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Mini Vacation – Chicago, Illinois

18 Jun

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Disclosure: I received a media rate from the Renaissance Chicago Downtown hotel. 

My maternity leave was about to end and I needed to take a trip before I headed back to work…really badly. We were still too nervous to fly with a very active Baby R (yes, that’s first time parents for you), so a driving trip to the U.S. sounded like it would be the next best thing. The plan…head to Chicago to explore a bit and then visit friends in Indiana.

We were only in Chicago for a day and a half, so we needed to make the most of it with baby in tow. Traveling with baby is certainly different but with the right stroller (yay for our City Mini Baby Jogger) and a bit of advanced planning, it’s definitely doable. Add in a great hotel and you’re all set. Here’s the best of Part 1 of our trip – Chicago, Illinois!

The hotel:

The Renaissance Chicago Downtown was smack dab in the middle of the city and within walking distance of tons of restaurants and shops. We really couldn’t have asked for a better location. Add to that the fact that the hotel just completed $27 million dollar renovation of their lobby and guest rooms and we couldn’t wait to check it out.

I don’t know what the lobby looked like before their renovations but it looked amazing after the renovation. High ceilings, great art and a bar with an open kitchen came together to create a great vibe. The lobby was lively and people seemed to be happy and having a good time, which was nice to see. They have an espresso machine and pastries available for purchase in the lobby, so we grabbed a snack on our way upstairs.

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When we got to our room, we were greeted with a tasty welcome surprise from the hotel (yum!) and we were happy to see that Baby R had his own little bed in the form of a stylish Pack ‘n Play with nice bed sheets in it. For those non-parents who are reading this, it’s a portable crib/containment device, I mean play area, that’s perfect for use when traveling. Baby R didn’t feel like hanging out in his Pack ‘n Play, so he made himself right at home on the king-sized bed while I wandered around the room. The room was a great size for us and even with the Pack ‘n Play in it, we still had quite a bit of space for the three of us and the assortment of luggage and other paraphernalia needed to keep a baby fed and happy.

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The room had been updated in the hotel’s recent renovation project and it looked fresh and modern. My husband and I both thought the decor was cool and contemporary and the artwork had a great city vibe to it. The king-sized bed was very comfortable for the both of us and we had more than enough room for my son to sleep in between us when he got fussy that night (phew!). IMG_6108

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The hotel has a full service spa, fitness center and a pool, which hopefully I’ll have a chance to check out on a future visit. Guests we met in the lobby told us the pool was terrific but sadly we just didn’t have the time to enjoy it. Definitely a great reason for us to come back again!

Overall, we enjoyed our visit and we look forward to staying at the Renaissance hotel again next time. We definitely needed more than one night in this city! Between dealing with traffic, baby’s feeding/sleep times and a general desire to otherwise take it easy, we didn’t make it to too many places on this visit. Note: I am leaving out an unfortunate experience with an Asian restaurant…sadly, not all food is perfect in Chicago! Here are a few of our favourite shops and restaurants from our short visit:

Eataly Chicago

If there’s an Eataly in the city I’m visiting, you’ll bet that I’ll head there. After talking my hubby’s ear off about Eataly New York (which he hasn’t been to yet), I knew I had to take him to the Chicago location. With two floors of food goodness, this store can’t be explained in words or photos, you’ll just have to check it out for yourself. We decided to have a late lunch there and enjoy their fresh pasta. Hubby had a pappardelle in a Bolognese sauce which he was swooning over and I had their spinach and ricotta ravioli in a lemon butter sauce with pistachios. The sauce was so delicious, I wanted to lick the plate. I took a photo of some chocolate chip cookies that looked incredible and I posted it to Facebook while I was in there. Several people then asked if they tasted as good as they looked but I didn’t buy one as I was trying to be “good”…but in the end, I caved in and I was so glad that I did, that cookie was one of the best I had ever had! I wish I had one right now actually…

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Garrett Popcorn

Yes, I know what you might be thinking…popcorn? Why do I need to buy popcorn in Chicago? Garrett Popcorn is a hot spot in Chicago and it’s not just the tourists who are in line to buy from their shop, the locals go there too. The signature item is their Garrett Mix popcorn, a mix of their CaramelCrisp and their Cheesecorn popcorn flavours. It’s an interesting combination that is a bit of an acquired taste but once you try it, you’ll be addicted. My husband’s favourite flavour is the Cashew CaramelCrisp and I love their Almond CaramelCrisp. Both of these are specialty flavours, packed with whole nuts. They are absolutely delicious and we actually prefer them to the bestselling Garrett Mix (yup, we said it!). We were only in Chicago for a little over a day and we went to Garrett Popcorn twice….that’s how much we love it there : )

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Eggy’s Diner

The breakfast places we wanted to go to all had HUGE lineups so I pulled out my trusty phone to see what our fends on Yelp had to say. Eggy’s Diner popped up and it was within walking distance so we decided to check it out. We were so glad we did! The restaurant had a funky, relaxed vibe and bonus points, they had a high chairs for Baby R!

We started off with some pancakes, because I always have to try the pancakes at a breakfast restaurant. The verdict….they were delish, so we knew we were in good hands. Next up, I had the Benedict Florentine, a toasted English muffin topped with sautéed spinach, two poached eggs and hollandaise sauce, complete with a side of breakfast potatoes. I threw some hot sauce on that bad boy and I was in my happy place. Hubby had the Corned Beef Hash and he too was in his happy place. Baby R enjoyed a lovely breakfast of milk and bits of pancakes, so he gives the place a thumbs up too : ) We will definitely have breakfast here again next time we visit! P.S. They have really cute mugs for sale with their logo on it. We bought one and we know you’ll want one too.

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Once again Chicago, we only visited you for a short time! Hoping for a longer visit next time around. Until we meet again…. : )

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Addresses:

Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel

1 West Wacker Drive

Chicago, Illinois 60601 USA

http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/chisr-renaissance-chicago-downtown-hotel/

Eataly Chicago

The Shops at North Bridge

43 E Ohio St.

Chicago, Illinois 60611 USA

http://www.eataly.com/eataly-chicago/

Garrett Popcorn Shops

26 W Randolph St.

Chicago, Illinois 60601 USA

http://www.garrettpopcorn.com

Eggy’s Diner

333 E Benton Pl

Unit #103

Chicago, Illinois 60601, USA

http://www.eggysdiner.com

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Mini Vacation – Monroeville and Grove City, Pennsylvania

13 Feb

Disclosure: I received a media rate to stay at the Hampton Inn in Monroeville, Pennsylvania.

Since I had baby Ronin last year, we’ve been on one family vacation and that was a road trip to Montreal. It was our first trip out with the baby and it went quite well, so we decided to be brave and head out to Pennsylvania with our whole family. The key reason was to visit the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, not only for our annual trip but also to conduct our son’s hair ceremony, an East Indian tradition where the baby’s first haircut takes place at the temple. The other great reason to visit the area….hitting one of our favourite outlet malls, Grove City Premium Outlets!

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I love to shop! Oh yes I do!

Since we were travelling with the whole family (all 11 of us!) we wanted a hotel that was near the temple and Grove City Premium Outlets. Bonus points if the hotel included breakfast and a pool. After some hunting, we chose the Hampton Inn Monroeville as it met all of our needs.

Hampton Inn – Monroeville, Pennsylvania

After a long drive, we arrived at the hotel and were promptly checked in by their friendly staff, who advised that there was complimentary coffee, tea and chocolate available near the front desk. They also had a popcorn machine and a basket of apples to welcome us. We were already off to a great start!

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We headed up to our rooms to settle in. Each room had complimentary bottles of water and packages of Oreo cookies, which I thought was a nice touch. I absolutely love it when hotels make an effort to make their guests feel welcome, it really seems to be a lost art. The beds looked comfy and inviting and my nephews promptly tested them out by jumping on them…we stopped them after a few jumps, don’t worry. Baby Ronin also settled in nicely on the bed, as you can see : )

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We were starving and it was late, so dinner was going to have to be delivery. We ordered pizza from Vocelli’s on a recommendation from the front desk and it was a good choice. We got their Spring Veggie pizza and their Deluxe Pizza and both pizzas were loaded with fresh toppings. The slices were large and the crust was nice and thin. We all enjoyed it and we agreed that we would order it again next time we were visiting.

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I had some time to explore the hotel after dinner so I headed down to the lobby. Along with a computer and printer for guests, next to the front desk was a small shop with a great selection of food, drinks and toiletries for purchase. I was impressed not only with the number of options they had but also that the prices for all items were very fair. Since they don’t have a restaurant in the hotel, it was great to see that they had something for guests who needed a snack or a meal in a pinch.

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We were up at the crack of dawn the next day as we had an early morning time slot at the temple for the hair cutting ceremony. Sadly, we weren’t going to have a chance to try the pool! Oh well, time to hit the breakfast buffet instead : )  I was happy to see that they had a pretty wide range of items, both hot and cold, including eggs, home fries, sausage (my hubby was quite happy about this!), a waffle maker and the usual suspects including a selection of breads, cereals, yogurt etc. There really was something for everyone and we all left with full tummies.

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Sri Venkateswara Temple – Monroeville, Pennsylvania

After breakfast, it was time to head to the Sri Venkateswara Temple, which according to their website is one of the earliest traditional Hindu Temples built in the U.S. My family has been making the trek to Monroeville, Pennsylvania to visit this temple for over 30 years and to this day, it still looks just as it did when I was a kid, all thanks to the staff who do an incredible job at maintaining the temple and the grounds. Everyone is welcome at this temple, so if you’re going to be in the area, please do make it a point to visit.

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Photo credit: Naveen A.

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Photo credit: Naveen A.

After the hair ceremony for my son was over it was time to head downstairs for one of my favourite parts of our annual visit…the food! The Sri Venkateswara Temple serves some of the best South Indian food I’ve ever had and the amazing part is that the flavours have been consistent for over 30 years. The dishes are packed in takeout containers, each costing $2 and they are filled with glorious South Indian delights such as pulihora (tamarind rice), perrugu annam (yogurt rice), sambar rice (a spicy vegetable stew mixed with rice), uppama (a polenta-like dish with vegetables), and pongal (a rice dish made with peppercorns and clarified butter). The temple is a busy place on weekends and the kitchen staff are constantly making new batches of each item, so you’re never waiting too long for the next batch to come out of the kitchen. I’m drooling as I’m writing this!

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We couldn’t leave Pennsylvania without visiting Grove City Premium Outlets. We’ve been shopping at this outlet mall every year since we got married and I’m so glad that I have a husband who takes shopping as seriously as I do! : ) We spent a few hours at the mall and guess what, I don’t have any photos….why you ask? Um, because I was shopping, there’s no time for photos! However, I do have a few tips to improve your shopping experience….

How to Improve Your Shopping Experience at Grove City Premium Outlets (Grove City, Pennsylvania): 

  • Take your passport with you as they have a special coupon booklet for visitors, with coupons for additional percentages off of your purchase etc. The staff at the desk are great and they are happy to let you take a look at the booklet before buying it.
  • A great meeting place is the food court. There’s only one and it’s pretty easy to find people there. While you’re there, be sure to take a break and have a snack and a drink in the middle of your shopping trip. Shopping requires energy!
  • Park at the “back” of the mall, there is more parking and you’ll have just as easy of a time accessing the stores.
  • Grab a copy of the mall map and circle the stores and locations of the stores before you head out to shop. If you’re on a schedule, this is the best thing to do to hit all of the stores you wish to visit. Otherwise, wandering around can take up quite a lot of time!

My “Go To” Stores at Grove City Premium Outlets (in no particular order):

  • Banana Republic
  • GAP
  • Adidas
  • Columbia Sportswear
  • J.Crew
  • Lucky Brand
  • The North Face
  • Nine West Outlet
  • Fossil

With a ton of bags from a successful shopping trip, we stopped in at the food court for a snack before heading out. I’m thankful that Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen continues to prepare tasty pizza slices and strombolis because the spinach and cheese stromboli with extra sauce is my favourite thing to eat whenever I’m there. The trip just wouldn’t be the same without it. See you soon Pennsylvania! Miss you already XO

o

Addresses:

Hampton Inn Pittsburgh/Monroeville

3000 Mosside Blvd., Monroeville, Pennsylvania, 15146

(412) 380-4000

http://www.hamptoninn.com

Vocelli Pizza of Monroeville

2644 Mosside Blvd., Monroeville, PA 15146

(412) 856-5000

http://www.vocellipizza.com/monroeville_pa

Sri Venkateswara Temple

1230 South McCully Drive, Penn Hills, PA 15235

(412) 373-3380

http://www.svtemple.org

Grove City Premium Outlets

1911 Leesburg Grove City Road

Grove City, PA 16127

(724) 748-4770

http://www.premiumoutlets.com/outlets/outlet.asp?id=85

 

Vegetarian Delights at Bosk restaurant, Shangri-La hotel Toronto

10 Apr

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I was recently invited to a special dinner at Bosk restaurant in the Shangri-La hotel, Toronto, for a preview of their Signature & Spring Tasting Menu. I was beyond excited to be invited to this event as I had heard great things about the ambiance, food and service at Bosk. Upon receiving the invitation, I advised the host teams at the Shangri-La hotel and Do The Daniel (organizer of the event) that I follow a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet and they were more than happy to accommodate my requests.

After weeks of anticipation, I arrived at Bosk a few minutes before our tour and dinner was set to begin, as I wanted to get settled and take in the atmosphere of the hotel and restaurant. The lobby was big and airy, with a fireplace and a group playing live music. I was greeted warmly by the staff and was directed to the meeting area for the #iheartbosk event where I was joined by an intimate group of food and lifestyle bloggers from Toronto.

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We started the evening off with a tour of the hotel’s new Garden Suite, a gorgeous space with a canopy bed and a private patio area. We sipped on the Shangri-La hotel’s signature Jasmine Tea while we learned about their afternoon tea service, complete with an in-house tea library containing over 75 teas. The hotel even has their very own Tea Sommelier!

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Shortly after, we headed downstairs to the Lobby Lounge where they had created two special Power Play Cocktails in celebration of the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs  – The Zamboni and The Hat-Trick Breakfast Cocktail. As I’m expecting my first baby soon, I had the non-alcoholic versions of both drinks and even without the alcoholic, I absolutely loved them. What’s in them you ask? I could tell you, but I think you should visit the Lobby Bar yourself to try them out : )

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Next, it was time for dinner! We were led to a private seating area with place settings for each of us, our names beautifully written on paper cranes. There were printed menus at each place setting, with a special vegetarian version of the menu for me which I thought was a beautiful touch.

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We were all chatting away about how we had already had a great experience so far but we knew that the best was yet to come…

SNACKS – nettle tree + lemon & pea + soda

The nettle tree came first, with tiny rolled up treats that reminded me of pappadums (an East Indian crispy snack). The lemon and pea came next in the form of a savoury macaron….delish! Lastly, we had a tasty rhubarb soda that was meant to get our palates ready for the start of the meal (sorry, I drank it all before I took a photo!)…

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SWEET PEPPER DONUT – crème fraiche, shallots, chives, parmesan

A bite of pure flavour. I was sad that I only had one!

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COMPRESSED CUCUMBER – radish, kohlrabi, finger lime, citrus snow

I loved this dish as it really woke up my taste buds. The citrus snow danced in my mouth and played well with the cucumber. I could have easily eaten two plates of this dish.

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BLACK TRUFFLE GNOCCHI – forest mushroom, tomato butter

This dish was absolutely delicious…it was so good I can still taste it and I can’t wait to have it again. I had never had anything like it and I thanked the chef for creating such a spectacular vegetarian dish.

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SPRING ASPARAGUS – quinoa, spring garlic, baby corn

The asparagus in this dish was hands down the best asparagus I’ve ever had. It was perfectly cooked and seasoned and went beautifully with the other components in the dish.

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RICOTTA & LEEK AGNOLOTTI – peas, fava bean, morel, artichoke

This pasta dish was outstanding, I really enjoyed the combination of the peas, fava beans, morels and artichokes as I had never had them all on one plate before. It was one of the most interesting vegetarian dishes I had eaten in a long time.

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POACHED RHUBARB – almond, orange blossom, elderflower

A simple and refreshing end to an amazing meal!

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CHERRY BLOSSOM TREE + KISSES

The cherry blossom tree took my breath away, it was so whimsical and beautiful. Pillows of pink and white cotton candy were perched in the tree, ready to be plucked off and enjoyed.

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Everything about the meal was exquisite. That is a word I don’t use very often and in this case it’s the most fitting word for the experience I had. My vegetarian meal was spectacular, top to bottom. Every dish was made with a lot of love, care and precision. The ingredients were top notch and they truly shined in every dish I had. To top it all off, service was professional, attentive and most importantly it was filled with a warmth that I haven’t experienced in a long time.

I’ve had a number of dinners at upscale hotel restaurants and I can honestly say that I’ve never felt as  welcomed and at home as I did at Bosk. Warmth exuded from every Shangri-La hotel team member I came in contact with that evening and I believe that is what has guests coming back over and over again.

My heartfelt thanks to the teams at Bosk, the Lobby Lounge, Shangri-La hotel, Toronto and Do The Daniel for a spectacular evening of incredible food and great conversation.

For more information about the Shangri-La hotel, Toronto, please visit: http://www.shangri-la.com/toronto/

Twitter: @ShangriLaTO or www.twitter.com/ShangriLaTO

For more information about Bosk, the signature restaurant at the Shangri-La hotel, Toronto: http://www.shangri-la.com/toronto/shangrila/dining/restaurants/bosk/

Twitter: @BoskTO or www.twitter.com/BoskTO

 

 

Day Tripping: Peaches, Pizza and Preserving with Farmers Feed Cities

2 Sep

Peaches at Quiet Acres Farm

The most wonderful time of the year is almost over….peach season in Ontario is coming to an end! I’m obsessed with peaches and as soon as the season hits, I’m one of the first in line for delicious Ontario peaches. The peaches from our neighbouring country to the south are fine for baking or in pinch when I’m desperate for one in the middle of winter. Ontario peaches however are a thing of beauty. I didn’t always appreciate them and actually when I was growing up I preferred nectarines, since they didn’t have “furry skin” but that all changed when I met a beautifully ripe Ontario peach a few years ago and I haven’t looked back!

Last summer, I had the opportunity to join a wonderful organization, Farmers Feed Cities, on a farm and vineyard tour in Niagara-on-the-Lake with a group of food bloggers and journalists. Farmers Feed Cities is committed to supporting Ontario’s farmers and helping the public to understand their importance. The goal of this farm and vineyard tour was to give us “city folk” a chance to understand and appreciate the contributions made by Ontario farmers. We only experience the end product at our local grocery store but behind the scenes, there are so many people and processes involved to get product from the farm to the market and finally to our dining tables.

We started our day off visiting the fruit and vegetable growers at Quiet Acres Farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is just over an hour away from Toronto. Our first stop was a visit to their peach orchards and they looked like they went on for miles and miles. Rows and rows of peach trees with beautiful fruit hanging down, just ready to be picked. We sampled fresh peaches and cherries, straight from the trees and maybe it was the setting but they truly were the juiciest and most delicious fruits I had ever had!

We then took a tour of their peach processing facility, where all peaches are sized, sorted, washed and packaged for grocery stores. One thing I really admired was that no peaches go to waste. They are all sorted and graded and if they don’t make the cut because they rotted on the tree, they are put into piles around the orchard that compost down and get returned to the soil.

Next, we paid a visit to their garlic and potato barn. The owner opened the doors to a huge, dark barn and asked us to all look up. There, in an attic-type space were bundles of garlic! Down below, there were baskets of potatoes, covered up so that the light wouldn’t harm them. I had never seen anything like it and as much as I call myself a “vegetarian foodie” I realized just how little I knew about the growth and handling of some of my favourite fruits and veggies.

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Potatoes, potatoes, everywhere...

We ended our tour of Quiet Acres with a visit to their fruit and vegetable stand for a little shopping. Everything they sell is grown on-site, so you can imagine just how beautiful all of the produce is. If you can’t, don’t worry, I’ve included a few pictures : )

Our next stop was a visit to Southbrook Vineyards, a company that is close to my heart as I used to frequent their Richmond Hill location, where they had a pumpkin patch and sold fresh pies throughout the Fall season. Sadly, the Richmond Hill location is closing this year, but fear not, their beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake location is going strong! We had a great tour of the vineyard and ended off with a delicious outdoor luncheon with fresh salads, pizza and wine (of course!).

Wine at Southbrook Vineyards

Beautiful fresh salads at Southbrook Vineyards

Fresh pizzas at Southbrook Vineyards

A glorious lunch at Southbrook Vineyards

We ended the day with a lesson in canning and preserving the beautiful peaches and cherries we had tasted on our tour. Lynn Ogryzlo taught us all about how to can Ontario peaches and cherries so that we could enjoy these beautiful fruits and bring back memories of a sunny, warm day by opening up a jar of home-canned fruit, even in the middle of winter!

Preserving with Lynn Ogryzlo

If you’re reading this, please do support our Ontario farmers, they work so hard and they are a huge part of our economy. Even if you can’t visit a farm in person like I did, the next time you’re at your local farmer’s market, please take a few minutes to speak to the farmers and their staff. They’ll appreciate the effort and this simple act will deepen your connection to the food that you’re putting on your table. P.S. I’ll bet your food will taste even better too!

Frolicking in the vineyard at Southbrook Vineyards

Links:

Farmers Feed Cities – http://farmersfeedcities.com/

Quiet Acres Farm – http://www.qa.on.ca/

Southbrook Vineyards – http://www.southbrook.com/

Lynn Ogryzlo, The Ontario Table – http://www.ontariotable.com/about-lynn-ogryzlo/

Expedia’s Film Contest with NFFTY and How I Plan to “Find My Picnic in the Park in Paris”

30 Jun

I recently had the opportunity to attend the #TBEX Travel Blog Exchange conference in my hometown of Toronto. I was so blessed to live in the host city for the conference this year as all I had to do was take a short subway ride to be able to meet travel bloggers and companies from all over the world. Expedia was a great supporter of the conference and I’m thrilled to share their special “Find Yours” contest with all of you…

Since Expedia launched their “Find Yours” campaign last year at the TBEX blogger conference in Keystone, Colorado, they’ve told stories that illustrate the personal relevance and emotion of travel. Of all the possible ways you can tell a travel story, film is perhaps the most powerful. What travel blogger hasn’t been inspired by the great travel destinations seen in film?

Now one travel blogger will get the chance to star in his or her own travel short film! This spring marked the second year they’ve partnered with National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY), the world’s largest youth film festival. They’ve partnered with NFFTY to determine five iconic cities often seen on the silver screen, including: Australia, Paris, Morocco, London, and Seattle. The Expedia Viewfinder Film Contest starts June 5 and the entry period will close on June 30, 2013 (only a few hours left!).

To enter the contest, travel bloggers must write a blog post on their own blog about how they would “find theirs” in one of the locations above if they were chosen for the star of a 2-3 minute film then share it on Expedia Viewfinder ™ by putting your blog post URL in the comments of this blog post – http://viewfinder.expedia.com/toronto/expedia-film-contest-with-nffty.  Entries and film suggestions can be fiction or non-fiction. After the entry period closes, a panel of judges will evaluate the entries based upon the following criteria before selecting and announcing the winner in July:

  • Incorporation of the contest elements (chosen destination and Find Yours)
  • Creativity
  • The Focus or theme of the entry (for example: culture, adventure, food/wine, family-friendly travel, budget-friendly travel, luxury travel, etc.).

One blogger, along with a NFFTY representative and an assigned NFFTY filmmaker, will win an all-expense paid trip for up to four nights to the winning destination to create a “Find Yours” video.

How I plan to “Find My Picnic In the Park in Paris”

Back in 2006, I had the pleasure of joining a few girlfriends on a quick 4-day trip to Paris. That trip changed my life, as I tried some of the most amazing food and beverages I had ever had and I finally came face to face with a piece of art that I had been obsessed with since I studied it in high school.

It’s considered to be a Paris tradition (or perhaps a tourist’s tradition?) to sit by the River Seine and have a “Paris picnic” of a baguette, cheese and a bottle of wine. My vision is a different one, I want to show the world how to create the perfect Parisian picnic and recreate the scene of my favourite painting, Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe [Luncheon on the Grass] in Paris.

Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe [Luncheon on the Grass] at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Photo credit (Musée d'Orsay): http://bit.ly/17aLE4Y

Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe [Luncheon on the Grass] at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo credit (Musée d’Orsay): http://bit.ly/17aLE4Y

Now, there is the slightly complicated matter of a lack of clothing on the female subject in the foreground of the painting, so to be safe, I’ll assume the role of the clothed woman in the background! Seriously, I want to recreate the scene in this painting in Paris and invite strangers to my very own “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” – surrounded by the delicious delights that Paris is famous for: macarons, baguettes, champagne, cheese and yogurt (yes, yogurt!). I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian (I enjoy dairy and eggs but I avoid all meat, poultry and seafood) and I love beautiful art, so this short film puts the best of my favourite worlds together into one.

My short film would start off at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, with me sitting on the cold floor, in front of my favourite piece of art. When I visited in 2006, I sat in front of Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe for over an hour, soaking in every detail. In broken French, I told the security guard where I was from and that this was my favourite painting of all time. He was so kind and suggested a spot where I could admire the painting and not be disturbed for some time.

The film would then cut to Paris’ food markets, such as Marché Rue Cler or Marchés Bastille et Popincourt where the journey to build the picnic would begin. Together we would collect beautiful fruits and vegetables (specifically tomatoes, as they were particularly amazing in Paris!).

Marchés Bastille et Popincourt. Photo credit (Paris Top Ten): http://bit.ly/159LkBl

Marchés Bastille et Popincourt. Photo credit (Paris Top Ten): http://bit.ly/159LkBl

We would then pop into a Franprix shop (this is a grocery chain in Paris) and pick up a few exotic flavours of yogurt. I had never seen as much yogurt as I had when I visited Paris, as apparently yogurt is a staple for dessert.

Amazing selection of yogurts in Paris! Photo credit (Hey, I'm Anna blog): http://bit.ly/167OqZ6

Amazing selection of yogurts in Paris! Photo credit (Hey, I’m Anna blog): http://bit.ly/167OqZ6

Next, we would visit a boulangerie or two to pick up a beautiful baguette and some croissants (particularly pain au chocolat, chocolate-filled croissants, one of the greatest culinary creations of our time!).

Then, we would visit a fromagerie and purchase a selection of cheeses, including Brie de Meaux, Camembert de Normandie, and even a few funky French cheeses such as Rocamadour and Saint-Nectaire, which I’ve only had there.

Next, we would take a quick train ride to Reims to visit the Champagne region, learn about the production process and pick up a bottle for our picnic.

Finally we would take viewers to Pierre Herme’s patisserie, where I tasted macarons for the first time. I bought a “Macaron Mogador” – chocolate passionfruit macaron. I stepped outside the busy shop and took a bite into it. The flavours travelled to the tips of my toes and my knees buckled, leaving me sitting on a sidewalk on a busy Paris street. I’ve been addicted ever since!

Macaron Mogador from Pierre Hermé Paris. Photo credit (Pierre Hermé Paris) – http://bit.ly/15WYnmE

I believe in budget travel with a luxury twist. Travel is meant to be enjoyed and I truly feel that you can scrimp on some things and splurge on other things while travelling (specifically food and drink!). Overall though, you must enjoy the best of what you can afford, who knows when you’ll be back in that place again right?

I can’t find the words to describe what it is like to finally see a piece of art I only read about in books and I can’t find the words to describe fresh, simple food that was so delicious that I can still taste it on my lips 7 years later. Expedia, I hope that you’ll help me to find the words and create my own “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” in Paris!

Mini Vacation – Niagara-on-the-Lake

25 May

Statue of George Bernard Shaw in the courtyard of Shaw Café & Wine Bar

As soon as I hear the words “Niagara-on-the-Lake” I immediately think of beautiful wineries and delicious fruits like the peaches and plums that are grown in the region. So I was thrilled to find out that I had won a two-night Niagara-on-the-Lake bed and breakfast prize package from The Wine Ladies and the Niagara-on-the-Lake Bed and Breakfast Association last year. My husband and I booked our visit for the last weekend of March and were looking forward to touring several wineries. Unfortunately, we found out too late that the wineries are closed on Good Friday! What do you do in Niagara-on-the-Lake when the wineries aren’t open and growing season hasn’t begun yet? Challenge accepted!

The last time we stayed at a bed and breakfast (or B&B) was when we were in Europe on our honeymoon, so we were a little bit nervous about staying at one that was only an hour and a half away from Toronto. Would it feel odd to stay in a B&B so close to home?

I contacted AquaBella B&B to make our booking and I was immediately impressed at their attention to detail, as they asked what our plans were while we were in the area and if we had any dietary restrictions. I mentioned that I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian (I include dairy and eggs in my diet) and they said they would be happy to accommodate me. When it comes to breakfast food, lacto-ovo vegetarians like me are pretty easy to deal with and even better, my husband will eat anything. I then shared that I was worried we wouldn’t have anything to do in the area on Good Friday. Faith and David told us they would take care of it and do a little bit of research to help us along…phew! Since we were only staying for two nights, it didn’t take us very long to pack. We hit the road on the Thursday afternoon and were in Niagara-on-the-Lake in less than 2 hours.

AquaBella B&B
Photo credit: Faith and David Bell, http://www.aquabellabandb.com/

As soon as we walked into AquaBella B&B and were warmly welcomed by Faith and David, we both knew that we were in good hands. One side of Faith and David’s home is devoted entirely to the B&B and includes a separate kitchen, living room and fireplace. The kitchen had a tea/coffee station which was available to us at any time.

AquaBella B&B

We were escorted to the “River Room, which had a Queen-sized bed, television, Wi-Fi and a nicely decorated washroom. Added touch: There were fluffy bathrobes for both of us! Since we were the only ones staying at the B&B at the time, we took a peek at the “The Falls” room and “The Lake” room. All of the rooms were beautifully decorated and the beds looked very comfortable (that’s the key!).

AquaBella B&B, River Room
Photo credit: Faith and David Bell, http://www.aquabellabandb.com/

AquaBella B&B, River Room

Niagara On The Lake 067

The Lake Room, AquaBella B&B

The Falls Room, AquaBella B&B

After we got settled in, Faith and David gave us a few ideas for things to do the following day and then surprised us with a voucher for a wine tasting for two at Peller Estates, which was still open! They hurried us along, as it was almost time for the last tour of the day. Let the fun begin…

Peller Estates

We drove up to the Peller Estates grounds and I immediately fell in love with the place. The estate was beautiful and it covered a huge plot of land. Since the weather wasn’t so great, there wasn’t much to see outside, so our tour guide focused on the winery itself, taking us through the wine making process and cellar area. While on the tour, we received a step-by-step lesson on how to taste wine and even though my husband and I knew the basics, it was great to get a refresher from a passionate professional. In the process, we were introduced to a few of Peller’s wines and my favourite was the Signature Series Ice Cuvée, a sparkling wine made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, with a dosage of Vidal Icewine.

After a great tour, we headed to the tasting area, where we enjoyed a flight of three wines and shopped for a few bottles to add to our collection. We both enjoyed the tour and felt it was definitely worth the price of admission. We can’t wait to visit the property again in the summer and enjoy a walk through the vineyard.

Peller Estates

The Epicurean

Soon enough, it was time for our dinner reservation at The Epicurean. Our prize package had included a gift certificate for the restaurant and after the busy week we’d both had, we were looking forward to a nice dinner. I was so glad that I had made reservations because the restaurant was packed and the only table available was the one we had reserved! They had been holding themed nights and that night was “Italian Night” with a special menu in addition to their regular menu.

I started with their Baby Green Salad, garnished with crunchy shoe string potatoes, parsnip chips, cherry tomatoes and dressed with Ontario vinegars. The salad was nice and light, which was perfect since my main course was a delicious Eggplant Parmigiana with a side of spaghetti. We were both too full for dessert so we ended our meal with espresso and house made biscotti.

Baby Green Salad at The Epicurean

Eggplant Parmigiana at The Epicurean

Espresso and scrumptious biscotti at The Epicurean

We walked up and down Queen St., afterward, which is filled with shops, restaurants and galleries. By the time we finished dinner, everything was closed but we were able to jot down the names of a few places we wanted to visit the following day. We headed back to the B&B to relax and get ready for bed…

Niagara-on-the-Lake – Day 2

We woke up the next morning to the wonderful smell of coffee and the lovely sounds of what I call “kitchen music” – plates moving, cutlery clinking and food sizzling as it hits a hot pan. We headed downstairs and Faith and David greeted us with coffee and a table beautifully set for four.

Beverage service at AquaBella B&B

Fruit, granola and yogurt parfait at AquaBella B&B

We started with banana bread and a yummy fruit, granola and yogurt parfait. I was already almost full when the warm apple cinnamon french toast casserole came out. After one bite, I couldn’t resist and I quickly finished my whole piece and grabbed seconds (hey, I was on vacation after all!).

Fresh banana bread at AquaBella B&B

Apple Cinnamon French Toast Casserole

It was the Good Friday holiday, which meant that none of the wineries were open, however the shops, restaurants and galleries on Queen St., were open. We threw on some comfy shoes and headed out, ready for some retail therapy.

One of my favourite shops was Irish Design, a shop filled with products from Ireland, a country that is dear to both my husband and I, as we went there for our honeymoon. We make it a point to stop at any Irish shop as we can usually find Barry’s Tea and other items we enjoyed on our trip. We both love the beautiful Irish accent as well, so it’s a treat to have a chance to hear it again : )  This shop was extra special as an Irish Tea Room was attached to it, which served pies, boxty (Irish potato pancakes), quiches and other tasty treats. We ended up getting a box of Barry’s Tea to take home (it’s so good!) and a few snacks to munch on as we continued down the street.

Barry’s Tea, The Irish Tea Room

Savoury foods, including Boxty (potato pancakes).

Jams from Ireland and homemade scone mixes

What’s the best thing to have after a savoury snack? Something sweet of course! We saw a lineup forming outside of Nina Gelateria & Pastry Shop so we had to stop in to check it out. It was surprisingly warm and sunny outside, so everyone (including us) seemed to be craving a cold treat. I tried the passion fruit flavor and my husband went for his favourite, pistachio. Both were delicious and tasted really fresh, I could see why Nina’s was so popular. Pastries, cakes, macarons, crepes, sandwiches, Nina’s had it all, including Easter Bunny Bread as a special! It would take at least 10 more visits before I’d have a chance to try everything…

Nina Gelateria & Pastry Shop

Gelato at Nina’s

Gorgeous pastries at Nina’s

Vegetarian Panini at Nina’s

Easter Bunny Bread (sold only for Easter, sorry!).

We shopped and shopped and soon enough, we were hungry (Note: We both love food and when we travel, we always seem to be hungrier!). We wanted a quick bite to hold us over until dinner and we noticed that the patio at Corks Winebar and Eatery was open. A patio lunch in March? Yes please! The food was simple pub food and that usually means little to no vegetarian options, so I was happy to see a veggie wrap on the menu. The wrap consisted of a soft flour tortilla, stuffed with goat cheese, hummus and grilled portobello mushrooms, green peppers and onions. It came with a choice of side and I decided that since I was being “good” by having all of those veggies, a side of fries couldn’t hurt : ) It was delicious and it really hit the spot.

Corks Winebar and Eatery

Veggie Wrap at Corks Winebar and Eatery

My husband wanted to check out some of the antique shops in the area, so we headed over to Sylvia’s Antiques and then to Lakeshore Antiques and Treasures. While I love my stuff shiny and new, my husband loves items with history behind them. So I wandered around and reminisced as he began his hunt. He ended up finding a beautiful old camera, a few books and a souvenir spoon holder that one of our relatives had wanted. With so many items to look at, it definitely takes a lot of time and patience to get the most out of an antique shop. My husband has already made me promise that we’ll head back to both shops this summer.

Photo credit: Sylvia’s Antiques, http://sylvias-antiques.ca/

Photo credit: Sylvia’s Antiques, http://sylvias-antiques.ca/

We headed back to the car as we both wanted to visit a pastry shop that friends had recommended to us. Willow Cakes & Pastries was in a nondescript plaza and as soon as I saw the cute little door, I somehow felt that we would be in good hands. The shop was bursting at the seams with Easter goodies, they had cakes, cookies, chocolates…you name it and they had it. We decided to pick up some little cakes so we could have a late night dessert (the cakes were practically screaming “Buy us! Buy us!” so of course we had to).

Macarons and cookies at Willow Cakes & Pastries

Mini brownie cheesecakes at Willow Cakes & Pastries

After relaxing at AquaBella B&B for a little while, it was soon dinner time. We had made reservations at another restaurant but we ended up cancelling them, as the current menu didn’t appeal to either of us. Remembering how much we had enjoyed our meal at The Epicurean we decided to head back again. The staff greeted us with warmth (and surprise) when we came in, even going so far as to nicely ask us if we had left something behind from last night! We started with an amazing cauliflower soup (made with vegetable broth) that had both of us wanting to lick our bowls.

Cauliflower soup at The Epicurean. They get bonus points for making it with a vegetarian broth : )

For my main, they had a few veggie-friendly options on the menu but I asked the chef for a plate of their sweet potato gnocchi, along with the roasted Brussels sprouts and veggies they had served along with my husband’s main dish the night before. What I received was so delicious that my mouth is watering as I think about it, as everything on the plate came together so well.

Sweet potato gnocchi with roasted vegetables at The Epicurean

We were both so full from dinner once again, but thanks to our earlier visit to Willow Cakes & Pastries, we knew we had little cakes back at the B&B. As a vegetarian, it’s not often that I’m impressed by my meal but when I am, I always make it a point to thank the chef and his/her team. They rarely get thanked for their efforts! It was late and we were tired, so we headed back to the B&B…

The following morning, we woke up once again to kitchen sounds and the smell of fresh coffee (why doesn’t this happen EVERY morning?!?). Once again, we were greeted with another beautifully set table, this time with all the fixings for a fresh waffle breakfast. Faith and David’s daughters joined us for breakfast and we had a great time chatting it up with them. One of my favourite parts of breakfast was Faith’s strawberry sauce…it was so delicious and had a lot of depth. I learned that the secret ingredient was a few spoons of fresh strawberry jam to kick up the flavor a notch…it’s those little tips that make all the difference…

Fresh waffle breakfast at AquaBella B&B

After a filling breakfast, it was time for us pack up and get ready to head back to the city as we had tickets to the Toronto FC soccer game that afternoon. We took a quick little detour and sat by the water to soak up the scenery and get some sun. It was a wonderful mini vacation and we headed back to Toronto refreshed and rejuvenated. We’re already planning our next visit!

See you next time NOTL!

List of businesses: 

AquaBella B&B
511 Charlotte Street,
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario L0S 1J0
Phone: 289-868-8784
http://www.aquabellabandb.com/

Peller Estates
290 John Street East
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario L0S 1J0
Phone: 905-468-4678
http://www.peller.com/

The Epicurean
84 Queen Street
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario L0S 1J0
Phone: 905-468-3408
http://www.epicurean.ca/

Nina Gelateria & Pastry Shop
37 Queen Street
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario L0S 1J0
Phone: 289-868-8852
http://www.ninagelateria.com/

Willow Cakes & Pastries
242 Mary Street
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario L0S 1J0
Phone: 905-468-2745
http://www.willowcakes.ca/

Corks Winebar and Eatery
37 Queen Street
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario L0S 1J0
Phone: 289-868-9527
http://www.corksniagara.com/

Irish Design
75 Queen Street
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario LOS 1J0
Phone: 1-800-268-9064
http://www.irishdesign.com/

Sylvia’s Antiques
275 Mary Street
Niagara-on-the-Lake
Ontario, Canada
L0S 1J0
Phone: 905-468-1100
http://sylvias-antiques.ca/

Lakeshore Antiques and Treasures
855 Lakeshore Road
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario L0S 1J0
Phone: 905-646-1965
www.lakeshoreantiques.net

Have you been to Niagara-on-the-Lake? If you have any recommendations for the area, please do share them in the comments section below.

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