A Hockey/Eating Weekend in Toronto, Part 1

Max Dolinsky doing his best Brian Boitano at Toronto's City Hall rink

Not that long ago, Hannukah presents for my kids included Fisher Price games and Lego Star Wars. It’s funny how the older they get, the more elaborate the gifting becomes. But let’s be frank: Hannukah is not about the gifts, and never really was. It’s a Jewish guilt response to Christmas. Certainly, growing up in small town Minnesota, I can see how my parents wanted me to have a little something while my gentile friends hauled in the motherlode on the 25th. Since our holiday was always within a week or two, why not dish out a small gift each of the eight nights? We stopped giving the kids a nightly present years ago, but the things they do get seem to be more elaborate – and in the case of this year, they also happen to be presents that I wouldn’t mind getting myself.


With my son, Max, now 11 – and a huge hockey fan – we usually make one road trip per season, watching a Hawks game on the road and indulging our appetites. Last year, we drove to Detroit and stopped at Zingerman’s Roadhouse on the way, then had dinner at Michael Symon’s Roast pre-game; two weeks ago, we took the train to St. Louis and hit a few tasty places before and after the game. But for Hannukah this year, I decided to make it a hockey/eating weekend in Toronto, with or without the Hawks.



The trip started off on the right foot, as we breezed by the massive security line at Midway. I didn’t think this was possible, since I have all my miles/status on United at O’Hare, but since we were flying Porter, a new company out of Canada, our tickets entitled us to get into the priority line with the other VIPs from Southwest and Delta. We literally saved 30 minutes by this one, small bonus. Porter is becoming the Virgin Atlantic of Canada – a boutique brand with a niche for service and style. Most of their flights are between Canadian cities and destinations on the Eastern half of the country, like Timmins, Thunder Bay, Halifax and Montreal. They’ve been promoting themselves pretty heavily in Chicago, one of the handful of U.S. cities they now fly out of (Newark, Myrtle Beach, Burlington, Vermont and Boston are the others). Since they were running a sale, we thought we’d give them a try.


As we boarded the plane, I immediately thought of ABC’s series, “Pan Am.” Dressed in a stylish blue jacket with a matching pillbox hat, our stewardess looked like she was straight out of Central Casting. The planes are a bit smaller than the usual Boeing variety – they happen to be Bombardier turboprops, in case that matters to you – but they’re comfortable nonetheless, if not for the slight vibration in-flight. Snacks and drinks are all free here, and rather than the standard crap, we were offered Terra Chips, a bag of oatmeal cranberry raisin cookies from a Canadian company that features all-natural, peanut-free, kosher sweets, plus a bag of Blue Diamond roasted, salted almonds. Ontario wines from Jackson-Triggs and beer were also available (again, for free).


But the coolest part of Porter is where you land. I’ve been to Toronto at least a dozen times, and while Pearson International is cool, sleek and modern, it’s also way out in the ‘burbs, and requires a 30 – 40 minute cab ride into the city, which costs at least $40 – $50 with tip. But on Porter, you fly directly into the city, landing on an airstrip tucked onto a small island. Going through customs took all of 5 minutes, then we had another five minute ride on a ferry to get over to Billy Bishop Airport, where they have a shuttle bus stop that has pickups every 10-15 minutes, going back and forth between the Fairmont Royal York Hotel and the airport. I figured it made sense then, to stay at the Fairmont, which also is conveniently located about a block from both the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Air Canada Centre.


On approach to Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto

Not that I don’t trust the food service at the ACC, but we’ve made it a habit to dine somewhere before the game, just so that we don’t end up left with a choice between nachos and hot dogs. A friend of mine had recommended The Oyster Boy, on Queen Street West, about a 10-15 minute cab ride from the arena. Since Max is a fiend for oysters, it wasn’t too hard getting him excited about this place.

Daily oyster catch is posted on the chalkboard at The Oyster Boy


We loved it. From the pictures on the walls depicting oyster harvests to the friendly, knowledgeable staff and great selection of Ontario beers and wines, it was the kind of well-worn bar you could hang out in for a few hours, throwing back kusshis and talking smack about the Leafs’ chances in their division. We opted for a dozen briny, sweet Kumamotos from British Columbia and Colville Bays from Prince Edward Island, and summarily devoured them in about six minutes. We were also impressed with the shucker’s skill: he managed to preserve that precious oyster liquor (juice/fluid) inside each one, thereby giving us a little saline reminder of the true terroir of each half shell. One of my pet peeves is when the shucker is so careless they tip over the shells before placing them on the ice, but here, they knew what they were doing. My inner Alpana Singh told me to try the Cave Springs chenin blanc, which turned out to have just the right amount of acidity to balance those mollusks.


A dozen beauties from The Oyster Boy (note freshly-grated horseradish)


Other dishes followed: sturgeon ceviche, clam chowder, a grilled fish sandwich and some baked Oysters Rockefeller to boot. Everything tasted as though we were on the Eastern Shore in a true neighborhood joint.


By the time we got to the game, we were completely satiated. I figured we’d get a dessert there. In terms of hockey action, we were both pretty stoked to be at one of the country’s premier games on “Hockey Night in Canada,” but it was odd how the fan base seemed eerily corporate. The ACC is beautiful, but we kept noticing how the premium seats at center ice would stay vacant for several minutes into each period. There are no timers or clocks in the concourse, reminding fans when the game is resuming, and as a result, intermissions can stretch into game time. I would have thought these fans would be more rabid – especially against Vancouver – and noted how the scoreboard kept imploring fans to “make noise.” One of the local sports columnists remarked as much in the Globe & Mail the next day. Since we were not at a Hawks game, we decided we’d be Maple Leafs fans for the night (the fact their big scorer, Phil Kessel, went to the University of Minnesota helped), and were as dejected as the rest of the crowd when we left after a 5 – 3 drubbing. As impressive as the Air Canada Centre food options were, (beer drinkers will relish a Molson at every possible turn), we opted to skip snacks at the game, and instead, grabbed a quick bite from Epic, the restaurant/lounge back at The Fairmont.


On Sunday, we walked underground to Union Station across the street, and got on the #510 streetcar, headed toward the Spadina station. After a quick, 20 minute rumble through downtown, we made our way into Chinatown, and disembarked at the Dundas stop; we were headed for dim sum. Problem was, everyone else had the same idea, and so the snacking at Rol San didn’t work out as planned. We walked across the street to Pho Hung instead, and inhaled hot bowls of the Vietnamese classic, rife with vermicelli noodles, rare beef and brisket, as well as the standard side dish of fresh basil, bean sprouts and lime. Max also wanted to try the deep-fried soft shell crab (meh) and we opted for a giant banh xeo – the crispy crepe embedded with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts (solid).


The namesake at Pho Hung

We walked around the adjacent Kensington Market after lunch, checking out the funky clothing stores with everything from handmade jewelry to $12 hockey jerseys, and then made our way back toward downtown, stopping off at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where they had a Marc Chagall show going on. We hit the über cool gift shop to get a souvenir for Max’s sister, then walked a bit more over to City Hall, where they have a giant, outdoor public skating rink. For $15, we rented skates and spent about an hour there, taking in the scene with dozens of locals on a shopping break. A few hours later, we’d be tearing into slow-smoked ribs and juicy chicken, and we’ll pick up that part of the story in tomorrow’s Part 2 post.

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