Wednesday, May 22, Toronto My journey begins in Toronto, where I live, with eight meals during the last 10 days of May. After downing platters of addictively delicious comfort food at Leemo Han’s Seoul Shakers, my dining companion, a wine professional and endurance athlete – contemplating the foie-gras-and-bone-marrow-paved road ahead of me – looks at me sympathetically and says, “Nancy, I really don’t envy you.”
Tuesday, May 28, Toronto. Over crispy triple-cooked fries, steak and pork chop at dinner number four at Le Swan, my friend Kate and I discuss wardrobe options in the elastic-waist-band category – dad jeans for restaurant critics. She suggests H&M, but I’m torn. Can I break my fast-fashion boycott for temporary, affordable comfort?
Wednesday, May 29, Thornhill, ON. Although all my reservations are booked for me under a pseudonym, on this night at Frilu, where an ambitious chef is fusing Nordic and Japanese influences, the moment I enter the room I see a sake agent I know, who’s hosting a Japanese brewer. The ritual introductions and exchanging of business cards ensues, all under the nose of the front-of-house manager. Busted!
Saturday, June 1, Bloomfield, Prince Edward County, ON. My husband and I are seduced by the honest live-fire cooking of chef Hidde Zomer at Flame and Smith. We also notice that women in this weekend-getaway town vastly outnumber men. Over a chicken-and-waffles brunch at Bloomfield Public House, we notice the ratio of women to men is 30 to four. “Bachelorette parties,” our server explains. “It’s a thing here. It’s kind of like, ‘What happens in Bloomfield stays in Bloomfield.’” The group of four women next to us went to a popular bar the night before, where the clientele was overwhelmingly women. It was really loud and really drunken. “We had to commit or go,” one of them told us. “There was just too much estrogen in the room. We left.” But not before noticing the two guys working the room. “They knew what was up,” our informant told us. Shades of the Wedding Crashers, PEC-style.
Monday, June 3, Toronto. My road trip begins for real! It’s exhilarating hopping off the UP Express at Pearson Airport and heading to my first flight, to Vancouver. There’s nothing like the freedom of the road. Halfway down the ramp to Terminal 1, I realize my smartphone is missing. This will not surprise my family members, but 40 minutes into my first big road trip, I’ve lost something. And not just anything. Everything from my trip is on my phone: my itinerary, my notes, my file of photos. I’m in a cold sweat. I run back to the UP Express platform to find a ticket agent holding my phone out to me. Canada in my book is second only to Japan in getting lost items returned. I’ve recovered my wallet (from an Air Canada seat), hat, gloves and, yes, my phone too many times to admit. During my whole trip, I lose only one item and have to have another one shipped to me. Not bad – for me.
Tonight’s dinner is at Ugly Dumpling, a rustic Asian comfort-food restaurant on Commercial Drive that punches way above its weight. Next to us, a group of six, some deaf and some not, are signing furiously with the server. Turns out the group consists of the server’s mom, her female partner, her three sisters and her own partner, who happens to know how to sign because her former partner was deaf. “The perfect partner,” our server says appreciatively. They’re celebrating the birthday of one sister. A birthday cake arrives at the table, candles lit. Everyone raises their hands and flutters them, a beautiful, silent gesture of laughter and applause. My dining partner companion and I bask in the glow of their good cheer.
Thursday, June 6, Burnaby, B.C. Breakfast is leftover Ramón Peña sardines in olive oil (from last night’s dinner at Como Taperia) on microwaved tomato bread. My stay at an Airbnb in the beautiful Heights neighbourhood has been challenging because the city has no ride-share system and taxis are hard to book if you don’t have a regular account with a company. It’s impossible to get a cab to pick me up in Burnaby. Yellow Cab and Black Top don’t serve the area. After 13 minutes on hold with the local taxi outfit, I’m told it will be at least a 25-minute wait. I ask the dispatcher, who is about to hang up on me, if I will get a confirmation call-back. “Oh yes, I see your number,” he assures me. Having no confidence that a cab will ever show, I start walking to Hastings Street to take the bus downtown. The cab, of course, never calls. My dining companion confirms my experience: She’s missed planes because of the city’s unreliable cab system. Even in downtown Vancouver at rush hour, a promised five-minute wait can stretch on and on. While some have pointed out the many advantages of a ride-share-free city, it seems like even Vancouver will let them in soon.
Friday, June 7, Whitehorse, Yukon. On the plane to Whitehorse I sit next to a semi-retired nurse who helps run a home for seniors. People do move to warmer climates to retire, she tells me, but a surprising number come back. “The health services here are fabulous. In fact, many younger people are moving their parents here to retire,” she says. After we land, she wishes me a good visit and says, “You know what they say, ‘Visit Yukon once and you’ll always come back!’”
My dining companion, a writer and cookbook author, confirms this. She visited her sister and ended up coming back and putting down roots. Dinner at Wayfarer Oyster House alone could convince me to stay. Over cocktails, my new friend and her husband, an avalanche-prevention safety expert and river guide, describe the Yukon lifestyle to me. “So many people pass through here on their way to climb or fish. They have a flat tire or breakdown. Ten to 15 percent end up staying. When we see them, baggy pants, long hair, we think, ‘Here comes the next generation!’”
It’s a young city, and a city where many have multiple occupations: the biologist who is a woodcutter, multitaskers from the tech industry. Our radiant server is a bartender, singer and guitarist who my dining companions met when she was a housepainter. Now she’s living on Squatters Row, a street in the woods that began, literally, as an outpost for squatters’ shacks. She sleeps in a wall tent in a 13-x-15-foot cabin outfitted with a stove, and can do the downhill bike ride into town in 10 minutes. Another friend of my dining companion has an office job in the city, but drops into her friends’ parties to charge her smartphone. She, like many, lives off the grid.
Saturday, June 8, Whitehorse, Yukon / Victoria, B.C. The morning I depart Whitehorse, I visit Alpine Bakery for the world’s best scone, made with spelt flour and dotted with dried orange and dark chocolate. Swiped with soft butter from a giant block that rests on the counter, it will last me (I hope!) through ’til dinner in Victoria. I arrive on Vancouver Island in mid-afternoon to find the island has been issued a Level 3 drought warning, one of many signs I see throughout my travels of low water levels in the West. I steal time for a walk along the Dallas Road waterfront, drinking in the brilliant blue skies, brisk winds, tall grasses and cruise ships in the distance. That’s the trouble with climate change: Nature’s beauty can obscure its dire warnings, lulling us into complacency.
Sunday, June 9, Ucluelet, B.C. In one of the most remote and beautiful places in the country, I dine with a fourth-gen Japanese-Canadian. His fisherman grandfather was evacuated from Tofino and imprisoned in a WWII internment camp. Despite lingering anti-Japanese sentiment, he returned in 1950 and bought 20 acres of land in the area, selling off a chunk of it in the 1990s. My companion’s grandmother still lives on the island in a house with a wood-burning stove, not far from Pluvio, the fine-dining establishment we’re visiting tonight in Ucluelet. As we sample chef Warren Barr’s umami-rich candied salmon, my companion recalls how his dad, also a fisherman, would lay out strips of salmon to dry on the boat, and how flavourful it was. The hours he spent staring at the water out the back of his dad’s boat, he says, informs the work he now does as a Vancouver-based artist.