Travel Blog #16: Trial and Error

My dream of spending a year living in Asia so far hasn’t gone quite as planned. But that doesn’t mean it’s been a complete mess or waste of time. These are some of the biggest trials I’ve gone through in a while, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

Trial #1: The Job

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This digital plaza shopping spree made me realize I need a job ASAP

Since I came here knowing I wanted to teach English I did what any logical person would do – found a teaching job at a school. After a few weeks of travel and another week of depressed burnout I decided to actually be productive. (That is, after staying out until 2 a.m. eating and drinking with a then-stranger, now best friend.) In a strong burst of motivation, I applied for about 30 jobs in one sitting. That sitting lasted me from about 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. the next day.

I slept for a few hours (I think) and woke up to the nonstop buzzing of my cellphone. Now, the smart thing to do in this situation would have been to respond to the offers, go to interviews, weigh the options, ask around to get a sense of things… You’ve probably already guessed that I did none of that. Within three days I signed a contract to a school that was seemingly a perfect match. This was Ellis-Koifman-meets-first-real-job syndrome.

Trial #2: The Classroom

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Having settled into a rather luxurious place with two super friendly roommates and an adorable shiba inu I was pretty happy…. with the apartment. With the job, not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely enjoyed the teaching; it was a really rewarding experience where I got to feel like I was making a real difference in kids’ lives. But therein also lied a problem: kids…. as in… more than one kid… as in spend half (read: 80%) of the class managing behaviour. In and of itself, this wasn’t a game-breaker, but the particular school I was at had a borderline “zero consequences” policy. Kid hits another kid? No real consequences. Kid repeatedly violent in class? No worries. Kid hits teacher? Not allowed to send them out of class. You get the idea.

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None of these rules has enforceable consequences.

This was already exhausting on its own, but then you add into the mix that the school demanded quite a hefty amount of paperwork. I can type pretty quickly (around professional speed), but even then I was struggling to finish everything. Between the paperwork exhaustion and the behaviour management problems I quickly found myself counting the days until each weekend and treasuring each of the (extremely limited) days off. Then I’d get sick once in a while and feel even more exhaustion as I struggled to keep up with everything.

On December 1st, 2017, I departed from my first teaching gig of 40 hours per week and retired to the comfy day-to-day of quickly dwindling funds and figuring out what the hell to do with my life as an expat in Taiwan.

Trial #3: The Apartment

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Living room and New Year’s feast (no, I don’t eat like this everyday).

I’ll be honest, up until recently (and even now to a lesser extent) I did a piss poor job of managing my personal finances and budgeting for the long term. As part of this youth-related stupidity, I signed a one-year contract for an expensive apartment, including a rather large deposit, about a week after getting the new job.

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The kitchen and its master.

Without a job, it became (admittedly slowly) apparent that it was a terrible budgeting decision. At the start of April, I’ll be moving across the city to a cheaper neighbourhood and an apartment that costs less than half of my current one. For now, it’s just a matter of hard lessons about budgeting hitting me like bricks.

Trial #4: The Future

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My online teaching backdrop.

After about a month of nothing I started doing one-on-one tutoring with an online company (which is why I was able to stay in Taiwan at all instead of just going home). This was a really nice change of pace from teaching in the classroom. It has given me a lot of autonomy and lets me cater each lesson to the individual student. Teaching online also gives time to develop my own teaching style and “classroom” decorations.

It’s taken me a long time to realize it, but this whole slow transition has been an opportunity for me to figure out where my strengths lie and what I value in life.

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Experiencing Alo Restaurant

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Alo is a filling tasting menu experience that leaves you speechless.

Toronto has its fair share of restaurants with extravagant tasting menus. Each is known for its fantastic food, but is limited by one critical aspect – you leave hungry.

My visit to Alo Restaurant was to celebrate my 22nd Birthday. After struggling to get reservations, I was given the opportunity to eat at the Chef’s Table with my family. This involved enjoying a 17 course meal that I can say with certainty was the best dining experience of my life.

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Upon entering you go up a squished elevator and walk out to an elegant upscale dining room. On one side there is a bar and on the other are tables. In between the two is the Chef’s Table – a bar counter with six seats looking into the open kitchen – where I enjoyed my meal.

From the vantage point of the Chef’s Table I was able to peer into the beautiful process of creating and plating each dish and even having a few dishes served by Chef Patrick Kriss himself.

Food

Each course was a small piece of art, making you focus on savouring the combination of fresh high quality ingredients rather than having you rhythmically consume a heap of food without much conscious thought.

While the courses are too many to recount, a few stand out as highlights of the night.

Kusshi oyster: a single oyster on a bed of crushed ice, seemed so minuscule, yet easily stood out as the best among many dozens of oysters I’ve enjoyed in the past year.

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Toro: as a sushi fanatic I was thrilled when this was served. This fatty piece of tuna belly had quality reminiscent of Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Japan.

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Bluefoot chanterelles: a slightly salty and very memorable mushroom dish with rich creamy flavour.

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Hamachi sashimi: the chef finished the dish with a sauce just after it was served and personally explained the dish. As with the toro, the fish was the freshest and best quality I have experienced.

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Beef rib cap: a relatively sizeable chunk of meat served with puréed mushroom and king oyster mushrooms. Despite being the only meat dish in the seafood-heavy tasting menu that evening, it fit perfectly, its rich flavour setting the bar high for future steak dinners.

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At the end of the meal three hours had elapsed and I was too full to consume another morsel of food. In addition to giving me the meal of a lifetime I was left more than satisfied, a genuine surprise considering the nature of upscale tasting menus in Toronto restaurants.

Truly, Alo Restaurant is the right way for a tasting menu to be done. If you’re looking for a celebratory meal that is worth every penny and will be memorable for years to come, this destination is a must.

Rating: ★★★★★

 

Review: Antonio’s Steakhouse (April Fools)

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If you’re looking for one of the most disappointing steakhouse experiences of your life, look no further than Antonio’s Steakhouse on John St., just south of the newly opened Fish Market.

Catering to a student audience, this restaurant brings in a life-changing assortment of flavourless dishes that make you question why you ever even bother eating. The potential of food being this bad will turn any adventurous foodie into a pasta-with-butter-everyday fiend.

As soon as you walk in you are greeted by the magnificent wait staff, who quickly seat you at a table seemingly meant for a large party. It’s meant for you. Just you. Any other guests you brought along will be asked to wait in the lobby until you finish your meal.

As soon as you see the menu your jaw will drop. We’re talking 16oz Wagyu beef steak for $10, 32oz 60-day aged prime ribeye for $15, and a wide range of salads for $40 a piece.

Naturally, I went for a salad – it is a steakhouse after all!

salad-tomatoes

It was a traditional caesar salad with a vegan twist.

A highly interesting medley of romaine lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, croutons, vegan ranch, lavender and, last but not least, sand.

Needless to say the salad was drier than an oasis in the desert and more flavourful than a piece of cardboard covered in tomato sauce (AKA gluten-free pizza).

The sand added a strong crunch to every bite that the croutons just didn’t quite provide. Insufficient dressing made the salad even drier – more so than a swimming pool in the middle of the summer.

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The beach I’m told the sand came from

For dessert I had the 16oz filet mignon, but was disappointed at the lack of sand which I had grown accustomed to, so I sent it back.

At the end of the meal my friends were waiting for me, starving and begging me for any leftovers I might have from my tedious 14 hour meal (they had been locked inside the restaurant by the manager about halfway through my meal after my friend Greg attempted to escape leave).

After thanking the wait staff and leaving a 4% tip (followed by a 15% tip then a 20% tip after a series of angry glances by the knife-wielding head chef) I ran out of the restaurant with my friends never to return.

Rating: 2/17

If you’d like to try Antonio’s Steakhouse for yourself I suggest you don’t.

Happy 4th of July April Fools!

Images: Pexels (3)

Review: Tamarine by Quynh Nhi

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Once recommended to me as a top restaurant in London, Tamarine is an upscale Vietnamese place that easily lives up to its reputation.

The atmosphere sets the tone for the meal: an elegant display of unique lighting fixtures and paper lanterns, which help make the restaurant warm and welcoming.

Staff were extremely friendly, pacing each dish perfectly and frequently checking to ensure the meal was to my liking.

The cocktails are all in-house specials that complement each and every one of the menu options.

While looking at the drink menu the owner came over and talked to me. He knew my name (presumably from when I called earlier to confirm the reservation) and asked where I was from and how I had heard about the restaurant.

In addition to offering a warm welcome, he suggested getting the Mekong Martini to drink– a sweet and sour cocktail with a strong taste of lychee, lime and mango.

Food

Canh Chua Soup:

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Tamarind soup base, chicken, plenty of vegetables including baby okra, pineapple, two large pieces of tomato, cabbage, slivers of celery and plenty of sprouts; garnished with basil & chili.

A fresh, spicy soup with plenty of vegetables. You are given the option to remove the chili, which otherwise gives the soup an extra spicy kick.

Chicken Pad Viet:

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Vietnamese rice noodles, chicken, baby bok-choy, celery, green onions, sprouts and fresh chives; garnished with crispy shallots and served with chili-lime soya sauce.

The light soya sauce adds a sweet undertone that brings out the best of every ingredient. Chicken isn’t as much a pronounced feature as it is a well-portioned complement to the rest of the dish, which offers a nice medley of flavours.

This is a fantastic dish in all of taste, portion and aroma.

Black Eyed Pea Che:

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A petite sticky rice dessert that offers a light, fluffy and creamy blend of perfection in a coconut milk reduction. The dish is accented by black eyed peas that bring a nice contrast.

Each bite is a heavenly bliss.

If you’ve never had sticky rice before, this is absolutely the place to try it.

Conclusion

As a Torontonian I admittedly had a combination of high expectations and low hopes, but Tamarine shone through and really impressed me. I highly recommend giving this place a try!

Rating: 5/5

http://www.tamarine.ca
118 Dundas St.

Cheers,

Ellis Koifman

Review: Bar Raval

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Fig & Olive Oil Cake

Bar Raval transports you to a Spanish pinxtos bar, separated from the outside world and offering some of the best food in Toronto.

Before entering this restaurant I had never enjoyed a meal while standing across a barrel in the company of others, nor had I been so confused as to how a seating system works.

The crowded gastro-bar has a bar area with baked goods on display, a table stretching along one side and barrels with flattened tops that act as tables.

If you don’t grab one of the limited number of stools, you’ll be standing for the duration of the meal. But fret not! Most people are standing in this restaurant so you’ll fit right in.

There is also a covered outdoor section that lacks any seating, with more barrels and a window sill to rest your food.

It’s anyone’s guess how the wait staff keep track of whose food goes where but they seem perfectly comfortable, never getting confused or missing an opportunity to ensure you’re having the best possible visit.

The interior is dark and crowded, which makes you feel like you’re part of a small community experiencing the restaurant together.

It comes as no surprise that Chris Nuttall-Smith has placed this in Toronto’s top new restaurants of 2015.

Food & Drink

The Walk Off: Whiskey sour with Absinthe and a strong taste of apricot. Nice to have alongside various tapas to offer a sharp contrast with the oily breads and various rich meats.

Pumpkin & Hazelnut: A small salad with plenty of semi-sweet mashed pumpkin with arugula and pine nuts

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Tomato Bread: Toasted bread with fresh tomato spread. Amazingly simple and delicious. A must try!

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Croquetas: two breadcrumbed fried rolls filled with cheese that simply melts in your mouth. A dish that is far too easy to quickly eat and miss.

Hot Octopus: Small pieces of octopus and potato in a puddle of olive oil. Good portion for splitting between two people.

Mushroom Tower: Two skewers of mushrooms each poked into a piece of bread soaked with good olive oil, topped with a single shrimp. If you like mushrooms, this is the dish for you.

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Fig & Olive Oil Cake: Sweet, somewhat fluffy, large pieces of fig, a hint of olive oil. Served with cream that makes a good dip for each bite of cake.

Rating: 5/5

Cheers,

Ellis Koifman

Review: The Cactus Club

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tuna tataki

The Cactus Club is a massive trendy new restaurant in Toronto offering a spectacular atmosphere, great service and acceptable food.

Three separate levels split up this 500-seat restaurant. Each floor is trendy and unique.

The first floor was a bar with tightly packed tables, the second floor offered booths and larger tables with a more homey atmosphere, and the top floor was a massive bar area with plenty of tables and a fully retractable roof.

We were seated on the second floor in a booth. Light jazz music set the mood and allowed conversation to be had without difficulty.

Service was very friendly and quick- a surprise given the sheer size of the restaurant. Our waitress never missed an opportunity to inquire about a refill or answer one of our questions about the menu.

The Food

The menu included an assortment of interesting appetizers, meats, salads and pastas. There was also a feature menu of the location’s unique signature dishes.

The tuna tataki appetizer ($15.50) was fantastic. Great portion size with 12 pieces to share between the three of us. While certainly odd to eat this Japanese dish without chopsticks, the semi-rich umami flavour and melt-in-your-mouth texture easily made up for that.

The ceviche appetizer ($16), was the first on a long list of disappointments throughout the evening. Portion size was good, but that’s where the enjoyment stopped. The dish lacked flavour apart from its fishy taste.

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ceviche

The kale + grilled chicken salad ($16.50) was extremely tart (sadly not an exaggeration), making it inedible. We ended up sending it back and swapping it for another salad.

The quinoa salad ($14.50) had a splendour of different ingredients. This too came with several thin slices of chicken breast.

The first few bites were fascinating as your mouth explores the different ingredients and flavours offered by the dish.

However, it quickly became apparent that the dish both appeared and tasted as if someone had thrown leftovers from the fridge into a salad with the hope that it would work- it didn’t.

Both salads, while unenjoyable, had very large portions and could easily be split between two people.

The Duck Confit ($25), a signature dish, was more fulfilling. The single duck leg was cooked to perfection, topped with tons of greens. It was placed on a large bed of lentils soaked in an excess of vinegar, which made them far too tart.

I strongly recommend paying the additional $9 for another duck leg, otherwise the dish is insubstantial.

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duck confit

For dessert we had the key lime pie ($8.25). This and the tuna tataki made up the two saving graces of the meal.

It was very creamy and somewhat rich. It came served with a large dallop of cream on top which blended perfectly with each bite of the delicious pie.

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key lime pie

Conclusions

It comes as no surprise that this restaurant is popular among Bay street bankers. The trendy, unique and vibrant space offers a multitude of dining experiences.

However, the average Torontonian looking for a nice quality meal will be disappointed if they expect anything more than trendiness and acceptable food from this multi-level establishment.

Rating: 3/5

http://www.cactusclubcafe.com/
77 Adelaide St. W.

Cheers,

Ellis Koifman

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Review: Japango

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Sushi Two

Located near Bay and Dundas, Japango is a squished restaurant that offers some of the best sushi in Toronto at affordable prices.

Upon first glance you may be deterred from going to Japango to eat given its claustrophobic atmosphere. It has a very small seating area where even sitting down at your table is a challenge (I nearly knocked over someone’s drink as I was leaving).

The restaurant as a whole can seat about 20 people and is better for smaller groups. I strongly recommend making a reservation (on my first visit here I was forced to leave after being told there was a 45 minute wait time for the four of us).

The waitress was friendly but very distant. She didn’t do much apart from bring us our food and didn’t readily offer any suggestions or explain anything about the restaurant and its menu.

Service was lightning fast, bringing us the appetizer and mains in quick succession (frankly without adequate space between them) only a few short minutes after we placed the order.

The large round plates used for plating were a great addition to the presentation of the meal, unfortunately they hardly fit on the table, especially with the appetizer arriving at the same time.

Food

I ordered the agedashi tofu as an appetizer – four large pieces of (scorching hot) tofu in a bonito soy sauce. At $5 this made for a well valued dish for two.

For my main, I got the sushi two lunch option, which included 12 pieces of nigiri and six pieces of California roll.

Unlike other restaurants which tend to give you a lot of cheap salmon and tuna in the nigiri platters, the chef here at Japango gives you a good assortment of fish – my sushi two included hotate (scallop), hirame (halibut), ebi (prawn), sake (salmon), and more.

While California rolls aren’t exactly authentic or known for quality, the ones included in the sushi two lunch were an exception. They were certainly the best California rolls I’ve had.

Overall, it was an excellent value at the price of $25 plus tax for a fairly filling meal in the heart of downtown Toronto.

I have yet to try anything on their drink menu but I have been told their sake is amazing – particularly the sayuri nigori sake, a sweet creamy sake with a smooth aftertaste and served in a memorable pink bottle.

Rating: 4.5/5

http://www.japango.net
122 Elizabeth Street

P.S. Those looking for an after lunch dessert should check out Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Cheesecake or Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Matcha Café, which are both right around the corner from the restaurant. Their cheesecakes are amazing!

Cheers,

Ellis Koifman