My psychic bond with Nora Ephron, though one-sided (my side, of course), is a long-standing one
I have never met the brilliant American author, movie director, screenwriter, humourist and foodie but feel I know her well.
I did interview her by phone for my column in the Toronto Star a few years ago when her hilarious little book about the downside of being a middle-aged woman came out called I Feel Bad About My Neck. I could relate.
I related in 1986 when Heartburn, the movie she directed taken from her mostly autobiographical book by the same name, was published. In it, a food writer for a major newspaper is betrayed by her husband while she is pregnant with his child. Again, I could relate when the same thing happened to me a year later – right down to the rice pudding contest the film’s heroine, played by Meryl Streep, conducted among her readers.
Most recently, I saw the Toronto production of Ephron’s comic creation: Love, Loss and What I Wore. In Vagina Monologues style, a half-dozen actresses, dressed in black and perched on stools, gave first-person accounts of what they were wearing at key moments in their lives. Once again – especially when Andrea Martin did a side-splitting piece about the ongoing state of her handbag – I could relate.
It has occurred to me since then that an even better show would be called Love, Loss and What and I Ate. On that topic, I have lots to say.
Last October, I dropped my wallet in the middle of the street in New York’s Lower East Village. I was sitting at the bar at The Meatball Shop devouring a luscious chicken meatball in Parmesan Cream Sauce when I received a call on my cell from a man who had found it. Believing there is a god, I ran back to the eatery, wallet in hand, after a middle-aged Hispanic gentleman handed it to me from the hallway of his nearby tenement with his smiling family members gathered round. “Can I get you something?” asked the kind young server, addressing my tear-stained face. “Yes, dessert,” I sputtered without missing a beat. Rich chocolate ice cream sandwiched between crunchy cookies never tasted this good.
Then there are all those childhood food moments. My mum’s homemade applesauce inundated with chocolate chips to make it more attractive to us kids The bagels my dad used to seek out on Sundays at the lone Jewish deli in our north London suburb when Britain was still mostly a bagel-free zone. Salad at every meal and the vinaigrette I learned to make at a young age with which to toss it. The prune souffle from the Joy of Cooking that my mum used to prepare, at my request, as a birthday treat – an omen, perhaps, of an adventurous palate and a food-writing career to come.
There was the time our nutty family’s crazed little black dog Nicky ate the entire fruit filling from a gorgeous dessert my mother had baked and left on the bottom tray of a tea trolley. It and several others – Linzertorte, Sachertorte and strudel – were sweets destined for guests at one of my parents’ lively parties peopled by scientists, actors and other interesting folk.
When I was a teenager, there was the divine roast chicken and glass of rose wine I savoured on a rustic patio bedecked with overhanging grapevines in the gorgeous Alsace countryside on one of our family’s otherwise strife-ridden, dysfunctional summer holidays.
Also as a teenager, I had a brief romance with a fellow who had a motor bike and lived on a nearby council estate. I recall going to his place for lunch and being served beef heart, something I had never seen before. I can still remember its strangely pleasant chewy texture.
Also in England where I spent my formative years, there was “tea” at my friend Vivian’s house. White buttered bread with salad consisting of nude lettuce, sliced tomatoes and cucumber. Beside that plate, a bottle of Heinz salad cream. Cream buns for dessert and, natch, lots of strong tea from the cozy-covered teapot.
Last but not least, the toasted bacon sandwich my dad – he of the tender heart and crusty exterior – would make meticulously on the rare occasions when I’d come home late. He had learned to make this, perfect fried eggs and the art of french toast while putting himself through medical school in Montreal by working as a short-order cook.
And the saga is ongoing. I often – okay, usually – look to food when the going gets tough, and even when it doesn’t. Put it this way, every day has to have a food mission of some kind, much to the amusement of Ross and others who know me.
So here are some of the sources of good, comforting eats here in Toronto that have brightened my day of late, in no particular order:
Simon’s Wok, 797 Gerrard St. E., just west of Logan, is a no-frills hole in the wall that serves delicious vegetarian Chinese food. I say this because I hang out with a few vegetarians who have been with me and ordered meatless dishes when in Chinese restaurants, usually to all our disappointment. My friend Adrienne De Francesco is a vegan and introduced me to this terrific little place. Try #26, a yummy vegetable medley of frilly fungi, snow peas, mushrooms, green peas and other goodies. Also Stir-Fried Rice Noodles with Olives Leaves. The flavourful food comes quickly and is top-notch. And the price is right.
Two ramen places: Kenzo Ramen (a few locations) and Ajisen Ramen (a couple of locations): I’ve been on a ramen kick since eating at Momofuku and the even better Ippudo in New York. Don’t mistake this for the nasty noodles you get in instant ramen packets. The ones served at these eateries – luscious, thick and tender-yet-chewy – are usually made in-house. I like the ramen soup made with milky pork broth. Places are popping up all over the place as Toronto gets ramen fever – and that’s a good thing.
Bacchus Roti Shop, 1376 Queen St. W.: The goat roti at this popular place in Parkdale is unequalled. Arrive here hungry as the portions are large.
CopaCabana! Niagara Falls (Ontario) and Toronto: Talking of large portions, don’t eat much the day you venture forth to this wondrous Brazilian-style steakhouse. Servers who, I discovered, cook the meat they serve on giant grills in an open kitchen, come to your table at intervals bearing long skewers (okay, swords) of grilled meat and fish – everything from flank steak to lamb to salmon – until you cry uncle. Another warning: Don’t eat much from the excellent appetizer/salad buffet before savouring the flesh offerings.
Pantheon, 407 Danforth Ave. There is only one thing I’ve ever eaten at this longstanding eatery on the Greek restaurant strip: Calamari on Greek Salad. Last week, there was a horrendous snowstorm and I was in need of lunch. Somehow, I parked in a snow-bank after a vision of that amazing salad appeared in my food memory bank. The gorgeously grilled squid laid atop iceberg lettuce, tomato slices, thin wedges of carrot, black olives and crumbled feta, all in a tangy vinaigrette, did not let me down that frigid day.
Woodlot, 293 Palmerston @ College, is a tad too trendy for my liking with its giant wood oven, very young chefs in their civvies, crowded tables and horrendous noise. However, some of the down-to-earth and delicious food saves the day. French Onion Soup – superb. Chicken and Smoked Ham Hock Pie – sensational. Tarte Tatin – the best I’ve tasted, and that includes my own. Their trick: very dark, almost-burned caramel – done in the wood oven, of course.
I can’t forget all those sweet things – in particular, foods involving chocolate – that are soothing to the troubled soul and a bonus to the untroubled one.
At the top of that list: the sublime florentines from Harbord Bakery, a wondrous and hugely popular spot that is also home of the ultimate cheese danish, an impeccable Eccles Cake (baked on Thursdays) and my favourite caraway rye.
I have also been known to seek out pho when having a bad day.
At its best, this Vietnamese soup consists of a beautiful clear broth packed with al dente rice noodles, crunchy beansprouts, aromatic basil leaves, rare and well-done slivers of beef and your choice of chewy bits of tripe, toothsome beef balls, braised brisket etc. etc. My top spot to nosh on this: Hanoi 3 Seasons on Gerrard St. E. at Broadview, where the other offerings from the hospitable Tran family are way above average.
And hey, let’s not forget the ice cream that I cannot live without: Loblaws President’s Choice creamfirst Chocolate Fudge Crackle – sensational!