Noodling about a Toronto visit

I wrote the following, drafted it a month ago, and even found an Aeroplan flight but since then have learned that I will not be going to Toronto. But I wanted to share my wishlist nonetheless. Next time….

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I know I’m totally jumping the gun as I haven’t yet booked my ticket and my desired travel dates run right into a long weekend and reward flights are out of the question and this whole planning goes nowhere. Nonetheless, I’ve plotted the places I want to hit up on a Google map and want to chat about it, which is also a way to display my great taste. Of course it is highly eating-centric but I have thrown in some shopping … sessions wherein we can walk off the full feeling. Almost all spots are ones I haven’t visited before. Many are gleaned from the multitude of daily recommendations from Blog TO.

Toronto-visit

Food

Day 1 (with mum)

On a day we would head downtown with a car, here’s where we’d go.
We’d start off at Hula Girl Espresso Boutique. I’m already hooked on the idea not-at-all subliminally put forth on their website about a “new morning routine” consisting of their crowbar and butter coffee. The crowbar seems like a big hit in terms of sugar and calories but it’s okay when you share. :D
Kill some time in surrounding Junction Triangle, High Park or Parkdale.
Then we have lunch at R&D in Chinatown. When I first learned of Alvin Leung when he was revealed as a judge on MasterChef Canada, I was disappointed that despite his connection to Canada, his restaurants aren’t here but in London and Hong Kong. But I’ve learned that he is collaborating with MasterChef Canada Season 1 winner, Eric Chong, to open a restaurant and I couldn’t be more excited to try it. R&D, stands for “Rebel & Demon”. Alvin Leung is the “Demon Chef” which I guess makes Eric the rebel.
Then pick up my sister from work then head to fancy Yorkdale Mall.
Then dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Italian. I really thought a location had opened at the Shops at Don Mills by last winter but I was so wrong. Jamie Oliver’s first Canadian restaurant will be at Yorkdale and other Canadian locations will follow but I want to get onto this first!

Day 2 (solo, during a Downtown Day)

Provided I catch an early enough GO Train downtown, I’ll get this crazy schedule in!
The train stops at Union so I’d have to take the TTC or walk up to Dundas. At Yonge/Dundas is the MUJI Store that opens at 10 a.m. so I’ll shop there first as the next spot doesn’t open until 11. I am fascinated by their right angle sock and am writing this listening to newly discovered MUJI BGM (background music).
Next, I can try Uncle Tetsu Japanese Cheesecake. I love cream cheese cheesecake while Japanese cheesecake seems to me just like a moist cake. Nonetheless, I want to visit this Japanese chain’s first location in Canada at its convenient Bay/Dundas location.
Then it’s a short walk down to the Financial District where I can visit the old office.
I’ve wanted to try Nadege for a while after my cousin told me about it but don’t venture that far west – Bathurst? Bah! – but they opened a beautiful location in the PATH and I can visit that one, pick up some beautiful snacks for later.
Is it time to eat again? Good! Pizzeria Libretto is one of the best pizza shops in the city has been expanding with new locations around town and it was just a matter of time when one that was more central opened. I really don’t deviate far west of Spadina or east of Yonge!
It’s not a far walk to the new Umbra Store. I haven’t been to their current location before. The brand is not so exotic at all but it’s really wonderous to go into their shop carrying exclusively their prodcuts! I want to see their Spectra wall decor in person.
I might or might not have appetite for Kanga but it wouldn’t hurt in the least to pick up one of their meat pies to go, would it?
Then it should be time to meet up with the bff/new mum for the afternoon!
On the way back uptown, I can get Lil Sis to meet me “halfway” at Korean Cowboy It came into my purview thanks to Blog TO. This sounds intriguing and delicious if not the most balanced meal. Maybe we’ll pick up a real Korean meal further north on the way back home. ;)

Other restaurants/sites to visit

  • Origin North – I had heard that Origin has great brunch and a location in North York is pretty convenient. I know, I do get swayed by what I watch on television and when Origin founder Claudio Aprile was named a judge and I saw him on television every week, I wanted to try Origin all the more. So if I do make it to Origin, I will have tried all three judges’ restaurants. :D
  • Miku – Okay, here is a restaurant I have tried before as they started in Vancouver but want my mum and sister to try. They might not actually be open until the summer.
  • Kobo Nobu – I think I first heard of this on Blog TO (where else?) and the cheap omakase is the draw. :)
  • The County General – I heard about their fried chicken sandwich. Sounds like a ridiculously delicious snack.
  • Roots Home Design – I am totally intrigued what kind of Canadiana I can put in my house since I’m not exactly inclined to wear it.
  • Torp – Blog TO informed me of this fantastic store with Scandanavian products. We all love that stuff.
  • Evergreen Brickworks – This place has grown in popularity over the years so I want to visit finally.

Thanks, SBUX!

On Monday, April 6, as a Starbucks Rewards member, I received an email with the following offer.

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While my usual Starbucks habit is only about once per week, I increased it to four consecutive days and gave NPY a gift card registered to my account to help me earn more stars. We actually inadvertently took a break on the weekend but renewed our effort on Monday, the last day of the offer.

I can loosely guess at the offer strategy of Starbucks Rewards based on this experience where I was offered 6 bonus stars and NPY – who has a daily Starbucks habit but usually orders an Americano – didn’t receive the tea offer at all, and when it comes times to Star Dash, I have to order more drinks to get the $5 gift card like on the order of six drinks in as many days while I’ve read on forums that others have not been required to make as many purchases.

I’ve delighted in getting bonus stars as the standard Rewards offer of “Buy 12, get one free” takes me a while to accrue free drink. With six bonus stars, temporarily, it was “Buy 2, get one free”.

They got me this time. I went from an average of one drink per week to five in a week. I get marginally better offers than NPY does and we think that since I fell headlong for this offer, the next ones will not be so great and I will abstain and thus NPY pitched in and helped me max out this one. ;D

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I’ll be enjoying free drinks for the rest of the month. :)

 

Great potluck dish: lemon-thyme macaroni salad with peas and bacon

Note: this was a big hit at a birthday party gathering so I’m keeping this recipe.
Source: The Cozy Apron

Summer Macaroni Salad with Crispy Bacon and Peas in a Bright & Creamy Lemon-Thyme Dressing
(Serves about 6)

Ingredients:

  • 12 oz salad-size macaroni pasta, cooked according to package instructions and cooled
  • 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
  • 4 oz diced and crisped bacon
  • Creamy, Lemon-Thyme Dressing (recipe below)
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, for garnish

Preparation:

Add the cooked and cooled macaroni to a large bowl, and add in the thawed peas and the diced, crisped bacon; if serving immediately, toss with the Creamy, Lemon-Thyme Dressing, and garnish with the thyme leaves; if making ahead, prepare all components and keep them separate, then toss the dressing with the pasta/peas/bacon when ready to serve, to keep the pasta salad moist and fresh; keep cold.

Creamy, Lemon-Thyme Dressing ingredients:

  • ¾ cup mayo
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ½ tablespoons lemon zest
  • 1tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • 1teaspoon whole grain Dijon mustard
  • 1teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • ½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Preparation:

Add all ingredients into the bowl of a food processor, and process the mixture until thick and completely creamy; store in the fridge until you’re ready to serve the salad, at which point you can toss the dressing with the pasta.

The recipe I have been looking for: Butter chicken

Note: This recipe is a keeper. The results tastes like restaurant quality.
Source: Foodess.com

Ingredients

For chicken & marinade:

  • 2.2 lbs (1 kg) boneless, skinless chicken breast cut in 1″ – 2″ cubes
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp kosher salt

For sauce:

  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 2 ½ cups chopped onion (about 2 medium-large)
  • 2 tbsp coarsely chopped garlic
  • 2 tbsp garam masala
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
  • 2 cups diced no-salt-added canned tomatoes
  • ¾ cup cream
  • 2 tbsp butter

Instructions

For marinade:

Combine all ingredients in a zip-top bag or shallow baking dish, massaging the marinade into the chicken. Let stand at room temperature while you prepare the sauce, or marinate in the fridge overnight.

For sauce:

  1. Heat oil over medium heat in a large saucepan or dutch oven. Add onions and slowly cook until golden, about 20 minutes, reducing heat if they are getting crispy or browning quickly.
  2. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in garam masala, paprika, cinnamon and salt; cook 1 minute more. Add tomatoes; cook 2 minutes, then add cream and carefully puree using an immersion blender.
  3. Return sauce to saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add chicken to the sauce, cover, and simmer over medium-low heat until cooked through, about 12 minutes (remove a couple of pieces to make sure they are no longer pink inside). A gentle simmer is required to gently cook the breasts so they don’t become tough, and you don’t want to overcook them.
  4. Stir in butter, taste and add more salt to taste.

I own four pairs of the same shoes

(and two pairs of yet another style)

I am not at all above Payless shoes. The beating my shoes take and their constant proximity to icky and often wet Vancouver ground turns me off from spending a lot on a single pair of shoes. Best yet, Payless has a really affordable selection of Premium Comfort shoes.

The original pair and style that started it all: Claire scrunch flats. It would be so me to start with the nude, truly ballet slipper looking ballet flat. They are super comfortable and for the longest time, I only wore them at the office, being quite paranoid of scuffing and generally sullying this shoe. I hope Payless carries this style FOREVER…..! This style is a copy of several designer brands but it’s just $25 so you can get several colours… so I did!

Shortly after getting the nude colour, I was back at the store and found that the styles and sizes were really limited in the (Canadian) store compared to what the (American) website was displaying. Fast forward a year to 2015 and I’m please the selection and availability has improved greatly.

I bought the above two pairs on the same day. The floral pair looks like oilcloth and are super cute. I’ve been jonesing for something this cute for years upon years after missing out on a black floral pair. The pattern and oilcloth look kind of reminds me of Cath Kidston bags. The black and white pair are “business” shoes. I don’t actually wear them at work – because my pants would drag and I look dumb wearing flats with a dr1414ess/skirt – but to dress up a casual weekend look. It’s got a little flair, so it was easy to convince myself to get this “duo” on the same day.

I was going to get as my fourth pair the all-tan coloured version of this last pair but it wasn’t available in my size and these are prettier and channel the sweet sentiment of my first pair (the nude ones).

The Janine Pointy Toe Pump

I was drawn to these shoes by the rose gold colour and the price (clearance for Cdn$10) and comfort were a plus! I wore and rocked these through 2014 wedding season and even clubbing until 5 a.m. in Vegas!

A little later, also at a super duper price, I got this teal pair. It gets close to the cobalt coloured shoe that is so hot to have but it’s my own take. It even matches the colour of my right ankle birthmark, an observation that would make it my third ever Instagram post.

Above pristine photos were from Payless.com.

Giving back: volunteer filing income tax returns

Last year, I set the ball in motion. When I was renewing my CGA student membership for the year, amongst the questions I should generally be answering “No” to to signify that I’m not offering services I’m not entitled to, there was one asking if I was part of a volunteer organization that prepared income tax returns.

No, but that was an intriguing idea. Most of my volunteer gigs have been “No skill required” where I just had to show up and be cheerful. The most challenging gig, thus, was when I was a run leader and we would go out on long runs on Sunday, up to 20 kilometers with the group. A little Googling and I learned about the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP), a collaboration between the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and community organizations and the organization closest to me is at a church 11 blocks away (then I moved one block closer). Perfect.

In the fall, I contacted the coordinator and proceeded to apply for my Efile number, get a background check done and other formalities. In February, I attended seven CRA webinars that covered some of the specific circumstances that form a majority of our clientele and the government slips they hold: Aboriginal peoples, seniors with medical expenses and disabilities, newcomers to Canada, and families with dependents and the associated benefits.

Then a three-hour orientation was held on Valentine’s Day. It was a good opportunity to get on the same page and meet the other volunteers whom I wouldn’t necessarily have the time to interact with or even see every Saturday when we run the clinic for four hours. What I didn’t expect during the orientation was the close affiliation between the tax clinic and the church that hosts it. Many of the volunteers attend the church and joined after they saw advertisements for the clinic posted around the church. We prayed a couple of times and the the operations director of the church spoke to us and we prayed a third time. It’s okay with me but I was surprised and NPY said I shouldn’t have been.

The clinic only runs weekly during the month of March for those who get their papers together early, ahead of the filling deadline at the end of April. Then it takes a break until July when it runs monthly until November. Many of the other volunteers are practicing accountants and one woman works in payroll. They all have such a strong background in tax, I relegated myself to simple case: seniors living in homes who sent in their papers and people filing singly. Next year, I will have this year’s experience with filing as a couple and some practical experience filing as a family. So… bring it on then!

I signed up for the last three weeks of March but there was a mix-up about the last week and I showed up although the coordinator wasn’t expecting me. There were more volunteers than they needed so it was an excellent opportunity to spend more time with each client. And when that happened, that’s when I did get a taste of the stories that I heard about during testimonials during orientation.

The client I spent the longest talking to was a retired gallery owner who urged me (and anyone young) to vote in the upcoming transit referendum. We could talk about travelling and living and commuting in other Canadian cities we’ve lived in and appreciate the Vancouver neighbourhoods we live in (Mount Pleasant and Olympic Village). She makes retirement look fabulous.

Most of the time, I’m simply amazed with the clients’ ability to face their obstacles. We don’t have to talk about it but it’s written all over their faces and in their financial information.

I’m happy to help and use my skills during volunteerism. I don’t downplay how little I know compared to the veteran CVITPers but I’m still able to help clients who would otherwise be unable to file their tax returns. I feel really fortunate about my life but don’t feel as if I necessarily would be on this path without quite a bit of luck. What I have is access to the tools to help them and time. I’m glad to share this and will be back next year.

Vancouver’s Brewery District and beyond

A year and a half ago, we moved into Olympic Village Great beer and we weren’t that into beer back then. I remember that because the wedding was shortly after and we didn’t bat an eyelash about serving at the reception Heineken that we procured in a couple of cross-border runs. These days, we might still serve something from a large brewery but I would balk inside.

It really came into our purview the burgeoning brewery industry in Vancouver in 2014 and we happened to have moved into Olympic Village in fall 2013, the westerly edge of it all. Some breweries have been around for years upon years (Granville Island, Parallel 49) and more are popping up seemingly every month. In 2014, I visited breweries during a trip back to Halifax and brought NPY some East Coast brews and we have added brewery tasting rooms to our trip planning last year and this year in Kelowna, Seattle, Maui and LA/Palm Springs. I finally planned a birthday ‘do for NPY, last fall, wherein we went brewery hopping and hit up three breweries before having more beer with dinner!

For my part, I’m staunchly either a fruity beer or dark beer drinker. And by drinker, I take small sips and should only be served a sample glass at a time. I’m slightly terrified of drinking my calories so I’m usually just there for support, and to admire this fun and laidback trend sweeping the city.

A stone’s throw away

People are flocking to Vancouver’s Olympic Village because it’s a great space to visit and live with dense but down-to-earth living and the great establishments to get beer. Legacy Liquor Store is the Village’s neighbourhood very well-stocked liquor store well-known for its beer selection but it also has a great tasting room for their spirits and wines. The first big restaurant on the scene was Tap & Barrel right on the water and with two levels of massive patios that provide the million-dollar northwest views of the city. Craft Beer Market expanded on their Alberta locations and took over the heritage Salt Building as a major competitor. Craft doesn’t have the patios with the views but it has over 100 brews on tap.

What about microbreweries? Well the neighbourhood is getting some, in a big way. Late last year, Steel Toad Brewpub was the first microbrewery to open a stone’s throw from the Village. It is a big space with a dining hall seating over 150 guests and an emphasis on good food alongside their beers. With their 19-foot screen, it has sell-out evenings for recent major sporting events. Big Rock Urban Brewery from Alberta is located on Alberta Street and will open on April 10. With their BRU Eatery, they will up the stakes for dining in the area.

Ten minute walk away

Just a 10-minute walk away, there are several small microbreweries where the seating is capped at about 30 and you might have to stand outside in line and grab a bite first from the rotating line-up of food trucks at the location that day. These breweries include 33 Acres Brewing Company and Brassneck Brewery that I’ve been to, and R&B Brewing Company and Main Street Brewing Company that I haven’t been to yet. 33 Acres is our favourite of the area with a clean, hip(ster) tasting room, a hopping food truck pumping you up when you’re in line and delicious collaborations with Matchstick Coffee Roasters and Earnest Ice Cream. And they bring in and serve Cartems donuts. Soon, some time in Spring 2015, Red Truck Beer Company will be completed and have a 100-seat Truck Stop Diner. Count me as excited.

Twenty minute bike ride away

So you can’t drive after you drink but it does present an interesting challenge if you arrive and leave by bicycle… I haven’t done it but some others have and I’d like to think that it has an immediate sobering effect to have to steer yourself safely home after drinking, like the way NPY sobers up or gets much more alert even though he has been drinking when I take over as DD. :D

In Olympic Village, we are not East Van. For goodness sakes, most of the addresses are “West” ones…! The brewery density is highest in East Vancouver and we are kind of relieved not to be living right in the midst of it all! The biggest ones out there and we visited on NPY’s birthday are Parallel 49 Brewing and Bomber Brewing. I can and will write a whole other blog post about Parallel 49. Postmark Brewing is the East Van brewery with a dining establishment, Belgard Kitchen, that sounds worthy of a visit. Meanwhile, NPY and his beer bestie check out the smaller establishments in mid-week outings including Strange Fellows Brewing, Off the Rail Brewing Company, Powell Street Craft Brewery, and the frightfully small Storm Brewing.

I almost forgot – and how could I? – about Granville Island Brewing, possibly the oldest of them all but located squarely in the westside and so busy in touristy Granville Island that we haven’t visited yet.

Destination Brewery

Now, when we travel, in addition to seeking out the local office of my firm, now I have to (happily) seek out the brewery(ies) to visit. I am finally giving back to NPY (hahahaha) but he knows that sometimes I can get more eager than he does. As such, our quest has boozed up our trips to Toronto (Mill Street Brewpub), Halifax (Garrison Brewing Company, Propeller Brewery), Kelowna (Tree Brewing Company), Penticton (Cannery Brewing Company, Tin Whistle Brewing Company [Yelp]), Seattle (Elysian Brewery), Maui (Maui Brewing Company), Palm Springs (Coachella Valley Brewing Company) and LA (El Segundo Brewing)!

There are plenty more we want to visit in other cities and around the PNW and I’ve certainly left off local breweries I have not yet discovered we want to visit. The above map is certainly a work in progress!

A dose of the arts in Maui

What I found was that when we had the time to take things easy in beautiful Maui, the arts came to the forefront. Actually, we couldn’t get away from it starting with plentiful galleries on-site at the Grand Wailea Resort where we stayed which also offered gallery tours and watercolour and outdoor painting classes, none of which – sadly – I took up. The Shops at Wailea, a five minute walk from the resort, is home to the Lahaina Galleries and Dolphin Galleries, amongst others, and we caught some of WOW (Wailea on Wednesdays), a weekly arts and entertainment series hosted by The Shops at Wailea. There were galleries to take in in Paia and especially in Lahaina where we checked out the Martin Lawrence Galleries and the one right across from it – I forgot its name. Every Friday is arts evening in Lahaina, what I imagine to be a magical evening starting with a glorious sunset and then elegant and inspiring arts – since I wasn’t actually there.

Heather Brown (Honolulu/Kalakaua)

I first discovered Heather Brown’s art in Honolulu two years ago. I love the clean lines stylizing big waves and the vibrant colours she uses. When I see her work in surf shops, it’s apparent that her fun style is embraced by the community.

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Ken Loyd

We were in an art gallery in Paia where I saw Heather Brown pieces again and alongside it was introduced to Ken Loyd’s work. With more pastel colours, he renders softer stylized landscapes of Maui which are still super cheerful. I wanted to pick up a print, not ready to splurge on a giclée but none that were available had the over-all blue hues I was looking for.

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Pamela Sukhum

In the Martin Lawrence Galleries in Lahaina, which is at the corner of the bright intersection of Front and Lahainaluna, opposite another gallery and the railing where everyone takes in the water view and sunset, we discovered Pamela Sukhum. I almost overlooked the three walls devoted to her work but then the texture and colour drew me in. I like the general symmetry of many of the images and the nature subject but the colours made it fantastic. The texture adds to the wildness and I would touch it if in private with the work. There’s no point in getting a print or giclée of these works!

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Robert Bissell

After our first foray at The Shops at Wailea to raid the ABC Store and the general store, I wanted to go back and visit the art galleries of which there are a half dozen or so. As the name suggests Lahaina Galleries are found in Hawaii (three) and there is one in California, too. I overlooked the “weird bear art” that is on display at the front of the store but when I saw more of Robert Bissell’s work, more bears, I was enamoured. His rendering of the bears is so beautiful and they appear so gentle. The scenes are like fantasy but the type I enjoyed because of their whimsy.

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Dr. Seuss’ Collection of Unorthodox Taxidermy

It seemed a little random but there was a Dr. Seuss section in the Dolphin Galleries at the Shops at Wailea. The Collection of Unorthodox Taxidermy was cute, especially when the whole collection was gathered in a cluster on one wall. There was also one big piece we saw that I couldn’t find at the above website which was quite a different turn from the books, like an illustrated scene from Santorini or something. It was very pretty.

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Fabio Napoleoni

Finally, also at Dolphin Galleries, and NPY actually reacted and adored it, we stepped into a small room with Fabio Napoleoni’s pieces. They are utterly adorable and a little sad. These are the two pieces NPY liked and I quite agree.

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It’s like I’m a sun-seeker or something (my Palm Springs getaway)

A month and a day after we returned from Maui, we set off to Palm Springs. Life sounds so sweet, huh? Well, I’m starting a contract position in March that I respectfully did not want to mess up by taking vacation in the midst (I never do anyhow, never going away for my birthday in March, boo) and no other travel plans later this year. But the interface between the two roles presented a nice opportunity to go away and we (I) considered a few cities within the limits that NPY set, that is, nowhere far.

I considered Phoenix (never been to but NPY has), San Diego (never been to but NPY has), Palm Springs (both never been to) and good ole stand-by Las Vegas. We are practically nuts to consider going to the States with the current dollar but there is nowhere in Canada that you would want to go in the end of February – and that includes Vancouver. (It has been a horrible winter for eastern Canada.) A quick search of things to do in Phoenix kind of made me yawn – the cuisine doesn’t sound great and all that is recommended is to visit some parks and look at arid nature. San Diego is interesting and correspondingly expensive. Palm Springs yielded similar search results as Phoenix but it has the advantage of being a reasonable drive away from LA for some variety and action. Vegas was the cheapest and I was there last year for SIL’s stagette (wherein daytime Vegas was not exactly much explored) and NPY hasn’t been to since 2012 but he still wasn’t thrilled.

As it turns out, BIL and his girlfriend got “stuck” with flights to Palm Springs and it swayed our decision. NPY bemoans that we don’t travel with others and sometimes I can be darned inflexible with my dates and that precludes other people’s schedules. So I really wanted to be flexible once because goodness knows when I can be again. I’m always down for going somewhere different and making the best of it.

Like it would be so hard with Palm Springs… Palm Springs has over 300 days of sunshine [source] because it’s in a desert while Vancouver has on average 168 days of precipitation [source]. That’s a very good start….

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Day 1

So, we arrived in Palm Springs shortly after 11 a.m. on the direct Westjet flight. The airport is adorable and circular in shape and the draping white roof reminds me of Premium Outlets and walking into a resort hotel. I’ve seen far worse for small airports. We picked up the rental car and head towards our aunt’s vacation home in a gated community in Palm Desert.

We drove by Sherman’s Deli on the way to the house and with the multiple recommendations I’ve heard, I was confident suggesting it. Full from lunch, we drove half an hour out to Desert Hills Premium Outlets and Cabazon Outlets. We walked around the East Village wing of Desert Hills and I scored at Kate Spade and stuck to a theme. You gotta love 50% off outlet price then an additional 20% off! Overall, there was a high representation of high-end designer stores we didn’t have a taste for and we checked out the smaller Cabazon Outlets whose redeeming feature was the Under Armor store.

We shopped at Trader Joe’s and Walmart where we picked up a flat of water (much needed) and items to prepare dinner, snacks and breakfast.

Day 2

The next day, we set out for Joshua Tree National Park which was on Jo’s wishlist. (Outlet shopping was Chris’.) We entered the park but then exited to top up our gas, apprehensive of the possibility of running out in the middle of the desert/park. There was a Subway in the gas station and it inspired us to have that as a snack in the park.

Our stops in the park included Hidden Valley Trail, Keys View, Cholla Cactus Garden and Cottonwood Spring and we were there for several hours.

At some points on the nearly 60-mile drive, I wanted to stop and take a picture of the landscape where Joshua trees were dotted as far as you could see, not too densely, and each is so unique from single “trunks” to young ones with tidy branches to aged ones that look like a clan with so many branches and even bent over.

It seemed to me that a Joshua tree might be a metaphor for life and individual beauty. The desert conditions are harsh but the “trees” (they are in fact plants) survived if rooted deeply. Each one will branch differently and the are prickly when you see them up close, but they are all beautiful no matter the shape or stage. In The Glass Castle, which I have not read, Jeannette Wells employs the Joshua tree as symbolism representing the Walls children who struggle but attain a strange beauty.

Then we started seeing these cactus which I can only describe its colour as ombre and as they grew in number, we knew we had arrived at the Cholla Cactus Garden. Immediately there were signs warning of the cacti being hazardous. “If the plant any helpful or even innocent part in the scheme of things on this planet, I should be glad to hear of it.” It’s a shame such a cute plant has such a poor reputation, I found myself saddened for it.

The Joshua tree and Cholla cactus are so unique I want to grow one each of my own. You can buy Joshua tree seeds around Palm Springs and thank goodness I didn’t because my luggage got searched. :P

On our way back into town from the national park, we stopped at Coachella, NPY’s first brewery on the trip. I wasn’t overly pleased with the number of fruit flies and flies. They were really bold and settled on me even though I was walking around and away from the group. Making my Chinese New Year phone calls, you know. If it were just me and NPY, I might have pushed to eat at Villagefest but The Cheesecake Factory was far better and NPY doesn’t like street food.

Villagefest is a year-round street festival in Palm Springs on Thursday evenings so we definitely wanted to check it out, our stay being over a Thursday. It was larger than I expected and busy enough. It was our first glimpse of the city we were visiting and the streets were pleasantly palm-lined.

One of the coolest crafts I saw were the lanterns that looked “laser cut”. It turns out they were all made from tin cans and the artist was creating new ones on the spot. So I did take down her website, Tin Can Metal Art.

Day 3

We were off to LA! The day before was the first time NPY suggested staying overnight and part of me balked internally because of the cost but it was a good decision. I was chagrined to learned that my Starwood Points balance is pitiful and I couldn’t even get one night at a Four Points. I didn’t have enough Marriott points either. And Aeroplan where I was sure (?) I had enough points was down for maintenance all evening. NPY found a good rate for the Westin near LAX so we went with that.

We didn’t roll out altogether that early but we weren’t in a rush with two days now in LA. On our way into LA, we stopped at The Donut Man in Glendora quickly followed by Baccali Cafe in Alhambra.

We walked off lunch after a drive to Santa Monica. We wandered around the beach and pier then on Third Street Promenade. At the pier, we saw a sea lion again playfully swimming around the fishing lines at the end of the pier and a whale was nearby, too. As we left the pier, we started seeing people walking around their pet pythons, first at an intersection between the pier and promenade, then two more on the promenade! We’ll say my walk was spoiled and I was hiding in NPY’s shirt. Some colourful art in the Apple Store and Girl Guides selling their full selection of cookies were the highlights.

After Santa Monica, we were ready to head to KTown for dinner and were just shocked it would take over an hour to get 10 miles there. Checking into the hotel also seemed prohibitive so we just drove to the next neighbourhood, that is, UCLA in Westwood.

Our dinner was simple, at the campus In-N-Out which was as grubby and busy as any other with the added spectacle of university kids coming or going to a costume party. I was chuffed to learn that Chilly Ribbons (which I’ve had on my list to try for a while) is also on campus so we had a choice between truly shaved ice or ice cream sandwiches at Diddy Riese. Only I went to Chilly Ribbons. Chris discovered Bibigo and Jo and NPY got ice cream. Everyone was satisfied.

We checked in to the hotel and freshened up quickly to go to El Segundo Brewing with enough time before it closed at 10 p.m. It turned out to close at 11 so all the better. It is located at a happening corner and across the street from Rock & Brews which looks like a permanent beer garden, i.e., lots of fun. The brewery was far more fun and a better environment all around.

It was too early to turn in so we drove around the city since traffic was then light and observed the nightlife from the car on Sunset Strip, Santa Monica Boulevard and KTown. In Hollywood, we saw the block being set up for the Oscars ceremony that would take place two days later but of course we couldn’t see that much.

Day 4

We were a little directionless on Saturday in LA. Jo had seen and advertisement for the LA Farmers Market and I hoped she would like it more than I did. But in the very area was the Grove which provides photo opps if anything. We strolled through the market and then had a casual lunch at Veggie Grill. I thought we might just redo the meals from last year, that is, stick around and then eat a Umami but we left the area instead.

Chris expressed a great deal of interest in shopping at Uniqlo so I directed us to Beverly Center. NPY likes malls so everyone was accommodated. At the mall, we split up because NPY has had a hankering for a Superdry jacket for a while and we checked out the shop on Third Street Promenade to no avail. At the Beverly Center location, we scored from the clearance rack in the back, their signature styles of Windhiker (for him) and Windcheater (for me) were just $49, down from $110+. Not bad. If he was going to get one, I couldn’t be left out when the women’s styles were right next door. :P

Our two-day journey to LA was winding down and we had a two-hour drive ahead of us so we fueled up at Jeon Ju in K-Town on an early dinner. They are well-known for their bibimbap but our stone bowl wasn’t hot enough. I thought the new (to me) varieties of banchan redeemed the place.

We returned to Palm Springs and downloaded with our aunt and uncle who had come in not too much earlier than we did from Las Vegas via LA.

Day 5

Sunday was our designated chill and relax day and I did that to the hilt just eating and sleeping.

We had brunch at Norma’s which we discovered in New York. The Meridien that houses Norma’s in Palm Springs was a different turn from New York – funky and laid back compared to elegant and sparkly but the fun creations on the menu were still present.

Of all the surprises, it started to rain right after brunch so our plan to stroll We got rained out of Sunnylands were nixed. We learned about Sunnylands, “Camp David of the West” just the night before from our relatives and after checking out the website, I was eager to visit. We could only stroll the grounds because the tours were booked up for the next two weeks. Camp David is a name that has inspired my imagination until I finally read the Camp David Wiki page and it’s a prosaic military base. :P

Instead, we went to dropped NPY off at Morongo Casino Resort and deemed it too smoky to endure. Thus we missed out on the only celebrity sighting of the trip. He was watching and waiting for a low-limit poker table when he started to notice a fellow with sunglasses and a cap was flanked by one bodyguard. NPY thought it as Justin Bieber and later confirmed it by Google Image searching and matching the neck tattoo he saw. ;)

Chris, Jo and I returned to Desert Hills Premium Outlets and learned that the first day, we missed the West Village wing and checked out those stores which were more accessible in general than the ones in the East Village.

We raced back to meet up with our relatives for sushi at Okura Sushi, a splendid all-you-can-eat Japanese meal of exceptional quality. NPY did babble that it was the best food he had outside of Vancouver!

Day 6

Monday was our last day and we had nearly a full day. In the morning, NPY and I did an airport drop off for Chris and Jo then we walked around downtown Palm Springs. They have a Walk of Stars and by daylight and with a longer stroll, I could finally see some names I recognized. I also discovered Heavenly Couture, a California chain of shops that resells fashion so obviously imported from a Chinese wholesaler. Nothing was over $16. (Nothing was under $16 by my observation, either.) Another shop that is really pretty is Destination PSP.

We met up with our aunt and uncle for lunch at Elmer’s, a low-key diner chain after which, funny enough, we were ready to leave town as there wasn’t really time to do much. I discovered and would like next time to go on a windmill farm tour because those windmills in their number by both day and night can mesmerize me. It’s good that there are activities and sights for the next time we return.

On our relatives’ recommendation, we killed the early afternoon with a visit to Nordstrom Rack in Town Center Way but had a better time in Palm Desert Mall where I discovered Charming Charlie and liked it so much I blogged about it.

Our rental return time was two hours before our flight so we made it in time and just hung out at the cute airport until our departure.

After all of these years of hearing about Palm Springs, it was nice to visit but it was too soon after our last trip, even for my likes! It as great to travel with family on a real away trip. We just go our credit card statement (okay, could have checked online) and, oh, does that exchange rate hurt such that I’m for once happy to travel in Canada! That, I hope, will be in May!

The assorted meals we had in PSP and LAX

Co-worker: Where are you going during your time off?
Me: Palm Springs.
Co-worker: That’s great! Do you golf?
Me: No. Why do people keep asking me that??

Palm Springs is apparently good for golf (not just good, fantastic), outdoor swimming pools and eating. For us, it has a great central location and we had our pick of going to LA, Vegas or San Diego for a road trip while being based in Palm Springs/Desert. Of the three activities, despite our best effort at getting to a pool, we only got around to the eating. Lots and lots.

Sherman’s Deli

Sherman’s Deli’s Palm Desert location is really close to where we were staying. It was an immediate reminder of how Americans go big when it comes to food. Even for a late lunch, the restaurant was full and we waited for a table while ogling the cake display with towering tortes and getting a feeling for the demographics of the city.

I was utterly torn for what to get because honestly, I’m not a big fan of deli meats. I find corned beef too salty and pastrami sounds good but not when stacked thick. I wanted to have latkes and their macaroni and potato salad and their homemade chicken soup and hot & sour cabbage soup…! The “lighter lunch” combo did fit my undecided bent where I could have chicken noodle soup, half a sandwich and, pleasantly, a salad served with it.

The soup was salty but hearty and rich with herb flavours. The potato salad was creamy and had a great texture of softened potatoes and something like potato puree holding it together. And I was very pleased with my selection of meat which was New York style hot pastrami – the meat was marbled and the fact it was hot made it better.

Other orders around the table included raw roast beef and swiss, a Philly cheese steak and the corned beef sandwich with latkes instead of bread pictured below. Indulgent!

We reacted to the large deli lunch by having a conservative dinner at the house were were staying it. After a trip to Trader Joe’s followed by Walmart, we had plenty of food and made a dinner of steamed vegetables, pasta in Alfredo sauce and Trader Joe’s Japanese Style Fried Rice (with edamame, tofu and hijiki seaweed).

The next day, we set out for Joshua Tree National Park and Jo suggested when we prudently made a stop for gas before driving 60 miles through the park that we could pick up Subway sandwiches. It was a brilliant idea and we enjoyed our subs in the picnic area near Hidden Valley Trail and had the energy for an afternoon in the blazing desert sun.

Coachella Valley Brewing Company

After a day spent in Joshua Tree National Park, it just fitting to stop by a brewery to break up our drive back towards the city. The brewery is bright and new and their beers have music and musician derived names. I thought their branding was slick and ties in nicely with the annual music festival that for whatever reason has now reached my radar. Their beer line-up is IPA heavy, especially what is available on tap. I spied some “black label” bottles in the fridge that included stouts but we left empty handed.

The Cheesecake Factory at The River at Rancho Mirage

I had a bit of hesitation to go to The Cheesecake Factory. We go every trip! While the selection is diverse and we like what we like there, it’s a bit … boring, haha! So, I made do and ordered salad sides (Warm Asparagus Salad and Fresh Kale Salad) to complement NPY’s Pasta with Chicken in Scampi Sauce and felt some kind of health halo such that we could order cheesecake to go.

When we were in the US last November over (US) Thanksgiving, we spied the Lemon Meringue Cheesecake but definitely did not have the room for it. This time, we wised up and ordered it to go and they have special takeaway containers with a wedge-shaped compartment for a slice of cheesecake and a circular compartment for dollop of whipped cream. The cheesecake was deliciously light and fluffy and worth the wait.

The Donut Man

After I found out about The Donut Man and his strawberry donut, I think I was most looking forward to it this all trip. KCET proclaims it as LA’s Iconic Dish. It is one of those over-the-top items well worth the praise. We stopped by the shop which is conveniently open 24 hours a day on easily accessible Route 66. We selected three donuts to be shared among the four of us with Americanos on a Starbucks patio just down the street.

It was a good thing we had one small chocolate dipped cruller to offset the larger and heavier items. It would have been more sensational to have gotten the excessively long “Long John” but NPY put the brakes on that. The berry cream donut was topped with cream cheese whipping cream which I do enjoy. And the strawberry donut was just the right amount when you have less than one half. Each strawberry was perfect and glazed and the flaky glazed donut was a good accompaniment.

Baccali Cafe and Rotisserie [Yelp]

Our next stop before getting into LA was in Alhambra for a HKSC (Hong Kong Style Cafe) meal. I was aiming to eat in San Gabriel Valley, the “new” Chinatown, but this was close enough. During their lunch rush, they were busy but we got a booth in a corner right away. It was the second day of the new Lunar Year, a day of feasting and I saw several tables splurge on a lobster dish or two. The point of the Day 2 meal is to “open the year” and have so much food that there are leftovers signifying having plenty during the year. So we each ordered a dish.

We ordered XO seafood fried rice and black pepper beef chow mein which were solid. We ordered a baked fish filet in creamy cheese sauce that was really tart to the smell and I thought off-putting. And since rotisserie is in the name of the restaurant, I ordered a half-chicken with a side of Hainan rice. The half chicken was a good deal and the meat was roasted well and still tender in the white meat portions. The “Hainan rice” was a bit of a cop out and we routinely enjoy far tastier at one of our favourite restaurants in Vancouver. It’s what happens when you don’t know yet what is truly good in a city you’re visiting.

We were so delighted to see a small jug of condensed milk served with our milk tea and happily treated ourselves during this special New Year meal.

 

After lunch and after visiting Santa Monica Beach and Pier and Third Street Promenade, we were down for having dinner and originally wanted to go to K-Town. But a check with Google Maps and we were floored it would take over an hour to get there, just 10 miles away. And nearly an hour if we wanted to just rest up at the hotel. We hadn’t encountered such heavy traffic our last trip, so we just decided to go somewhere closer, to the UCLA area. Maybe we would eat dessert before heading for KTown dinner, haha. But we ended up picking up burgers at In-N-Out Burger, Chris and Jo’s first In-N-Out so I was happy to acquiesce and save a bit of money and appetite for …

Chilly Ribbons

Visiting Chilly Ribbons has been on my list for so long I wasn’t all that exited about it. In a bright shop reminiscent of those numerous self-serve froyo places, the ice block was described to us. Something about it containing pure juice and it was shaved into a cup after I selected my size and which flavours (mango and strawberry). The cup with shaved ice was weighed and I was off to the toppings bar where I didn’t quite know what toppings suited fruit-flavoured ice. Certainly not the candies and chocolates. I stuck to popping boba beads, a cube of grass jelly for NPY, a cube of coconut jelly and red bean. They container was weighed again and I was charged my final total and then told I could go nuts with the syrups! Just a bit of condensed milk.

Diddy Riese

The queue for Diddy Riese wasn’t too crazy right at dinner time although it was a Friday evening. Since I was having shaved ice, only NPY and Jo got ice cream sandwiches and were roundly impressed with the quantity, novelty and the experience. :)

El Segundo Brewing Company

Our thing now is to seek out breweries when we visit different cities but it can be a little difficult to me because I’m guessing at what NPY would like. I’ve heard of Washington and Oregon breweries but none of the California ones (in LA and Palm Springs) struck me as familiar. So, I was selecting ones to visit based on location and our hotel was closest to El Segundo. As we drove down a very industrial stretch with Chevron Refinery on one side, I was apologetic for what area I had directed us to but we turned onto Main Street, we were back to civilization and a happening corner of El Segundo.

The brewery is half underground and busy two hours before it would close for the evening. It was totally casual and everyone was happy. NPY and Jo ordered a flight each and some of the samples had nearly double the usual alcohol content! It was a completely different and very welcoming environment from the first brewery we visited (which simply needs to mature some and visit at a busier time) and a great spot. Rant Lifestyle ranked it third on its top 10 list and had said about El Segundo, “Do not, under any circumstance, skip this brewery.”

Veggie Grill

The next morning, we were back at the LA Farmer’s Market and The Grove where the latter, for me, is a constant disappointment. I thought the meals might be a redux of last year with the visit bookended by meals at Veggie Grill and Umami Burger. It would just be Veggie Grill.

This time around, I tried the Savory Kale Caesar and stuck with the Buffalo Chick’n Mini Wrap. The Kale Caesar was tasty and I chewy the tempeh “bacon bits” wondering what taste it reminded me of. Something Chinese and slightly musty. Which meant to me it wasn’t bad. The wrap was spicier than I remember and a disappointment in light of seeing Jo’s mac ‘n’ cheese that was an option for my combination. Split between NPY and me, we would have enjoyed the mac ‘n’ cheese which was unexpectedly good and unique with a touch of coconut milk.

Jeon Ju Restaurant [Yelp]

We capped off our two-day visit to LA with dinner in KTown at a restaurant well-known for its bibimbap. Well, our expectations were raised. We were there for a pretty early dinner so it wasn’t busy yet. We each ordered a bibimbap and NPY selected a tofu soup and Chris and Jo got a japchae.

Shortly before our food arrived, the banchan appeared. I was intrigued to see some dishes I hadn’t before encountered including the chive pancake, marinated celery (yech), cold chili mini octopus (yech!), kimchi daikon in cold broth (not pictured) and warm kimchi napa and noodles in broth. I especially like the warm banchan.

From what we got to taste, the japchae was fragrant and delicious and wonderfully al dente. NPY was disappointed with our kalbi bibimbap which wasn’t hot enough or intense enough in flavour – Jo and Chris enjoyed their bulgogi beef bibimbap more. And when the server brought to us our soybean tofu stew, we caught a whiff of what seemed to be like b.o. like that coming off a big sweaty jock. We identified that smell from our stew and it was a little scary – I guess soybean paste can differ quite a bit from one brand to the next! I didn’t taste at all like the smell and I got accustomed to the smell. We did enjoy the stew more than the rice.

Norma’s Parker Meridien Palm Springs

When we were last in New York (in 2011), Bonnie introduced us to Norma’s in the Parker Meridien. She was bringing all of her visitors there where the creations were crazy and portions were crazier. So I was excited to go again upon learning there is a Parker Meridien Palm Springs with a Norma’s. I neglected to refer to our 2011 meal there to avoid ordering the same dishes, haha. So, brunch at Norma’s on Sunday was the one NPY and I arranged as a “thank you” to our hosts, NPY’s aunt and uncle who let us stay in their vacation home.

The Parker Palm Springs is a quite different from the Parker hotel in New York which was fancy and elegant. As fitting Palm Springs, the Parker there was funky and the restaurant was practically outdoors. It was because I had suggested the whole affair that I was worried.

We were given shotglasses of the smoothie of the day which was prepared with berries while we perused the menu and weighed which brunch or lunch dish to order. Everyone was torn between at least two choices!

Aunt and Uncle went with lighter fare, “Rabbit Food”: Rock Lobster and Mango Salad and Charlie’s Chopped Cobb Salad (not pictured, rather, it’s in the background of the other salad). These were colourful creations and the lobster I tried was fresh and excellent for rock lobster.

NPY got Norma’s Eggs Benedict, of course. To my delight, Jo ordered the Claw’s and Chip’s Gone Fishing, a version of fish and chips with lobster and Chilean sea bass.

I got the Waz-Za? which was familiar from the last time for its berry content and to provide NPY with something sweet to eat after his eggs Benedict. I really enjoyed the yogurt as waffle syrup and it all tied together to nicely who would think fruit, yogurt and waffles could be so decadent?

Okura Sushi

Our aunt and uncle’s recommendation was Okura in La Quinta and they way they described it, we were completely on board: all-you-can-eat beautifully plated good quality sushi. We were unfortunately late arriving for dinner, dashing back from the outlet mall in Cabazon but aunt and uncle could check off a pile of items to get us started and handed it to the server as soon as we arrived. They bring all of their visitors to Okura so they knew which items were especially worth trying.

Tempura vegetables and shrimp: the bottom piece was an onion! It was an unpleasant surprise but then was a bit like an onion ring, heavy on the onion though.

Dynamite Rock Shrimp: lovely presentation in these cute goblets – the shrimp were small but plump, fried and drizzled like ebi mayo.
Chicken Robata skewers

Nigiri: chopped scallop, masago, tuna, unagi, tamago

Two bottles of this “Aladdin bottle” were imbibed.

Spinach Goma-ae

Serrano Hamachi carpaccio

Rolls!
Baked Scallop – California Roll topped with baked scallops, a miso glaze and eel sauce. I especially liked this one because the baked scallop was especially tasty.
Crunch – Shrimp tempura, avocado and tempura flakes
Red Dragon – Shrimp tempura, cucumbers, spicy tuna and avocado
California – Crab with avocado
Hotate – Spicy scallops with green onion and tobiko

Agedashi tofu

Robata grilled spare ribs

Mochi ice cream in strawberry and mango flavours

Chocolate and creme brulee

Matcha ice cream

Not pictured but ordered and ingested: a second round of nigiri including salmon, gyoza dumplings, miso soup, sashimi salad, wasabi Caesar salad, seaweed salad, Sonomono “Cucumber” salad,

Elmer’s Restaurant

One more meal before we hit the road (rather, before our flight). We suggested Elmer’s Restaurant or the cool-looking Lulu California bistro in downtown Palm Springs. Aunt and uncle countered with Elmer and Grill-A-Burger so we settled on Elmer’s. They have plenty of locations in Washington and Oregon so I wanted to try it out in case it becomes a go-to restaurant when we make our day trips state-side.

I was kind of advocating that NPY get the impressive German pancake topped with breakfast items like eggs and sausage while I was sticking to a BLTA sandwich and salad combination but he didn’t take me up on it and got a decent chicken-fried steak sandwich. The soft bun with my sandwich tied it together well, surprisingly. Uncle ordered potato pancakes which were a nice and savoury turn.