Our first leg, out Route 80, took us to a small town between Cleveland and Akron. This segment of the trip was more about visiting with family than sampling international cuisines, but we still managed to eat well in spite of being in a region big on chicken tenders and awash in ranch dressing.
A Thai/Japanese place that family brought us to for dinner was as good as any, and an impromptu lunch stop for pizza or subs brought us to a perfect example of Italian-American food at its best. Brasiole’s in Streetsboro was crowded with locals digging into plates of pasta, so we followed suit, even though I generally steer clear of ordering pasta in most restaurants because I can do it at home. My ravioli with meatballs was quality stuff, from the house-made chewy fresh pasta to the zesty meatballs and savory red sauce.
Our next leg, up to Toronto, would take us through Buffalo and Niagara Falls. We planned to stop at Buffalo’s famous Anchor Bar, the birthplace of classic Buffalo chicken wings, but we couldn’t hold out and stopped for lunch at the theme chain Quaker Steak and Lube in Erie, Penn. The wings were available in dozens of flavor profiles and heat levels, but I was pleased with my choice of “hot” Buffalo style. There were genuine record albums on the walls, classic cars hanging precariously overhead and on walls over diners’ heads. The kids had Wrench Fries and Biker Chick Salad, while I was all about the cheesy potato soup, the kind of rich thing I’m not allowed to make at home. We blew through Buffalo, stopped for ice cream by the dramatically iconic and steaming falls. Then it was on to Toronto.
This was my first time in this cosmopolitan city, and I loved it and wished we had more than three nights to spend there. We had splendid dim sum in a basement restaurant not far from our Yonge Street hotel. The next day brought a taste of falafel at a place that looked authentic but it wasn’t nearly as good as what the Rhinebeck farmers’ market is selling this summer.
At the base of the towering CN tower (which I was too chicken to ascend with the family), we had tasty pierogies, the cheese filling yellow like they like it not only in the midwestern U.S. but Ontario, too, it turns out. Glorious squeaky cheese curds, too, were yellow in Toronto and white in Montreal, following the east-west cheese-hue preferences of Canada’s neighbor to the south.
Cheese was amazing from Toronto’s St. Lawrence market, and it was near-excruciating to settle for only three kinds: a Greek feta and two Quebecois runny cheeses, Presqu-Ile and St. Honoré. Consolation prizes were in abundance for us, though: peppercorn pâté, the chewy black currant pastilles I’ve been searching for for years, and a sublime assortment of marinated mushrooms sott’olio.
Although I cook it regularly, we had our first Ethiopian meal out in years. The proprietress could tell right away our son was Ethiopian, and my über-picky little guy actually tried some of the food. We had to order two assortments, vegetarian and non-, so we could taste every dish in the house. I loved the spicy buttery stews spread out like paint on a palette over the giant pancake, and the Ethiopian icons, art, music and heady frankincense, emblems of a richly fascinating culture.
We were present for Canada Day, July 1, which was a treat. Festivals full of music and food abounded all over the city. At one we stumbled on, near a stage where folkloric dancing was happening, we enjoyed Malaysian murtabak, a flaky pocket similar to a roti wrapper, stuffed with chicken and vegetables and served with two zesty sauces, deep red and pale green. The neighboring Korean booth sold tender tangy thinly cross-cut short ribs, with kim chee, rice and glass noodle salad. A trip to Greektown wasn’t quite as satisfying, though. Although we had some killer flaky spinach pie, a recommended restaurant served us dry halibut with the texture of shoe-leather. At least the grilled octopus was flawless, the retsina refreshing. I love that resinous white wine with seafood.
While Toronto felt to me like some kind of alternate universe, where much seemed the same as here yet a little off, Montreal was like another galaxy. Strolls down St. Catherine Street didn’t fail to entertain. We witnessed wall-to-wall revelry, reminding me a bit of New Orleans or Provincetown. The street was full of parading fantastical creatures, bodies pierced head to toe, dressed in carnivale gear or in semi-drag, with heavy makeup and hairy back both.
I had inadvertently left my food notes at home, so didn’t know how to seek out the big market in town or any authentic Quebecois food, which — in a nutshell — is based on maple syrup, pork and game and is quite good. But we didn’t starve. At breakfast time, delicate crêpes and luscious croissants reminded us of France; some good chewy bagels, of New York.
We had good Vietnamese food twice, the first a local mélange at a little place off the main drag and then in Chinatown a pho lunch at Pho Bang New York, which was the more crowded of two places we considered. That most wondrous of Vietnamese beef noodle soups — with aromatic broth and a big pile of bean sprouts and Asian basil to pile on — was available in ten different meat configurations. My daughter and I had a giant “small” bowl (only $6.25), piled with eye of round steak and skirt flank, tender parts and rare parts. My husband’s version had flank meat, brisket and tripe. Free crispy spring rolls and grilled lemongrass chicken rounded out our feast.
We never got to sample the rich and famous food of Au Pied de Cochon (reservations required), or tried Quebecois poutine (gravy over cheese curds over French fries), but perhaps our livers wouldn’t have tolerated them anyway. But we did get some decent “inspired French” at L’Indépendent on Sainte-Catherine, with good mussels and a waiter who alerted us to some spectacular fireworks that night that we would have otherwise missed.
Then it was off to the Adirondacks for a few days of fresh rural air. Although as a country dweller I find cities more exciting and invigorating, it was a nice break. But the international eating component of the trip was definitely over. Although we heard smatterings of Spanish and Russian spoken at Lapland Lake and signs were in Finnish because of the Finnish owner, the Finnish food is only available during ski season, and for cooking I made do with limited ingredients. The cabin’s plebeian salt and pepper had to stand in for the sea salt and freshly ground Tellicherry I’m used to cooking with at home. Aww, poor little me. For vegetables the supermarket had only mauled zucchini and floppy broccoli, and the biweekly farmers’ market had only two stands, one selling syrups and the other selling jams.
We ate burgers and steaks and cold-cut sandwiches. But lots of butter stands in pretty well for lots of spices, in a pinch, and the tap water was impossibly sweet and pure. We strolled on wooded Nordic ski trails scented of bracing pine, laden with copious ferns and yielding, pillowy beds of emerald moss. We made friends and canoed and kayaked and swam in a pretty little lake, while back home our friends sweated it out in 100-plus temps. So even after all that international food in Canada, I didn’t feel cheated one bit.++