Monday, August 25, 2014

Canadian National Exhibition


The Canadian National Exhibition. The CNE. The Ex. No matter what you call it, if you grew up anywhere near Toronto, it was likely a part of your childhood. If you are an adult of a certain age (*ahem*), you probably remember that end of year report cards came with a free pass to The Ex (the real reason to open that dreaded envelope). AND if you managed not to lose your free pass during summer vacation (thanks mom!), The Ex was something to look forward to, a last hurrah before summer's end and back to school. Now that I'm all grown-up, summer's end no longer means a return to school, but it always means a return to The Ex.


There is an almost overwhelming amount t.o. see and t.o. do (ha! see what I did there?) at The Ex. For some, it's all about the midway. The Ex has everything from classic rides like the Merry-Go-Round, Tilt-A-Whirl (my personal fav.) and Ferris Wheel to more recent innovations in thrill-seeking, designed to make your insides turn to mush just by watching OTHER people ride. It is this humble rider's opinion that too many amusement parks these days put all the emphasis on roller coasters, which are cool, but they don't give you the same slow stomach drop of the Pharaoh's Fury (pictured mid-swing above). If you disagree, never fear! The Ex boasts two small roller coasters in its midway collection, as well as an assortment of tame rides for weaker stomachs. A recent addition to The Ex is a zip line that allows the truly fearless to glide overhead the crowds while enjoying what is surely a unique viewpoint of the grounds. If you have the opportunity, plan a walk through the midway at night when it's all lit up with colourful lights. I can actually see it from my balcony, which is a lovely treat.


No midway is complete without a selection of carnival games, designed to frustrate and reward you (though probably not in equal amounts). Admittedly, this is not the main draw of The Ex for me, but I'm probably biased due to the fact that once upon a time I had a summer job working the games corridor of the midway, a rite of passage for countless GTA teens. That being said, I do have an odd affinity for balloon darts (I bet you didn't know such a condition exists!) and I always stop for a quick game while at The Ex. I have a very strict games budget so I didn't work my way up to one of those gigantic stuffed animals you see being lugged around the midway, but I did end up with a teeny stuffed dalmatian so I'm satisfied.


And then there's the Food Building. When I was a child at The Ex, I remember the Food Building as having no real consequence or appeal. Oh my how the times have changed. The Food Building is now regarded by many visitors to The Ex (myself included) as an attraction within an attraction, almost worthy of its own visit! Talk about overwhelming... it is a gastronomical extravaganza, the likes of which are rarely seen outside its walls. Bring an empty stomach and an open mind. Each year pre-opening, the media is abuzz about what new and exciting concoctions are being offered to eager diners. I managed to sample a variety of these bizarre takes on carnival foods, including the Thanksgiving waffle (verdict: it worked surprisingly well), cocoa-infused fried chicken (verdict: a milder flavour than I was expecting), butter coffee (verdict: shame-inducing), apple-brie filled dessert ravioli (verdict: not dessert-y enough) and s'more bao (verdict: best idea). If adventures in food isn't your thing, there is classic fair fare at every turn, from cotton candy to corn dogs. There's a reason that free samples of antacids were being handed out in the Food Building!


If you've consumed too much food to get back on a spinning ride, there are plenty of indoor and stationary sights to take in at The Ex. A personal highlight was the President's Choice SuperDogs show, being held in Ricoh Coliseum. If you've never had the opportunity to delight in this show, you really should go out of your way to see it. It might be aimed at a slightly younger audience (*ahem*), but I have seen the SuperDogs several times and at the risk of sounding like the lamest person alive, this particular disco-themed version of their show is their best yet. OH C'MON! It's dogs performing tricks, running obstacle courses and high jumping! Just try to sit there without a dopey smile on your face, I dare you. FUN FOR ALL AGES GUYS.


If you're too grown-up to enjoy the SuperDogs (PSHT!) then there are plenty of activities geared more towards adults. Craft and artisan vendors, live demonstrations, horticultural and agricultural exhibits, music concerts, an international marketplace (bought myself a beautiful hand-embroidered scarf made in Indonesia), an on-site casino, the famous(ly loud) air show... there are so many things happening at The Ex that people who have been attending for years can still stumble upon things that make them exclaim "Oh! I didn't know they had ___ here." More than anything, I think that's what keeps me coming back year after year. No two visits are exactly alike. Next year I'll go on a ride I was too chicken to try this year, I'll eat food that hasn't been created yet and I'll buy a hand-made accessory from a country I have not had opportunity to visit.

I'm already looking forward to it!

The Canadian National Exhibition runs until September 1st, ticket information can be found here.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Palattes of Africa

Every time a long weekend is upon us we are faced with a choice: should I stay or should I go? This particular Canada Day long weekend was due to be interrupted by a work day (for some) in the middle of the sweet long weekend goodness, so I decided to stay in the city. This turned out to be a great decision, for a variety of Toronto event-related reasons, chief among them: Palattes of Africa.

Palattes of Africa is part of the Supafrik pop-up shop and gallery series created by Chinedu Ukabam, the designer behind the African-inspired fashion label Chinedesign. This was the third instalment of Palattes of Africa (previous editions took place in Toronto in 2012 and Paris in 2013), and this time it was personal brunch. The five-course menu was inspired by the World Cup and created by chef Lohi Ogolo to celebrate the relationship and history between West African and Brazilian foods.


The venue for Palattes of Africa was inside the Edward Day Gallery, which is located beside the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA). After receiving an e-mail the morning of the event cautioning us not to be late, we arrived early and staked out a spot in the shade of the MOCCA courtyard. After a few minutes of waiting in the heat, we were excited (and relieved) to have our first taste of the menu brought out to us: a tamarind cocktail garnished with a generous slice of pear. Soon after finishing our sweet drinks, we were led inside to the gallery and took our seats at one of five communal tables. At our place settings we were greeted by a small card that was a detailed menu on one side and was a feedback card on the reverse, asking us to rate each dish on a scale of 1 to 10 and also to write down what each taste reminded us of. We were also each provided with a glossary of terms/ingredients that related to our menu, which was an incredibly helpful and considerate idea for those attending who were unfamiliar with West African and Brazilian cuisine.


Our first appetizer was an African salad, made of chopped kale, abacha (cassava strips), sweet peppers, garden egg (African eggplant) and a honey-citrus dressing. It was as light and tasty as it was colourful. Our second appetizer was akara (also known as koose), which is a deep-fried ball made from de-hulling water-soaked brown or black-eyed beans. Normally it is served as part of a breakfast meal with bread or porridge, but it was served to us with a tomato-based Nigerian stew topped with red onion slivers. This dish was an early highlight of the meal, absolutely delicious! While we waited for out next course to be served, we were introduced to the visual artist and poet Komi Olaf whose work decorated the gallery walls and provided some lovely and dramatic imagery while we dined. We also had opportunities to browse the Supafrik pop-up shop, which was set-up at the back of the dining area. Our ticket to the event nabbed each attendee a $10 off voucher to purchase whatever colourful garments and accessories their hearts desired. Good deal!


Next up, servers poured us each a dark red-purple drink made from hibiscus flowers, whose name changes depending on where you're drinking it. In Senegal you should order "Bissap", in Nigeria it's called "Zobo", in Ghana you would ask for "Sobolo" and in the Caribbean it's known as "Sorrel". Whatever you call it, it has a ginger-y, almost spicy taste and is very refreshing on hot days. We barely had time to sip our hibiscus drinks before our main courses began making their way to our tables. First up was acarajé (the Brazilian version of akara), shaped like a pancake and served with shrimps, peppers and caramelized onions. This was my favorite dish of the day. Its presentation was beautiful and it tasted unbelievable (it didn't hurt that the ingredients used in this dish are some of my favorites). We barely had time to recover from the acarajé before the next main dish appeared in front of us: stuffed plantains (tostones) with suya-seasoned chicken. Another colourfully-presented dish, which quickly challenged my decision to rank the previous dish the #1 dish of the day*. Delicious! *In retrospect, it's probably more accurate to say the two mains tied for the title of favorite dish.


There were a few unexpected treats in store for us that day, the most exciting for me was that we were going to be served some Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee, courtesy of Sense Appeal Coffee Roasters. Even better news was that it was served iced! Anyone who knows me knows I love my coffee as cold as a Canadian winter and as strong as a Canadian... winter? Suffice it to say, I was very happy with the coffee. It was exactly what I was craving after such a big and flavourful meal. And what is the perfect pairing for coffee? Dessert of course! Our dessert was a sweet tapioca pudding with fresh tropical fruits, topped with roasted peanuts (also known as "groundnuts"). It was a great finishing dish to a spectacular meal. But wait! There was more! Our last unexpected treat of the day was a lovely take-home tote bag, which contained a large container of organic chocolate-covered almonds from food sponsor Mike and Mike's and a Brazilian meat rub from Senses Appeal Coffee Roasters (perhaps a little odd until you check the ingredient list... coffee!). This last batch of treats especially made the $40 ticket price one of the best bargains around town.

So what's up next from the Palattes of Africa team? An organizer told me that an African dinner event and a regional cocktail and wine tasting are in the planning stages so sign up for e-mail alerts on their website, "like" them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter so you can grab tickets once they go on sale. I will see you there!