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Doing Toronto on My Stomach
Toronto’s Art, Architecture, People and Food Hell-bent on achieving world-wide recognition like no other city in North

by Edward Rubin

America was Edward Rubin’s impression of Toronto. With recent make-overs for Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Gardener Museum, the city readies to strut its cultural stuff to the world

No other city on the North American continent is as hell-bent on achieving world-wide recognition as the city of Toronto. In this respect it is the China of the Western World. It is also, as many Torontonians like to think – and rightfully so – the New York of Canada. For here resides more culture, more art and art fairs, more fine restaurants, more parks, and more condos and co-ops in large buildings overlooking Lake Ontario than one normal person can experience within a given lifetime. With so much happening in the city only a jet crazed tourist on a month long vacation, or an aesthetically addicted, hedonistic loving, New York journalist on a roll, not unlike myself, has the time, energy and compulsive desire to extract the crème de la crème from the city’s ever-changing, ever-growing, around-the-clock mélange of overflowing delicacies. The prevailing thought, for any traveler, should be if it doesn’t end in an orgasm, so to speak, it is not worth doing.

For those of us who hate to fly and abhor the glut of mall-like stores and the lockdown POW war mentality of airports – I find removing my belt and shoes, emptying my pockets, and waiting in a holding pen until boarding time, totally dehumanizing – getting to and from Toronto in one piece of paramount importance. Nobody wants to arrive at their destination fully frazzled and half dead. The remedy for this tortuous affliction is Porter Airlines. It is the only airline that lands on a small island in center city Toronto – a savings of one hour from Toronto’s international airport. With a check-in time of one hour (and not two) for international flights, complimentary wine and beer on all flights, and free cappuccino, soft-drinks, cookies, newspapers, WiFi available in a cushy and comfortable waiting lounge, Porter is the Spa of all airlines.

Matching your neurosis to the right hotel is the second most important decision you will be facing. But first, be warned! You must forget about your pocketbook. If parting with more than a few shekels is an issue with you, stay home. Yes, we are all going through an economic depression, which means this is the perfect time to go bonkers. So haul out your charge card and take it to the max. Today may be the last day of your life, so you might as well die happy. Let those that remain behind worry about financial cleanup. If you require top of the line 19th Century Splendor, a three room suite larger than your own apartment, a lobby and hotel filled with turn of the century art, hot and cold running bellhops, double-jointed concierges that bend over backwards to cater to your every whim, and the very best Sunday buffet in town – and who doesn’t – Le Royal Meridien King Edward Hotel, affectionately referred to as the King Eddy, is your nirvana. I didn’t want to go home.

If cutting edge art is your thing, lust your favorite virtue, and creative types – artists, models, and seemingly innocent beauties of all persuasions waiting to be fertilized your fantasy – I can hear the crowds already lining up – The Drake Hotel on Queen Street West, known as the “Hot Bed of Culture” is the place to be. With continually changing art exhibitions helmed by the hotel’s ever inventive in-house curator Mia Nielsen, evening salons where artists mingle with the public, a plethora of musical and theatrical performances, a deliciously sensuous restaurant, a sexy and vibrant lounge scene, and 19 art-filled rooms – from intimate crash pads to luxe suites to play in – all of your desires can be satiated without ever having to leave bed, bath or bar.

Also situated on Queen Street West, in the heart of city’s hot and happening art and design district, is the Gladstone Hotel. Here every room, with no room being the same size or configuration, is imaginatively designed by local artists. With names like Sugarbush, Teen Queen, Blue Line Room, Star Gazer and Biker Room, you and whoever you just dragged in off the street, get to live out your fantasy du jour. Like the Drake, the Gladstone, with its countless events, is an around the clock art and artist-filled haven. During my last visit, on a tour led by the infamously connected Betty Ann Jordan (, Toronto’s premier art guide, we popped in on Hard Twist the hotel’s yearly fiber art exhibition. Organized by Helena Frei and Gladstone’s in-house curator Chris Mitchell, Hard Twist, the finest fiber show that I’ve ever seen, blew me away. Why this museum quality exhibition is not traveling across Canada or gracing the walls of the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia is beyond me.

The Intercontinental Hotel on Bloor Street in Yorkville is where I last stayed during a Tourism Toronto sponsored Food & Food Fusion press tour. Amenities aside, the hotel’s location – with many cultural institutions within walking distance – is its calling card. Down the road a piece – putting my new best friends first – is the sparkling art-filled home cum salon of Toronto’s fabulously flashy artist, Barbara McGivern. Her abstract paintings, delicately peppered with Swarovsky crystals, decorate many a home and palace in Dubai and London. A hop, skip and a jump away is the 5-floor, see-though glass home and gallery of Charles Pachter, Toronto’s legendary artist provocateur. It is Pachter’s on-going series of paintings of Queen Elizabeth and a giant moose – scandalous in the 70s, now art historical landmarks – which first canonized the artist. Still, the city’s most talked about bad boy; a week does not go by without one of his paintings, be it his Moose or Flag series, appearing on the front page of a Toronto daily. Completing this trifecta is Steve Rockwell, the conceptual minimalist artist and publisher of dArt International Magazine. Known to make sudden appearances, wherever you go of any importance, Rockwell is already there gleefully discussing the latest scandals. During my visit the Fran Hill Gallery, filled with women that talked like cowboys and cowboys that talked like women, threw a wild, food and drink filled party in my honor. Of course the walls were beautifully lined with Rockwell’s paintings.

For those who have no fabulous Toronto friends as of yet, taking your own leisurely cultural walking tour – you never know who you will meet on the way – is the perfect solution to your problem. Right across the street from the Intercontinental Hotel – you can actually roll out of bed and be there – is the Royal Ontario Museum. Two blocks away is the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art and down the road a piece is the Bata Shoe Museum, two of Canada’s, one-of-a-kind specialty museums. If your feet are too tired to take the trek, equally exciting, especially for those who have a middle tire that needs constant maintenance, Signature, the hotel’s restaurant will fix this glitch. Most mornings I could be found pigging out at breakfast – not all at once mind you – on their shrimp, asparagus and spinach crepes, Black Angus strip steak, toffee walnut French toast with fresh berries Anglaise, and Belgian Waffles with berries, praline butter and Canadian maple syrup.

During the last decade or so, art and architecture has been the magic rabbit that Toronto has been pulling out of their hat. It all started in 2004 with Will Alsop’s ultra fantastic, award-winning, Sharp Centre for Design. This simple but startling black and white checkered building, built atop toothpick stilts on top of the already existing Ontario College of Art & Design – hands down it is one of the world’s most unique buildings – never fails to bring a laugh to my lips. Actually it makes me want to scream at its cleverness. It was this alien creation that shockingly awakened Toronto to the extra terrestrial possibilities of space age design. Quick to follow in Alsop’s steps was the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario, two of the city’s most ambitious cultural institutions. Hoping to create the kind of excitement that turned Guggenheim Bilbao into a must see tourist destination, both behemoths, raised hundreds of millions of dollars, and hired star architects to work their magic.

Looking both forward and backwards, the ROM hired Daniel Libeskind, the wildly imaginative starchitect to change the face of its institution. His job was to turn an old fashioned sow’s ear into splendiferous silk purse. And change it he did. Inside and out. Fulfilling his contract and then some, the shock and awe exterior of new Michael Lee-Chin Crystal addition – all angular glass and steel – looks like a giant meteor that landed atop the museum’s older building. The mile high, block long entrance hall, somewhat unpleasantly, dwarfs the visitor, and the some of museum’s all right angled gallery walls play havoc on the eyes. During my first viewing of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s exhibition, which opened the new building two years ago, I walked right into a slanting, light-filled wavering white wall, a not uncommon Libeskind phenomenon. His Denver Art Museum presented the same problem. This said the ROM does have its pluses. Its historical story-telling objects are beautifully thought out and displayed, its famed dinosaur section is simply enchanting, and its curators – this is the good news – are slowly but surely, coming to terms with the building’s strangely configured Roloff Benny Gallery, and Garfield Weston Hall, the museum’s cavernous exhibition space.

Not surprisingly, the Art Gallery of Ontario, one of Canada’s premier art palaces, turned to former Torontonian Frank Gehry, another brand name architect to enliven their collection. Gehry whose flamboyant, over-the-top undulating titanium clad Guggenheim Bilboa Museum took the world by surprise seems to have done an about turn from his recent and usual. For his five-floor AGO outing using a forest full of natural wood and mucho glass, he hand-tailored his newest creation to fit both people and neighborhood. Never has a museum so successfully channeled the ebb and flow of its visitor’s pitter patterning feet. From Galleria Italia, the museum’s block long, light-infused, glass enclosed sculpture promenade that overlooks Dundas Street, to its new wood-filled curvilinear, crowd delivering pathway in its entrance hall, to its 110 art-packed galleries, there is nary an architectural misstep. Though its contemporary collection, seemingly a bit sparse in international biggies is not without interest, it is AGO’s immense collection of Canada’s Group of Seven – I have never seen so many of these artists superlative “back to nature” works in one showing – that held my attention.

While the art scene in Toronto is continually expanding, the restaurant scene – dripping with world class chefs – has been virtually exploding. Most surprisingly, like no other city – New York included – some of the most highly touted restaurants are museum housed. c5 situated at the top of ROM’s Michael Lee-Chin Crysytal, with its soaring peaked ceilings, spectacular city views, and edible creations of Ted Corrado, the Chef de Cuisine, is the most dramatic of the lot. It is also, especially when sitting in its large lounge – preferably with a drink in hand – a people watching heaven. On the night of my visit the place was overflowing with a mixture of chattering hotties and newly lifted faces downing Cosmos and Champagne punch. Most likely they were coming, just as I was, from the museum’s eye-popping, blingfest exhibition, The Nature of Diamonds. For dinner I gorged myself on Papardelle with porchini, white anchovy, paquillio peppers, and black olive oil, tried the Hokkaido Scallops & Fois Gras, washed it all down with a few Romatini’s (Grey Goose vodka, hpnotiq, with a splash of scotch). I left feeling no pain.

Almost as heady in its floor to ceiling glassed enclosed space is the Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner at the Gardiner – the only museum in Canada devoted solely to ceramics. The restaurant’s lunches – dinner is not available – orchestrated by Chef Scott Vivian are delectable works of art. Here, after viewing the museum’s Harvest of Memories: Mexican Days of the Dead, along with a gaggle of journalists, I sat down to lunch. Starting with a couple of Cosmos and much talk, and continuing with various Ontario produced wines, and more talk, I ate my way through Vivian’s exquisitely prepared beet salad, orgasmic cider-braised shorts ribs, and topped it all off sticky toffee pudding. The AGO also houses a sleek chic restaurant named Frank after architect Frank Gehry and artist Frank Stella whose surprisingly beautiful stainless steel hanging sculptures dominate the room. Well, almost dominate. Run by Executive Chef Ann Yarymowich and Chef de Cuisine Martha Wright – two of the city’s stand-out chefs whose food I have yet to try – Frank is already a big draw. High on my list of must tries next trip to Toronto is their duck leg confit with pan-seared duck livers, Lake Erie Pickerel, braised Ontario Rabbit, and wild boar loin chops. To end my dinner on an ecstasy high, I intend to order their baked bittersweet pudding topped with Malden-salted caramel sauce and sweet whipped cream. There is no sin in waddling your way around town.

Like the many of the museum restaurants, Toronto’s very best restaurants, from location, to décor, to the preparation and presentation, are gustatory show stoppers dedicated to the wow factor. Being a lobster groupie, my first gourmet stop is always at Far Niente located at Bay and Wellington. Executive Chef Gordon Mackie’s mouth watering lobster pot pie is reason enough to visit the city. Made with one and a quarter pound Atlantic lobster resting in a tarragon cream sauce with fingerling potatoes, leeks, carrots, pies, and wild mushrooms, this culinary masterpiece, topped with a delicate puff pastry crust, is to die for. The best nouvelle-styled Indian food in the city – with some dishes prepared right at your table – can be found at Dhaba Indian Excellence on West King Street. Here Chef PK Ahluwalia’s ingenious blends of cumin, cardamoms, cloves, carom seeds, black pepper and Spanish saffron – he is the city’s wizard of exotic herbs and spices – are symphonies to the tongue. At One Restaurant at the Hazelton Hotel, Chef Mark McEwan’s pulled out all stops. His terrine of fois gras with pickled cherries and brioche, butter braised lobster spoons with vermouth, and veal shank risotto Milanese, most of which I happily snatched from other people’s plates, sent me flying heavenward. The winner of the most unique restaurant location is The Fifth Grill on Richmond Street. Situated off an alleyway – you enter this speakeasy through a pulsating nightclub, take a wooden freight elevator up a few flights, and end up in a romantic candlelit room with a piano player. Here I fed my body and soul on Chef JP Challet’s black cod and scallops with olives and lemon confit and oxtail ravioli and morel sauce.

After stuffing your face and gaining a few pounds you might want to come back down to earth by worshipping at the feet of a couple of Toronto’s best kept secrets. As amazing as it sounds most of the Torontonians that I spoke to had no idea that such aesthetically unique extravaganzas existed in their own city. It was on a walking tour led by the intrepid city historian Bruce Bell (, that I first discovered – quite by accident as we were taking a shortcut – Derek Besant’s, 15- story high Waterfall mural (1989) which the main wall in the lobby of the Scotia Bank Plaza. Standing before the 62 canvases that form the vertiginous 100 foot plus high mural, one actually senses the rushing waters as they cascade down the side of the wall. Just as astonishing, and just as well hidden, unless you happen to be working in the financial district, and many do, is Santiago Calatrava’s, spectacularly arched, 6-story high, steel-and-glass canopy at the Allen Lambert Galleria at Brookfield Place. The Galleria’s canopy often referred to as the Hall of Lights, covers the shops, restaurants, office towers and heritage buildings of Brookfield Place, while linking Bay Street to Heritage Square. It imparts the sensation of walking under an Urban Cathedral.

A wonderful and leisurely way to spend a day before departing for home territory is a visit to Toronto’s downtown Historic Distillery District. Situated on 14 acres of what was once the largest distillery in the British Empire – slowly strolling to shop, eat, and take everything in, is highly recommended – this pedestrian only village, with its quaint brick-lined streets and forty-five well preserved Victorian industrial buildings is totally devoted to promoting art and culture. With some twenty art galleries, twenty artist studios, some open to the public, six restaurants, countless jewelry, ceramic and furniture boutiques, and a performing arts center, there is no end of things to do. My favorite gallery here is the Sandra Ainsley Gallery, arguably the most beautiful art glass gallery in the world. Each one-of-kind-work of art is breathtakingly spotlighted. The experience, dramatic to say the least, is akin to floating inside a cave lit by a score of intricately designed Tiffany lamp shades. To take a load off of your feet, and sweeten your District visit, Soma, the only chocolatier in Toronto to make chocolate straight from the beans, is the recommended rest stop. Here you eat, drink and breathe chocolate in every shape and form. You can also buy enough chocolate to fuel your way back home.

dart international magazine. contemporary art review and criticism. ©2004-2017. all rights reserved.

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