A few weeks after my arrival in Toronto, I had a discussion with Kelly about checking out restaurants. After some discussion, we decided that Tuesday’s would be the day she would guide me to some of her favorite spots.
We decided to start with a British pub. In 1534 the colony of New France was established. It then transferred to the UK in 1763. In 1867 Canada confederated, but it remained a colony within the British Empire until 1931. Given such an extensive Brittish colonial history, why not?
That first Tuesday we took the subway downtown.
Locals give it mixed reviews, but I enjoy the TTC. Compared to Boston the cars are wide-open, clean, and comfortable. Being on the train feels a bit like traveling down a brightly lit hospital corridor that’s racing through a hole in the ground. It’s also eerily quiet. I’ve only witnessed one outburst where a guy screamed, “GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY WAY!” as he exited.
I should point out that he wore a Red Sox cap.
Generally speaking, the rides are quiet, and silence begets silence.
Traveling with Kelly, I hesitated to break the quiet. Thankfully a group of high school girls started ragging on a poster encouraging decorum and politeness on the train. Their heckles made conversation comfortable.
Kelly commented how she enjoyed cutting class at her high school in Hong Kong. As we discussed academics, she mentioned that part of her Advanced Biology class involved partial dissection of a human cadaver (It made the boys ill). I countered with my AP Bio class where we spent a week pulling apart a Perdue chicken wing. Only one person in my class passed the final exam. Not I. But I did later get involved in food. Correlation or causation? I don’t know. I didn’t take statistics.
In high school, I was a devoted Anglophile and took a school trip to London. Kelly, on the other hand, had only been there for a short trip while pregnant with her son about two years prior.
We compared notes on British food.
I was an idiot teen in the mid-‘90s. My worst meal was in the hostel restaurant where I had a glorpy vegetable lasagne served on top of pale french fries. Then there were burgers in Canterbury which came with the warning to, “beware of bones.” My two most memorable meals were a burger at the original Hard Rock Cafe and the world’s most picture perfect McDonald’s burger at Heathrow Airport.
The very best thing I ate was a kebob off a cart in a Tube station.
Kelly had her most notable meal in London at an American restaurant specializing in “Southern food.” Its menu included BBQ ribs, fried chicken, and jambalaya – a disjointed combo that would concern most American southerners. She’d wanted to hit up Heston Blumenthal’s place, but at four months pregnant, she wasn’t sure if she could enjoy it the way she wanted.
Instead, she got the jambalaya. It was fine.
When Kelly did have her son Oscar, he had to stay in the ICU for three weeks. After one particular troubling night at SickKids she and her husband had dinner at our first lunch spot. She remembered it fondly at a terrible time.
To start, I ordered an app that sounded “pubby”: “Toerags” — a salt fish and potato fritter. These appear in many cultures. Done well they’re hearty and delicious like fish and chips jammed into a refined tater-tot. This one didn’t taste like anything. It wasn’t bad. It was crispy. It came with a curry aioli that was nice, but it had no flavor of fish or potato.
Kelly ordered some fries that came with homemade ketchup that was loose and watery. I’ve enjoyed “homemade” ketchup only once in my life*, and frankly, I was drunk enough that I can’t be sure it was as good as I remember. This meal did not change that score.
My main was a fisherman’s pie: hearty, big, and rich. It was fine. If you can imagine decent mashed potatoes crossed with creamy style fish chowder – you’ve pictured it correctly.
I don’t want to say what restaurant this was.
The place was clean, well designed, and the service was fine. I can almost guarantee you that I could go back and have a fantastic meal. But this wasn’t it. Even Kelly agreed that it wasn’t what she’d remembered.
What were my expectations? What baggage did I bring in with me? Did I go in there with an amorphous goal to “discover” something or, “have a revelation?”
Maybe this is my warning, not to go in anywhere “fully loaded.”
It was a pub lunch in the middle of the week. We were the first people through the door. Going to any restaurant that caters to a drinking crowd, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week is begging for “just okay.” When it comes to restaurant scheduling, this is where you’d put your weakest teams.
What does all this mean?
It probably means I should have started with indigenous food.
I walked in their front door with a friend, a goal, and a mission. I guess sometimes it’s better just to go to lunch.
Sometimes it’s not about the toerags. It’s about the TTC.
* The summer of 2015 at the Red Maple restaurant in the Chequit Hotel, Shelter Island, NY. Looking at the menu now, they don’t seem to be making it anymore…