#WomenCrushWednesday – Naomi Watanabe

[Toronto] Amarina Norris – #WomanCrushWednesday - Naomi Watanabe

by Amarina Norris  | Photo via PUNYUS

I have been all over PUNYUS since their Spring lookbook dominated my Tumblr feed in March – and for good reason. Their fashion-forward line from Japan includes plus-sizes that seem to be more about looking awesome and less about creating clothes that are “flattering”. Producing the collection is comedian and fashionista Naomi Watanabe, who plastered cartoon food prints of fried eggs and cabbage all over dresses, leggings and more. I haven’t seen too much of her work aside from the PUNYUS line (because it’s all in Japanese), but her style is amazing and she is all kinds of goofy and inspiring. You can also check out her style and ridiculous selfies via her Instagram account, I can’t wait to see what comes out for Fall/Winter!

Toronto’s Hidden Patios: Speakeasy 21

In another lifetime, I spent 5 years working in Toronto’s Financial District. Often in that sea of suits, pencil skirts and clicking heels, it seemed like I was in a totally different world. A more serious world. A more formal world. And certainly, a more expensive world.

The thing with the Financial District is that price didn’t necessarily equal quality, and more often than not during working lunches or post-work beers, I found myself munching on tasteless onion rings and drinking $7 pints of crappy beer. Sure, there are favourites like Canoe and O&B  in the hood, but for a more relaxed atmosphere, it has been a dumping ground for crappy “Irish” pubs and take out Thai food in the PATH.

Speakeasy 21 is a bit of a dream come true for the younger demo in the city’s downtown core. It’s popped up just as some other heavy-hitters have made their way to the Adelaide/Yonge/Temperance area like Dineen Coffee, Drake 150, The Chase, and the PATH location of SJCB, making it quite the destination for foodies in the core.

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What I immediately liked about Speakeasy 21 was its ability to give you things you already loved, in a better form. Like the era that inspires the decor and name of the restaurant, everything they do has a bit of added class that brings comfort food classics and treats up to a whole new level of adulthood that suits the new feel of the neighbourhood.

On the night we went, it was quite overcast, but the warm air outside made sitting on Adelaide very pleasant. The multi-tiered patio is dotted with high tops — on Tuesdays and Thursdays through the summer you can hear live music while you eat. The acoustic tunes and mason jar cocktails give the patio a cottagey feel despite the location.

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For where it’s situated, they’ve been very smart with their menu, offering mostly sharables — we sampled popcorn chicken, butter chicken balls, bacon wrapped dates and pork belly skewers while sipping on boozy lavender lemonade. It was like being in someone’s backyard for a party, but facing right into downtown. To me, that’s the best of both worlds.

If you’re looking for a more formal dining experience, they have indoor seating and a full menu and wine list. It’s equally capable of serving you and your colleagues for post-work cocktails as it is for high profile lunches. Either way, come check it out and step away from the hectic lifestyle afforded by the rest of the neighbourhood. You won’t be disappointed.

Wanderlust: Yours to Discover – Thunder Bay

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Words & Photos by Vanessa Vaillant

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Thunder Bay isn’t the first place people think of when they think of a summer vacation, but every year I take the two hour flight over Lake Superior to hang out in my hometown for a week. I take a vacation to get away from the big smoke, breathe in the fresh air, eat some delicious food, and remember why mosquitoes are awful creatures. Thunder Bay is the biggest city in Northwestern Ontario, but growing up there it always felt like a small town to me. It has the highest population of Finnish people outside of Finland itself, and we boast the most NHL players coming out of our fine city per capita. It’s just the place to go to get away from busy city life.

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For me, the first stop to kick off a proper tour of Thunder Bay is to head down Bay St. to go to The Hoito for Finnish pancakes. The Hoito is a Thunder Bay legend known for their Finnish specialties and all-you-can-eat breakfast. It opened in 1918 and is one of Canada’s longest run co-operatives. In one week home I will go to The Hoito at least twice. Their Finnish pancakes are the perfect breakfast food; crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. If you’re feeling extra hungry I suggest sharing karjalanpiirakka, a savoury Finnish pastry made of rye crust and filled with rice and butter. After filling yourself up on Finnish treats I always head down the street to Finnport, a Finnish specialty shop that sells sauna goods, Marimekko housewares, and Moomin goodies.

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One of the best parts of coming to Thunder Bay is enjoying the scenery. There are gorgeous parks all around the city, as well as majestic lakes and rivers. If you have access to a car you can drive out to Kakabeka Falls, where you can hike or just take in the view. There are two hiking trails you can take, as well as camping grounds for a longer stay. It’s the perfect place to spend the day with some pals and a picnic. If waterfalls aren’t your thing, you can head over to Boulevard Lake to hike or even just sit and watch the water.

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After seeing the sights head over to another local legend, Merla Mae for some perfect summer soft-serve. They have your classic vanilla, chocolate, or swirl, as well as various hard ice creams and floats. If sweet isn’t your thing you can also go for a classic burger and fries.

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Thunder Bay may not seem like an ideal summer vacation, but if you’re the kind of person who likes warm (but not too hot) weather, fresh air, and a small-town feel, it’s a perfect place to go. You can pick up inexpensive tickets to fly there from Porter, or even plan out an Ontario road trip.

Proud to be Canadian: Mandarin Buffet

Can I be 100% real for a moment? Mandarin Buffet was pretty much a staple of my childhood growing up. Every weekend (Sunday to be exact), my dad would take me to the Mandarin Buffet where we would chow down and catch up on life. You know: like good parents do.

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Fast-forward to 2014: here I am at the Mandarin Buffet with my home-girls Yuli (lead photographer in life) and writer, Carly. Since we took a road-trip, we find ourselves at the Mandarin Buffet in Niagara Falls and can I say, it doesn’t feel like much has changed since I was a kid. This isn’t a bad thing though because creature comforts, for the win.

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As we step into Mandarin, we’re greeted with a warm and friendly: “Welcome” from three of their hostesses all dressed in kimonos. The big fish pond near the entrance is still there with gold-fish bigger than my head. We’re taken to our table (each room in Mandarin has a different ‘theme’) where there is a huge cherry blossom tree jutting out from the ceiling. It’s uh, pretty epic.

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One thing that has changed is they just recently offered up a ‘Celebrate Canada’ menu (available until July 31) which has some pretty bad-ass offerings like poutine, potato skins, maple-glazed salmon and tourtiere. As if we weren’t already feeling overwhelmed by options, now we had this whole other layer added on to it. Oh, lest we forget that Friday to Sunday is Crab Leg Celebration. The choices!

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As we made our way through the buffet aisles, we loaded up our plates – not once, not twice but three times. Each trip was like a whole different discovery including sushi (uh, they had a BLT roll!), general tao chicken (also another new menu item), potato skins, sweet & sour chicken balls, wonton soup and shrimp shrimp and more shrimp.

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First things first, the food is actually pretty decent. I mean, it’s a buffet and Mandarin takes the quality pretty seriously, from what I could tell. For example: great attention is taken to items like the maple-glazed salmon which can go stale quickly under hot-lights. The salmon was actually pretty flakey and tasty. Also, the amount you pay ($28.99 Fri-Sun for dinner, $21.99 Mon-Thurs for dinner) is actually pretty fair. You get a huge amount of food while eating in an entertaining atmosphere. It’s no wonder we saw so many families while we were there.

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The Mandarin buffet has something for everyone and with the launch of their Celebrate Canada menu, it really does include a bit of cuisine from everywhere. Check it out and create some memories for you and your loved ones over a set of sweet & sour chicken balls.

Toronto’s Secret Patios: Milagro Catina Mexicana

words & photos by Ama Scriver

If there are two things I take pretty seriously in life, its brunch and a good patio hang. So colour me surprised me when I came across Milagro Cantina (various locations) on Queen West which had a rooftop patio.

From the outside, this Mexican restaurant seems rather unassuming. You know, your typical colorful accents and friendly vibes. But no indication that a glorious rooftop patio awaits you. Tucked away in the back of the Milagro Cantina space, the small and charming patio features greenery, throw pillows and huge umbrellas to add some shade.

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On the patio, you’re also invited to indulge in some of their authentic Mexican flavours alongside one of their signature brunch cocktails, the Mamona (orange juice with beer;$5.50) or Michelada (beer with caesar mix; $9). So with that, I dragged along my partner to do what we do best: eat and drink so we could experience it for ourselves.

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One thing you should keep in mind at Milagro is that the portion sizes are huge. I have learned this now from eating here many times. So when you are scoping out the menu: choose wisely and don’t fill up on their delicious guacamole, salsa and chips ($12)! Chef Arturo told us that Mexican brunch is different that traditional North American brunch, so we started off with their Sopa de Tortilla ($7) which consisted of spices, tomatoes, crema, avocado and a crisp tortilla. Even in the hot weather, the soup was a light way to start off breakfast with just the right amount of kick.

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For our next dish, we condensed two into one – to make life a little bit easier. We taste tested the Enchiladas Poblanas ($14) which is a complex layered dish of roasted chicken, mole and crema. Next to that was a very similar dish but one of Milagro’s specials, the Chilaquiles ($12) which consisted of crisp tortillas, tomatillo salsa, roasted chicken and panela. For a heavier brunch option, both knocked it out of the park with great spice and rich flavours.

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But since their brunch menu is rather long, we decide to try out two more items. Chef Arturo explained to us that the Molletes ($7) were basically like the Mexican version of a grilled cheese. He wasn’t wrong there, at all. Made on a bun with oaxaca cheese and salsa – this was something I could eat all day, everyday. Next up was the signature Huevos Milagros ($14) which consisted of fried egg, tortilla with cheese and chicken and salsa. Let’s just say: it was magical, authentic and delicious.

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So next time you’re looking for that hidden gem of a patio and don’t feel like waiting in a 1-hour lineup for brunch, check out Milagro Cantina. Promise, you will not be disappointed!

Lookin’ Good Girl — Primaala Word Pride Event

[Toronto] Amarina Norris – Primaala Pride
words & top photo by Amarina Norris

To celebrate World Pride being hosted by Toronto this year, the ladies from Fat in the City teamed up with Rachel Holt for a shopping event in her store, Primaala. Carrying highly-coveted brands like Carmakoma (she is currently the only stockist in Canada), and Toronto-based lines like Lundström, the focus is on luxury clothing that you can incorporate into your wardrobe and wear season after season.

Fat in the City founders Jill Andrew and Aisha Fairclough are body positive warriors and fashionistas (of course!) and I was so thrilled to be able to talk to both of them in person after years of loving their work online. Together they run the Body Confidence Canada Awards, a now annual celebration of Canadians standing up against stereotypes and discrimination. I would also recommend taking 10 minutes to watch Jill’s Ted Talk about fat-shaming that she did at York University earlier this year. Basically these two are THE BEST.

It was so great to sip on champagne and chat with some amazing women in the Toronto plus-size fashion and body activism communities. Of course we took a group shot of some of the babes at the event.

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Left to right: Assa of My Curves and Curls, Fat Girl Food Squad babe/Editor-in-Chief Janine, Jill, myself, Erica of Erica Exposed, fashion designer Jessica Biffi and Aisha. [Photo courtesy of Elliot Parrott Photography]

#WomanCrushWednesday — Danielle Brooks

[Toronto] Amarina Norris – #WomanCrushWednesday - Danielle Brooks
by Amarina Norris | Photo via @daniebb3

My #WomanCrushWednesday this week is none other than the incredible Danielle Brooks. Unless you’ve been living in a cave the last two years, you probably know her as Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson on Netflix’s powerhouse Orange is the New Black. I love my alternative media, but it’s so refreshing and necessary to see this kind of ensemble cast in the mainstream and I am clearly not alone in this — one glance at any social media platform will reveal all the people currently sobbing at their computer because season three isn’t coming out for another year (I am one of those people). In the mean time, there are other ways to stay connected to everyone’s favourite cast. You can follow Danielle on Instagram as well as Laverne Cox and everyone else you’re obsessed with. Just last week it was announced that the show had been nominated for twelve well-deserved Emmy Awards. Hurray for a small step towards increasing diversity in television.

Summerlicious at The Shore Club

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words & photos by Ama Scriver

It’s Summerlicious time in Toronto again! With more than 200 participating restaurants, it’s sometimes hard to navigate all the choices. For those not familiar, this city-wide event (on until July 20) showcases local restaurants, who offer prix fixe lunch ($15, $20 and $25) and/or dinner ($35 and $45) menus as an introduction to their fare.

This year, my first Summerlicious meal took me to The Shore Club, an old-school upscale steakhouse located directly beside the Ritz Carlton for their $25 3-course lunch offering.

Service is on point as soon as you walk through the door, and the staff greeted us warmly on arrival. From there, you’re walked back to the dimly lit restaurant, which has a romantic ambiance complete with white tablecloths and dark wood banquettes.

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The Shore Club’s Summerlicious lunch menu has a little bit for everyone. We started off with an easy favourite, grilled calamari on a bed of baby lettuce with a honey citrus vinaigrette. The portion size was hefty and the presentation was beautiful.

Moving onto mains, we opted for the grilled Atlantic salmon with rhubarb relish, couscous, and rapini and for a heavier option, braised lamb shank
with potatoes and harrissa-mint yogurt. Each dish had winning components but ultimately the lamb was the overall winner. Between the tender meat and the refreshing mint yogurt, it made for an excellent lunch option.

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Don’t forget to save room for dessert because they do not disappoint. It was tough to pick a favourite between the trio of sorbet and the key lime pie. The pie had a thick, delicious crust topped with tons of pie filling and whipped cream, but the sorbet really helped cleanse the palette after a hearty meal. The presentation of the sorbet was really something as well.

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The Shore Club provides an amazing Summerlicious option for lunch (or dinner) and a perfect choice for any special celebration out.

Not Far From the Tree’s Fruitful Project — Preserving Toronto’s Urban Bounty

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words by Yuli Scheidt

Toronto will soon be able to enjoy the fruits of Not Far From The Tree’s labour year-round with the launch of Fruitful, a line of artisanally-produced preserves made from hand-picked fruit.

Not Far From The Tree is a city-wide, volunteer-based program that harvests the bounty from our very own urban forest. The organization aims to activate the abundance of local food found in our city, bring attention to our urban ecology, and build community through local people working together. Not Far From The Tree’s fruit picking works by mobilizing volunteers to harvest fruit from residential properties — everything from almonds, cherries, apples, and apricots, as well as lesser-known fruits like dogwood cherries, mulberries, black walnuts, serviceberries, and ginko ALL grow in yards all over Toronto. A third of the harvest is kept by the homeowner, a third is taken by the pickers, and the last third is delivered by bicycle to local food banks, shelters, and community kitchens.

Now imagine Brad Long of Cafe Belong, Christine Manning of Manning Canning, Julian Katz of Stasis Preserves, James Partanen of West End Food Co-op, and Thomas Wilson of Spirit Tree Cidery getting their hands on some of that fruit and creating delicious jams, spread, and jellies to be enjoyed all year round. Is your mouth watering yet?

“I am thrilled that Not Far From The Tree approached to me to be part of this wonderful initiative, “ says Christine Manning. “I have partnered with them in the past to offer a family style preserving day, and I love the idea of being a part of the effort to help reduce the amount of fruit that is grown on city trees that simply goes to waste.”

If you’re interested in purchasing shares in the Fruitful program, for $50 you’ll receive a jar from each of the five participating canners and all the proceeds will go toward Not Far From The Tree’s fruit picking and sharing projects in the city. Today is the last day to order for this season, so don’t delay! But let’s hope Fruitful proves popular enough to be back next year.

If you’d like to get involved with Not Far From The Tree and volunteer with, fundraise for, or donate to them, check their website for more info!

Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie — A Taste of Paris in the Distillery District

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words & photos by Ama Scriver

The Distillery District just got a little bit more Parisian thanks to head chef Paul Benallick and new restaurant Cluny Bistro & Boulangerie.

This impressive space (6,000 sq feet) seats upwards of 500 guests. Inside, the decor is rich and opulent in the best way possible. Beautifully monogrammed plates line each of the tables, with an impressive faux stained–glass cathedral ceiling overhead and an open kitchen showcasing the hard-working staff.

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Chef Paul Benallick is responsible for creating the modern French menu at Cluny, and he’s included a little bit of everything. One of the highlights on the menu is the buffalo sweetbread served with a blue-cheese dip ($15). This small bite is cooked to perfection and feels like the fancy version of grabbing wings at your local pub.

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The roasted duck poutine ($16) is also to die for: duck fat fries, duck gravy, pulled duck, and Etorki cheese, and to finish it off (and give it that final touch of flare), a duck egg on top served sunny side up. You will not want to share a single bite of this poutine.

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If you’re looking for something a bit more filling, I recommend either the crazy-inventive veal tomahawk meatball served with a Parisian-style potato gnocchi ($23) or the beautifully layered chickpea and sweet potato stew served with couscous, almonds, and apricot ($18). Both of these dishes are tasty French comfort foods, but with a little extra oomph.

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If you’re looking for authentic Parisian food but can’t afford the airfare, head on down to the Distillery District where Cluny Bistro will satisfy your cravings, if not your wanderlust. You can also look forward to their planned large-scale patio, which will be the perfect place to sip cocktails and pretend you’re people-watching on the Left Bank.

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