Monday, September 30, 2013

Pleasant Surprise

Not Oyshi Sushi. I didn't think to take a picture there. Credit: Nesnad

The great thing about eating at a chain restaurant is that you know exactly what you'll be getting. It should be the same in Toronto or Vancouver, identical in San Francisco and Singapore. That's a big part of the appeal. Consistency. Therein is the worst thing about them as well. There is no room for the highs or the lows.

Independent restaurants, then, are for thrillseekers. Highs unattainable at a chain and lows that would get a franchisee called on the carpet by the regional manager and everything in between. For those of us with a limited budget for dining out, every new independent is like a trip to a culinary casino.

Oyshi Sushi (10-12 Queens Quay W, Unit  107) turned out to be a winner. Located across the street from the Westin Harbour Castle, it is on a stretch of Queens Quay removed from other dining establishments. My wife and I had just returned from a trip to the Islands and had some time before our ride was due. I was reluctant to try this place. I'm not much impressed by sushi places. I lived in Japan for three years and sushi places in Toronto, at least the ones within my budget, rarely impress. The only other dining option nearby, however, was a sports bar, so we gave it a shot. Lucky us.

The place is tucked away in a walkway between two  condo towers and easy to miss. We received a friendly greeting when we entered the place to check it out. It's rather cute. There's a small sushi bar a few tables out in the open, then a number of booths. The booths are actually fully enclosed, reminiscent of the private rooms in upscale restaurants in Japan. There is a table and four chairs inside. It's a bit cramped, but it does lend it a very nice Japanese vibe. They provided us with a complimentary bowl of edamame when we sat down.

I approached the menu with some trepidation, though, deciding to order the tempura udon (thick noodles in broth with shrimp and vegetable tempura on the side). My wife got the unagi donburi (grilled eel on rice). We added a spicy California roll and a salmon skin roll. These rolls aren't really sushi, they're pretty hard to mess up, and they were cheap. Each of our entrees came with salad and my wife's also came with miso soup. The salad was fresh and crisp. The miso, however, was a big surprise. Unlike a lot of places, Oyshi is using real miso, not a powdered mix. This was the first sign that this place might be something out of the ordinary.

The surprises kept coming when the main courses arrived. The prices here are reasonable and it's a high-rent district, yet the portions are quite generous. I was not expecting such a large bowl of noodles or as much tempura. My wife received a good-sized portion of unagi and plenty of rice. When the rolls came, cut into pieces and served on a platter, I realized that we had ordered too much food. Fortunately, when we started eating, we found that the dishes were very good. The flavours seemed authentic and the dishes had been prepared with skill. My udon was firm and chewy, not soft and overcooked as I've sometimes had elsewhere. The tempura batter was just ever so slightly on the thick side but I'd certainly had worse in Japan and rarely had better in Toronto. The unagi was nicely seasoned and cooked just right. The rolls also impressed, being flavourful and showing care in preparation.

Service throughout the meal was attentive but not intrusive. The tea cups and water glasses were kept filled. In the end, we managed to finish everything. Barely. We left feeling quite full and having spent under forty dollars, including tax and tip. I was so impressed with the food that I want to go back and try the sushi, which is perhaps the greatest surprise of all.

Oyshi Sushi, 10-12 Queens Quay W, Unit 107, Toronto, Ontario, M5J 2R9 Tel: (416) 216-0709
The restaurant is accessible with washrooms on the same level. Nice, clean washrooms.
Monday-Saturday 11:30-23:00. Closed Sunday.

And Just Where Was I?

To answer the question that must have been burning in the mind of my reader, my prolonged absence was as the result of an illness in the family. My father took ill. I spent a lot of time with him and dealing with his affairs. Then he died. It's something very strange. I am of two minds about it. Having to watch someone you love sicken and deteriorate is very painful. I went through it with my mother and, more recently, my father. The comfort in it, however, is that you do get a chance to say things to each other. To make peace with things. As much as one can, anyway. I do take comfort in that. I think it's better than having someone taken suddenly. Still, play it safe and be good to those you love. Tell them nice things whenever you can.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Exchanging Notes: A Literary Cabaret 2013

The Toronto Writers' Co-operative, which is a grand organization, has, for the last five years, hosted an event called Exchanging Notes: A Literary Cabaret. In the event, members of the co-op are paired with musicians to perform a piece with music. This year, the event took place on January 15th. I have just received my copy of the video of the event and present it for your enjoyment. 

I didn't have anything written for the event when I first heard about it, but thought it sounded like too much fun to pass up. I'm a bit disappointed in my performance. I think it's too strident. I should have been more nuanced in my presentation. Oh well, there's always next year.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Giant Hobbit a Bad Idea

Goofy looking dwarves. And a hobbit.
Dwarves and a hobitt.© 2012 Warner Brothers Entertainment
Peter Jackson's latest film, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" takes us back to Middle Earth for an epic tale of adventure. At least that's what it's supposed to do. Unfortunately, this is too big a movie for too small a story. Like a hobbit in a size 48-long suit, there is just too much extraneous material and the interesting stuff is trapped inside all that excess.

The tale starts off as flashback to The Lord of the Rings, with the old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) deciding to write his memoir of his adventures. Unfortunately, like The Lord of the Rings, there will be three films before we're finished The Hobbit. Given that there is only one not-very-long book as source material, everything plods. Jackson has even taken to making up entire sub-plots to fill the space.

The story starts with Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a wizard, recruiting Bilbo to help a band of dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), in their quest to reclaim their home, the vast underground city in the Lonely Mountain. This was lost when a dragon, Smaug, attracted by the riches of the mountain. invaded it, driving the dwarves out, turning them into a tribe of refugees.

It's a pretty straightforward story. Hobbit and band of companions must traipse across New Zealand (standing in for Middle Earth again) to reach a mountain to battle a powerful foe and reclaim the throne for the rightful heir. In this version, there is also a lot of foreshadowing of the events of The Lord of the Rings, a revenge sub-plot involving an albino orc wanting to kill Thorin (who had previously bested him in battle), a battle with a horde of goblins, and Bilbo's meeting with the nasty Gollum, from whom he steals the ring that everyone is wanting to be lord of in that other trilogy.

They don't get very close to The Lonely Mountain. Given that there are about another six hours of celluloid to go, they probably won't in the next instalment either.

Martin Freeman (the UK "The Office" and BBC's recent "Sherlock" series) gives a good performance as Bilbo. He really does come across as nicely reserved, unassuming, but up to a challenge when-push-comes-to-shove. Ian McKellen is a nicely puckish Gandalf, as he was in The Lord of the Rings. There are cameos from other LOTR cast, such as Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, and Elijiah Wood. Armitage plays dwarf prince Thorin as something of a poor-man's Aragorn. He's brooding and tortured but he's no Viggo Mortensen.

The visual effects of the film are good, for the most part. The notable exception is the dwarf makeup. It generally looks silly. Armitage and a couple of pretty-boy dwarves aren't burdened by any facial prosthetics but the rest of the band aren't so lucky. There are big battles and chases, reminiscent of what we saw in The Lord of the Rings, all striving to be epic in what is essentially a small story. Therein lies the central problem.

There are two ways to make a story epic: You can make a huge saga, with the fate of the nation/world/ civilization in the balance, a story where the characters take part in epic events. Or, you can have a small story where the characters have their own epic moments. Where they rise above what they thought themselves capable of, achieving in the face of adversity. Jackson has chosen the former and therefore everything is bigger, longer, and louder than it should be. Having spent so much time around hobbits, you'd think he'd know that good things can come in small packages.

Rating: 3/5