Archive for the ‘Restaurant Reviews’ Category

Last week, Ben and I traveled to Mexico City for  a 6 day vacation from San Miguel.  As one long time resident said to me the first year we wintered here:  “San Miguel is like an island:  every so often,  you have to get off!

We have both visited Mexico City a few times in our past, for business and pleasure, but never before as a couple.  Only 3 hours away by car, Mexico City, (or D.F. as it is called by residents),  has a population equivalent to our country of  Canada. It is as dynamic as New York, as cosmopolitan as Paris and as historic as London.  And in large pockets, such as Polanco, Condessa and Roma,  as liveable as any of those fine cities.

But how does one get around in such an incredibly large metropolis, where there are acknowledged threats to your body and your purse? We don’t want to exaggerate the risk,  but we are not naive either:  those security patrols and body guards are everywhere for a reason.  The Metro is cheap and navigable, but we wanted to buy things at the mercado, at the wine store, and at the art fair to bring home to SMA.

We had tried to find a service but nothing met our criteria:  a bilingual driver, available quickly, who would take us from our condo to destinations, day and night, in reasonable comfort and safety. Nothing big or ostentatious.

Our answer was Uber. A friend is an Uber driver in Toronto, and she explained to us how it worked.  I know lots of folks who use it,  but I was worried about managing with my feeble Spanish.   But bilingual navigation skills were not necessary:   it’s all done on the Uber app on your smart phone. A wifi connection is necessary, but that’s the only barrier.

The real revelation was just how polite, no, how accommodating, all of the drivers were.

We entered the car and bottles of water were immediately offered.   I sneezed, and a box of tissues was appeared. The driver was attentive to the road, not to his cell phone or a dispatcher.  Heat or cold was adjusted with just a word or gesture.  It was just like having a private driver, at prices much lower than taxis and with nicer cars.

And then there was the “Rate your Driver” survey that appeared on my cell phone after the ride.  You rate them, and as we knew from our Uber driving friend, they rate you.

It brought to mind an ancient economics lecture on how incentives can work to impact behaviour.   If you provide immediate feedback on the right behaviour with consequences for the wrong behaviour (as in, no one will answer your ping), you are more likely to get the behaviour you want. (Works with dogs too!)

Where else did we experience that immediate and effective feedback loop?  With Air BnB.  Immediately after our stay, we received a survey to rate our hosts, the location and the property itself.  That is expected on say, a Trip Advisor or VRBO rental.

 But our hosts also answered a survey on the quality of Ben and me as guests. And,  I say modestly, we were rated as “perfect”.

What would have been the consequences of discarded stained towels on the bathroom floor, leaving the fridge door open all night, or littering the counter with take out cartons?

The answer is clear:  if you cannot behave like civilized people, respecting other people’s property and basically treating it like you would want yours to be treated, you won’t get the opportunity to rent this place again, or likely any other on Air BnB.   

Ben often says that if you are not happy with something,  you simply vote with your wallet and don’t buy it again.  But in this age of instant gratification, we can go beyond simply walking away. We have the opportunity to express our dissatisfaction  almost as it happens.

But what if all of the providers did it too?  In an earlier time, all kinds of businesses would gently or not so gently discourage certain demanding, ungracious or boorish customers.  So imagine a time where we are all openly rated as customers say by our stylists, our mechanics, or by our care givers.  Imagine how civilizing that would be. (Or you could argue that it might inhibit honest feedback:  you can read “ The Circle” by David Eggers, to see how that would ultimately play out.) 

On a less serious note (thank goodness) here are some of the photos of our fabulous condo in Polanco, owned by the equally fabulous and very nice Canadian couple, Sergio and Renny:


We also wandered through the upmarket retail stores that an affluent neighbourhood like Polanco offers.


And of course, we ate!  Our most memorable meal was at a little tapas bar, where I was immediately transported back to Barcelona with one whiff of the gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlicky chilli oil). Not a coincidence that the attractive female owner was from that city! And this was the most reasonably priced meal we had during our 6 day stay.

We also ventured to a few cultural icons:  The Cathedral in the Zocola, Belles Artes, The Grand Hotel, and the Museo Soumaya (named for Carlos Slim’s late wife).  This Museo, which is free to all, has been criticized by some for being the questionable product of too little taste and too much money. Most of the paintings still have the Sotheby’s sticker with the estimated hammer price on the back, so yes, that critique may be valid. But as I read later, many private collections are simply amassed over time,(“Ohh look Carlos, another Rodin,  I simply must have it!”) and so have that quality of being  unfocused, not “curated” as the critics would say, no doubt with a dismissing sniff.

And as you can see from the photos below, I have an affection for  Salvador Dali’s  bronzes, even if some of those same critics judge them to be whimsical trifles created at the turn of the century for those of bourgeois taste. Piffle, I say.

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Everyone has special places that they feel incredibly comfortable in:  for Ben & I, it’s Nota Bene Italian restaurant in downtown Toronto.  It’s the dining equivalent of slipping into a fine Italian cashmere sweater:  always elegant, light but warm and makes you look better than you really do. (All of that flattering lighting of course.) And the food is a wonderful exploration of refined Italian flavours that never  make you feel full, just satiated, and sighing with satisfaction.  (And yes, upon reflection, that last line sounds a lot like our other favourite activity that involves satiation.  Ah well, food is love.)

In San Miguel de Allende, where we spend the winters, our special place is The Restaurant, where the chef is Donnie Masterton.  Although there are other fine restaurants in our adopted city, we observe every special occasion at The Restaurant.  None of our out-of-town guests leave without enjoying at least one meal in their gorgeous courtyard, under the Moorish arches, the stone fountain filled with rose petals.   I could wax rhapsodic about the tender tandoori thicken tacos, the delectably sticky Asian glazed pork riblets, or  seared tuna tostadas,  and of course, the burnt carmel ice cream with marshmallow sauce and with its salty counterpoint, Spanish peanuts.  It is one of the first places we go to when we return to San Miguel in the fall. And it helps that it is the “cafeteria” for one of our favourite people in San Miguel, Joanie Barcal of Allende Realtors.  I can taste those riblets now.  Yummy. (A highly technical culinary term.)

So we were delighted during one of our last visits to The Restaurant when Donnie told us that he was coming to Toronto to do a special one evening guest appearance at the incredibly hip, The Drake.

 It is the  “The iconically hip Toronto brand”  TORONTO LIFE,…”among the hottest venues in the city for all things cultural”, WHERE“The Drake Hotel is a nexus of culture in Queen West… Drake keeps the bohemian vibe alive in the gallery district.”  NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER,”Anchoring Toronto’s trend-setting West Queen West district, the multi-talented Drake Hotel sails way ahead of the city’s other boutique properties”. FODOR’S 100 HOTEL AWARD and finally “The lightning rod for global hipsters” NATIONAL POST

We are, by our own admission,  not hip at all.  But Ben has a son and a daughter in law who can make the grade:  plenty of tattoos, possible  piercings (best not to ask on what part of the body) and they are the hardworking proprietors of a downtown bar/restaurant themselves.   We brought them along to help us give us the necessary “cred”, and of course, to give them a break from caring for their patrons at the Football Factory and their 2 young boys.

I called for reservations about 10 days before, eager to show support our favourite chef and get our preferred time (early to bed grandsons, so early reservation).  Whoops…..  no room at 6pm.  No tables at 9:30 either. I was a little shocked for the moment actually, but should not have been surprised.  Toronto is currently undergoing a wave of Mexican food fascination, with hot spot tacquerias springing up downtown almost overnight.  Combine the latest food trend and the trendiest place in town, well, you can expect to sell out!

I was stymied, but Ben said, “Why not ask Joanie if she has Donnie’s personal email?”  So we emailed our good friend and she emailed another friend in San Miguel real estate, who emailed her contact, who emailed the entrepreneur and visionary founder of The Drake,  Jeff Stober,  who responded with the magic words, “I am out-of-town right now, but when I get back, I will contact the GM of the restaurant, and we will work something out”.  And he made it so. I cannot tell you if I was more impressed with his response time (same day) or his staff’s responsiveness (same hour).

Incredibly relieved (we had after all, already promised the kids a special night out with our special chef from San Miguel) we got tarted up (me in my sparkly Manolos and Ben with a purple silk poof in his black cashmere blazer:  we cannot do hip, but we can do swanky ) and headed to Toronto.  When we pulled up to The Drake, we realized, horrors, that we were at the wrong address! Drake One Fifty is at 150 Adelaide, not Queen West! We were mildly embarrassed at having been proven “uncool”, but were some what vindicated that even Pat and Chrissy, who live just off Queen West, had not realized that there was another location.

So, what does one say about Drake One Fifty?

The downtown extension of the Drake Hotel is an updated Parisian brasserie, with leather banquettes an elaborate trellis, and an oval bar that seems to be a hunting ground for cougars. TORONTO LIFE

It certainly reminded me of  days working in the financial district, when the after work crowd of  expense account financiers,  sitting at the bar at Canoe or Far Neinte downstairs, would swing around as one to quickly assess the incoming guests and then swing back with an almost audible sniff of dismissal. (How very uncool.)

Needless to say, our little band barely rated a second glance.   But who cares:  we got a big warm welcoming hug from the star of the evening, Donnie Masterton.  He came out to meet Pat and Chrissy, and later, we met our hero of the evening, Jeff Stober.  Donnie’s girlfriend Angela was there, looking stunning as usual.  Donnie mentioned eating at some of Toronto’s most interesting eateries:  Beast, The County General, Susur Lee’s latest, Bent.     I think that he was very impressed with the culinary scene in our city, and as much as I would have liked to ask him what were his favourite’s places,  what he thought of our food purveyors and product availability, and lastly,  what influences he was coming away with, I am hoping that we will see the results of this whirl wind tour of   Toronto on the menu in San Miguel.  He looked like a man inspired and was just taking it all in, absorbing and processing.

The food on Monday night was  wonderful:  I marvelled at how he coaxed that much flavour and tenderness out of the beef short ribs, and the Thai “pork carnitas” salad was just as good as in San Miguel.


And he is going to come back!   A special event, timing TBD,  is being planned for Jeff’s newest venue: The Drake Devonshire in Wellington Ontario.

An urban oasis in the country… will draw from the county’s richest traditions when it opens and provide a cultural hotspot just as accessible to the locals as to vacationers looking for a good time.” – GLOBE & MAIL

We don’t know when Donnie is returning, but trust me, when we do, we will reserve at least a month in advance!

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