Sweltering on the boardwalk

This summer has been unbearably hot and humid in Toronto, but I was going stir-crazy without my weekly walk. So, throwing caution to the (complete lack of) wind, I grabbed my camera and hit the boardwalk and some nearby wooded areas.

Jason Bourne should have stayed home (review)

bourne poster

Super-assassin Jason Bourne is trying to figure out who he really is. In doing so, he falls into a web of deceit and potentially world-crippling black ops, including the one that gave birth to him. People try to neutralize him…silly people.

Cars race through crowded streets. Shots are fired from every direction. People die just as they start to provide answers. More shots are fired. Bourne gets answers but no real resolution or peace.

If you expected any more from a Jason Bourne movie, then you will be seriously disappointed with the latest installment of the series based the lead character of the novels by Robert Ludlum. In fact, if you want more from a Jason Bourne story, read the novels by Robert Ludlum because they are insanely better than any of the movies.

[Some SPOILERS hereafter]

In the latest installment of the series, Matt Damon’s titular character is brought out of hiding by his former nemesis-turned-ally Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who has hacked into the CIA server and stolen the complete dossiers of the agency’s Black Ops. She wants to turn the information over to a Julian Assange kind of character, but asks for Bourne’s help, enticing him with information about his father’s involvement in his creation as super-killer (think X-Files Fox Mulder).

After a momentary “I’m getting too old for this shit” and some personal sacrifice on the end of a bullet, Bourne is alone again and we are off to the races.

Bourne cast

The CIA Director (Tommy Lee Jones) wants him dead, relying on another super-assassin The Asset (Vincent Cassel) to get the job done, while IT-savvy CIA analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) sees an opportunity to advance her career and maybe replace her boss by bringing Bourne in. Oh, and in the background, there is something about the CIA having access to the personal information of everyone on the planet via the Internet and a Sergey Brin-like character.

Unless this is your first Jason Bourne movie, you know how this all plays out…and if it is your first Jason Bourne film, why should I spoil it for you?

If you are looking for 123 minutes in which to simply check your brain at the door, then this is an entertaining way to do that. Stuff blows up, people fight, lots of car chases. But nothing really happens that hasn’t happened in the previous movies. Much like a roller coaster, the ride can be exhilarating at moments, but once the ride stops, so does the exhilaration.

And that was my problem with the movie…the thrill is quite literally gone for me. Jason Bourne has become his own cliché, and the writers and directors of this series are simply repeating moments from the other incarnations.

Where they had an opportunity to do something truly interesting with this story—the moments we spend exploring Bourne’s relationship with and confusion about his father—the writer-director Paul Greengrass and writer Christopher Rouse give us the barest taste and scurry back to blowing shit up. Rather than offer any sense of discovery and revelation, they simply have a former agency hack fill in the background under threat of death.

Is toady ex machina a thing?

In the earlier incarnations of this series, I never knew what to expect. In this incarnation, I knew exactly what to expect and it was delivered each and every time with a pretty pink ribbon. Or was that faded red tape?

I’m going back to the books. At least Robert Ludlum knew how to write.

As for shit blowing up, back-stabbing political conspiracy, and disquieting Internet voyeurism, 123 minutes of Jason Bourne just can’t compete with 20 minutes of CNN.

Bourne books

Contemplating Toronto street art

I have become a massive fan of street art, lately, taking time out of my day to not only see the art that once was hidden behind my mental blinders, but also to truly appreciate the craft that goes into it.

Perhaps, my awareness is simply a component of my desire to slow my life down and spend more time in the moment. All I know is that I now spend as much time looking behind me, while walking the streets of Toronto, as I do looking in front of me (except when crossing roads).

Walking home from my favourite bacon restaurant – Rashers – the other day, I took the time to wander down a single alleyway just off Queen Street West…a SINGLE alleyway…and captured some of the art I found. Enjoy.

Central lodgings for intrepid explorers – review of Hotel Le Roberval

Graffiti

Hotel le Roberval centres an eclectic mix of neighbourhoods

Conveniently located within a short walk to Montreal’s Vieux Port, the Village and the restaurants of St. Denis, Hotel Le Roberval offers affordable, clean lodgings for people who like to explore the city on foot or with a quick jump on the Metro (Berri-UQAM).

The rooms are quite spacious and well-maintained, offering a kitchenette space that included a bar fridge, microwave, coffee maker and two sets of dishes. The Queen-sized bed was firm and comfortable, and the television was hi-def. And for those needing to work or wishing to keep in touch via social media, the free WiFi was very reliable and allowed rapid upload of photos to Facebook.

Parking is a bit of a chore, however, as you need to store your car in a shared lot less than a block from the hotel. Unfortunately, you need a room key to access the lot, so you have to check in before you can park. That said, you can leave your car on Rue Berri for up to 15 minutes while checking in.

The free continental breakfast leaves something to be desired. There is no hot food, the entire spread limited to croissants, cellophane-wrapped half-bagels, yoghurt, pastries and a couple of dry cereals, as well as milk, juices and coffee. Like the small dining room itself, however, the buffet is well-maintained and the staff who work the room are attentive to everyone’s needs.

Although the hotel is located on the corner of two busy streets (Boul. Rene-Levesque & Rue Berri), bound by government offices and the Universite du Quebec á Montréal (UQAM), there are several restaurants within a short walking distance (mostly in the Village) and a couple of depanneurs (convenience stores that also sell alcohol) if you just want to relax in your room.

As comfortable and accommodating as Hotel Le Roberval is, the lodgings are really just a place to store your stuff and rest your head as you explore what Montreal has to offer.

Needs to up its game – review of Aux Anciens Canadiens

Aux Anciens CanadiensNestled in the heart of Vieux Quebec, less than a block from the Chateau Frontenac, is the familiar red roof of Aux Anciens Canadiens, an unassuming looking restaurant that specializes in game meats. My recent visit was something of a home-coming for me, as I had crossed its threshold 15 years ago and had been amazed by the food and service.

A meat lover’s paradise, the restaurant has made its reputation on its multitude of dishes involving game ranging from elk and caribou to bison and duck, as well as various seafood offerings. On my latest visit, my friend and I had lunch, which was a $20 table d’hôte. But $20 was really just the starting point, as almost everything we ordered added a few to several dollars to our dining tab.

The menu itself was a single long page, but it was chock full of dishes, many of which were not particularly informative about the content of the meal and required questions of our pleasant but harried server.

As it was the Canada Day long weekend, the restaurant was packed and without reservations, it took about half an hour before they could seat us. That being said, the restaurant did its best to get our orders in and food out very quickly. Reservations are recommended.

I started with the escargot. The flesh was pleasantly cooked, offering resistance without being chewy or rubbery. Unfortunately, the flavour of the dish was largely overwhelmed by the cheese, which although not heavily applied was strong and distracting. I wanted garlic butter and instead was met with salt.

Escargots

Sloppy presentation and the cheese overpowered the garlic butter

My main course was the Trapper’s Treat, comprising Lac St.-Jean tourtiere and bison stew. This was why I had returned and it did not disappoint. The tourtiere was insanely flavourful, the tastes and textures of the different meats mingling beautifully with the spices and vegetables to create an unforgettable experience.

And the stew reminded me of the amazing stews my grandmother made; the vegetables firm, the bison chunks tender. Interestingly, the bison tasted distinctly like beef in this dish, which surprised me a little as I expected something a bit more distinct.

Trapper's Treat

Lac St.-Jean tourtiere and bison stew with homemade ketchup (like a salsa)

My friend let me sample her main course, which was bison cooked Bourguignon style with a creamy blueberry wine sauce. The blueberries intrigued me, and did not disappoint, not being initially apparent but making a sudden appearance at the finish.

For dessert, both of us had the chocolate pie with white chocolate cream, a very sweet combination that definitely needed the long espresso as a change-up. I admit that I was expecting the pie filling to be more of a mousse and so was surprised when it ended up being more fudge-like in consistency, making it a very heavy dessert. The best part was actually the cream that nicely contrasted with the tartness of the few garnishing strawberry slices.

Chocolate Pie

Heavy (fudge-like) chocolate pie with white chocolate cream

Aux Anciens Canadiens is not a beer-lover’s paradise, however, as the selection was limited to a blanche and an amber. And although the wine menu appeared extensive, only two wines were sold by the glass: a Chardonnay and a Pinot that my friend suggested was not particularly good. All other wines were sold only by the bottle.

As mentioned earlier, service was pleasant and accommodating, but the crush of patrons seemed to have caught the restaurant by surprise, putting the servers on a constant run that made it sometimes difficult to get questions answered.

Sadly, this experience didn’t quite live up to my memories of my earlier one. Perhaps it was the crush of the long weekend. Perhaps it was simply that lunch service doesn’t match up to dinner service. Either way, it feels like the restaurant needs to up its game to compete with other game restaurants in the area, such as Le Hobbit Bistro just outside of Vieux Quebec’s walls.

Game, if you are – review of Hobbit Bistro

Elk flank steak

Elk flank steak, salsify puree and tarte flambée

Deciding that we had had enough of Vieux Quebec, my friend and I decided to look outside the walls of the fort and check out the eclectic neighbourhood that ran along Rue Saint-Jean. Within blocks of the bus depot, we came across Hobbit Bistro, a busy little joint that seemed to specialize in game meats.

Abuzz with activity, we were immediately met by one of the servers who, despite our lack of a reservation, found us a nice little table in the corner, from which we could observe the flurry of activity around us. The décor of the room was as eclectic as the street outside, with a goat head hanging off one wall across from a large central table that appeared to have been hewn as one piece from a sequoia. We also overlooked the amazing bar, overseen by multicoloured bottles of all shapes and sizes.

The staff was quick, both of foot and of tongue, sharing barbs and quips with great alacrity and charm, and ensuring that we were quite happy and satisfied. This became especially important, as we soon realized that checking into Hobbit for dinner was a long-term engagement; while everything and everyone else rushed around, the food itself did not.

For an appetizer, my friend and I shared braised bison cheek bathed in a reduction of its cooking juices and blanketed with fricasseed Brussel sprout leaves and a mushroom salad that seemed to include enoki and alfalfa sprouts. Tender is not the word to describe the meat; fragile is more accurate. And the raspberry vinaigrette of the salad nicely cut through the salt and fat of the meat reduction, laying flavour on top of flavour. My only regret was we didn’t ask for more bread to sop up the delicious sauce.

Buffalo cheek

Braised bison cheek with mushroom salad

As a main course—which took longer than my stomach and taste buds would have liked—was elk flank steak spiced with juniper and mustard on a salsify puree and partnered with tarte flambée, carrot and a half bok choy, all under a demi-glace of cacao nibs. Again, the meat was incredibly delicate and wonderfully juicy and rich, while the salsify (think parsnip) had a buttery texture with a nutty finish. I was unfamiliar with tarte flambée but eventually guessed correctly that it was like a pan-fried slice of bread covered in onions and white cheese. This made for an interesting combination of crisp texture, salty tang and sweetness. The only negative to the main was the two vegetables, which we overcooked and quite soft.

Trying to pick only one dessert was practically impossible as everything sounded wonderful. Eventually, I settled on a lemon curd, honey and yoghurt mousse over pistachio cream with chocolate biscuits and a few meringues. Only the chocolate biscuit could be described as very sweet, the mousse and cream offering a beautifully creamy blend that teased the taste buds as the flavours evolved. The meringues were a decorative throw-away in my book and could easily be dispensed with.

Lemon curd mousse

Lemon curd mousse on chocolate cookie with pistachio cream

Despite the slowness of each course of the meal, the lively energy and yet intimate feel of the restaurant ensured guests remained comfortable. And it is clear the staff like working there as one server even remembered another guest who had last been to the restaurant several months back, recalling what the guest had ordered.

The restaurant almost seems too welcoming and accepting to be called fine dining, but the price tag would suggest that is exactly what it is. And the food is more than ample proof that this is dining at its finest. A definite must-visit for anyone checking out Quebec City.