaurant in Richmond, B.C.

We tried Pork Neck Soup, the delicious short ribs and Korean traditional sausage (Soon Dae Jub See).  The kim chee was varied and delicious as well.


East meets Northwest at Richmond, B.C.

Our moveable feast then lurched a block away to the Claypot Hot Pot and BBQ restaurant to have some fun with this great Cantonese-style cooking.


Claypot Hot Pot BBQ in Richmond, B.C.

In the middle of the large tables are gas burners divided into sections so that different broths can be used to cook the varied food items, which on our visit included soup bases of Szechuan Spicy, Parsley and Preserved Egg, Satay and Peppered Pork Stomach.  Into these sauces we cooked: Short ribs, pork belly, sliced lamb shoulder, and meatballs of fresh prawn and minced dace (fish).   We also deep fried some fish skin and spicy pork ear.   For our vegetarian palate we also cooked tofu, gluten, garland chrysanthemum and lotus root.  The tastes were amazing and this style of cooking is especially fun when you have a table full of people.


Famous Chef James, with his wonderful food and sparkling personality at the Richmond Night Market.


Lovingly cooked octopus at the Richmond Night Market.




Insanely delicious fried potatoes at the Richmond Night Market.

Lastly, if you are traveling to Richmond, B.C. between May and September, you are in for a special treat if you visit the Richmond Night Market, open Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.   During our visit, there were 80-plus food stalls, ranging from Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese and varieties in-between.  Bring your appetite and be prepared for some real fun.  It teems with people from all over the region as well as tourists and the management monitors food prep and keeps the grounds very clean. The Richmond Night Market is accessible via the light rail (Bridgeport Station) and sits close to the Fraser River, so bring a light jacket or sweater to keep the night chill at bay. Be prepared for lots of food and fun.


The wonderful, colorful and meditative Kuan Yin Buddhist Temple in Richmond, B.C.


Some of the extraordinary art at the Kuan Yin Buddhist Temple, Richmond, B.C.

From now on, spending at least 2 days in and around Richmond, B.C. is going to be part of our trips to Vancouver.  Discovering the convenience of the light rail system and recognizing that Richmond is a full-on Asian food celebration were two highlights of our visit.  One thing that stands out is how most people of Asian descent appreciate a wide range of cooking styles from around Asia.  This translates into a large community support base in Richmond and it is enjoyable to see.  Food brings the world together.  Perhaps that accounts for the happy families we saw in Richmond.  Don’t miss it!

Some helpful links for you:

Tourism Richmond:

Richmond Night Market:

Richmond Olympic Oval:

Steveston Village:

Gulf of Georgia Cannery: