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New Sky is my boy's favorite Chinese restaurant in the city. That's not saying much. His tastes are a bit tame and he doesn't like change. What he loves about New Sky is that it's consistently good, affordable, and it fills him (and his hollow leg) up.
But this isn't about what HE likes. It's about what I like.

I've been converted to New Sky. He's worn me down.

At first, I wasn't so keen. There's literally nothing special about this China Town restaurant. It's far from gourmet, and if you're a foodie, I doubt you'll like it. It's ultra casual, not impressively designed. The decor is a hodgepodge and the lighting is annoyingly bright for my tastes, but the portions are indeed a good size for a good price and everything I've had there has been yummy and filling.

Things that have been good lately include the won ton soup (though it's a bit bok choy heavy), the hot and sour soup (though it has shrimp and I've been with someone who's asked for it without, and been promised that, only to have shrimpy soup served to them regardless, so be wary). I've had an enjoyable beef with two kinds of mushrooms (though the second kind was a little unusual, and my companion found them weird and slimy), and shrimp dumpling appetizers that I enjoyed for their simplicity. (The dumplings weren't like har gow, which is what I'd hoped for. More like simple shrimp won tons on a plate. There were a lot of them - 8 or 10 - so that was good.)

One major downside I notice is the restaurant's tendency to play a horrifically loud version of a very strange birthday song for each and every celebrating patron. It's seriously insane. When last I was there, the horrible, deafening, bizarre-o-asian-pop birthday number (which went on for SEVERAL minutes) played six times over the course of our meal! That's 5.5 too many, if you ask me.

Anyway. By way of a final note, I'll say this: New Sky serves orange slices along with free fortune cookies at the end of every meal, which is a tradition I enjoy. It's a cheesy thing, but I appreciate it. And honestly, I think that sort of thing is a good sign.The place invests in quality oranges. That kind of detail matters.

New Sky Restaurant
353 Spadina Avenue
Toronto, ON M5T 2G3
(416) 596-8787

*Photo by Rob Owen-Wahl from Stock Xchng.

 
 
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I'll admit right now that I'm a fan of Calvin. Sometimes. What I don't like about Calvin is the price. I'm sorry, but a $50+ bra is not going to land anywhere near my chest. On principle, you know?

That said, Calvin has some good sales, which is why I'm bothering to mention it. Sale items often go for even 70% off, and considering the styling and construction of each garment (always very good), you can end up getting a great deal.

The Bloor St. location WAS their flagship Canadian store, but recently moved a couple doors down from its original location, so I don't think they can continue making that claim. As a result of the move, it's sleek and tends to have nice displays and very good service. They offer free bra fittings (though that's not something I partake of because I'm not crazy about letting strange women measure my busooms, as my granny would say). The store also offers green bags (they're actually white) that are reusable, which is a nice nod toward environmentalism.

Favorite items for me include the bathing suits and the pjs. For one thing, I'm much more willing to buy an expensive bathing suit than I am to shell out for underoos. For another, my comfiest pjs EVER came from Calvin and I'm willing to wait for lightning to strike twice.

All that said, I have one very important insider tip for you. If you're a penny pincher like I am, you'll appreciate it: Winners.

Winners (which happens to be just a few doors down from Calvin, to the East) also carries Calvin products and sells them at a massive discount. This is NOT remainder or left over stuff, it's new. So if you look closely, you should be able to find Calvin bras for sale at Winners in the $14 range, when they've still hawking the same style for $50+ at Calvin proper.

Sure, Winners doesn't have everything and you might have to dig, but if you want Calvin products for less, I suggest you head in to the main location, try on, take advantage of the services, but pop down to Winners to check the prices before you actually buy. You can save a lot of dough. Enough for a new bathing suit or pair of pjs, even.

Calvin Klein Underwear
150 Bloor Street W.
Toronto, ON M5S 2X9
(416) 413-0411

*Photo by Michael Lorenzo from Stock Xchng.

 
 
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Annex dwellers all noticed when Quebec-owned Metro finally got around to rebranding their Ontario Dominion stores about a year ago. (They bought the Dominons years ago, but were slow to face lift.)

Alas, the fancy-pants Annex Metro (just a block West of Spadina, on Bloor), formerly one of the worst chain grocery stores EVER, did not improve.

The Annex Metro, while cleaner and better stocked with baskets and carts that it used to be (and a wee bit more appealing as a result), remains craptacular.

Prices are high, aisles are overcrowded and lines are endlessly long, particular post-work on weekdays and on the weekends during the daytime. Sure, it's open all night, and having the 24hr option feels nice in theory, but realistically, are you going to stock up on Cheerios at 3am? I think not.

I don't like that things are stocked way too high on some shelves, meaning shorties like me have to wait for long-armed men to help (and frankly, I'm not into the damsel thing) and worst of all, they carry only the most limited selection of products. One kind of garlic sauce, for example. Very few brands.

Frankly, as this is really the only full grocery store in the neighbourhood and many Annex-apartment-dwellers don't drive, I think the chain knows it can get away with anything. We all need groceries, and often the most convenient option wins out. This Metro is convenient, but that's about all I can say about it.

Boo. BOO, I say!

Metro
425 Bloor St. West
Toronto, ON M5S 1X6
(416) 923-9099

 
 
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Nataraj is an Annex staple, recommended to me by literally every one of my Annex-dwelling friends, even when I still lived in Vancouver. (Which, let's face it, wasn't helpful. What was I going to do? Fly in for a butter chicken? Who am I? The Queen?)

But I digress. I've been living in the Annex for a couple of years now, and despite the recommendations, have only just gotten around to trying it.

It was ... okay.

That's it. Not great. Not amazing. Not bad. Just okay. Maybe the problem is the hype. I expected a lot and was a little let down as a result.

It's a traditional Indian/Pakistani hybrid joint. Decent, slightly poshier atmosphere (though some of the tables are a little too close for comfort - you can't help but eavesdrop on your neighbours). Good naan. Free poppadom before the meal. Small, yummy curries. (Too small, actually. That was a problem. We had to order a fair bit to fill up, which bumped the bill into uncomfortable territory.) And decent service.

My dining companion wasn't into the spice, so we ordered only mild dishes. That was a little boring, frankly. (Gimme chillies or give me death, I say.) But all in all, the experience was decent.

I don't, however, understand why everyone raves about this place. Having grown up on Indian food and traveled to India many times I feel like I can fairly say that this was nothing special. It's fine, but go in knowing it's not going to blow you away and you'll leave a lot happier.

Nataraj Indian Cuisine
394 Bloor Street W
Toronto, ON M5S 1X4
(416) 928-2925

*Photo by Sat Singh from Stock Xchng.

UPDATE 2011: Nataraj is closed and as of now, there's no good Indian in the immediate area. Lots of sushi though.

 
 
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I (along with my former office mates) regularly hit up Simply Zoup for lunch. It's a pretty standard sort of lunch place with a deli-vibe. Think Seinfeld's Soup Nazi, but fresher, more chain-like, and without the abuse.

Soup is the main deal and it's not uncommon to see up to 20 different types available on a single day. Their Chicken Noodle is pretty standard, they have a decent Cream of Mushroom (though the mushrooms are pureed) and I've had good experiences with their Clam Chowder as well.

Downsides include the fact that the soups aren't large. You're going to pay at least $5 if not $7 (aprox) for smallish bowls, depending on what you order. They also have nice, fresh salads (very lettuce-heavy) and some decent sandwiches.

My favourite order is a soup/sandwich combo. They have a nice Italian bun number with quality deli meat inside available (though not an abundance of it), and they toast it, which amps up the yum factor, but this little combo ends up costing nearly $10, which is a lot to spend for a quick little office lunch that I generally eat at my desk. The combo comes with a cookie, smothered in plastic wrap. I tend to toss that hard little number into my desk drawer, only to toss it later in the week.

There are tables at Simply Zoup, but no one seems to use them. It's all about the take away. The best thing about it is that there are plenty of soup options to choose from, so you're likely to find something to suit you. Ultimately, though, this place is just a fancier sort of fast food. It's primarily frequented by office drones on lunch, which tells you something.

Simply Zoup
762 Yonge St.
Toronto, ON M4Y 2B6
(416) 915-9990
*Photo by Ehsan Namavar from Stock Xchng.

 
 
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Video 99 was my local rental place growing up. That is, before the Blockbuster opened it's doors in the neighbourhood. It went a little downhill since, experiencing the expected droop in traffic one expects when the big boys move in, but nonetheless, it remains a pretty good store.

And it's closing. Sigh. Yep, April 30th is the day of reckoning. DVDs and other stock are already being sold. And I'm bummed.

Fact: there's nothing sleek about Video 99. When I was a kid, the place featured free popcorn from an old fashioned machine. No more. Now, it's just about rentals. No frills. Crowded aisles. The vibe is Mom and Pop.

Selection is good. They have a nice foreign film section, good deals on tv series, and because it's not a heavily frequented location, things tend to be in when you want them. The rental system is phone-number-based, which I like, and the clerks are polite. I much prefer renting here to the more impersonal and corporate Block. (It's cheaper, too.) They also have video games, but that's not by bag so I can't speak to their quality.

In case you're wondering, yes, Video 99 does stock porno. I've seen many a shopper slouch furtively toward the restricted section in my day. Others just stroll nonchalantly. I don't judge. Some stores take a so-called "moral" stance on this issue and refuse to stock adult films, but I say, give the people what they want. And if that's what YOU want, well, you have until the end of April

Video 99
666 St. Clair W.
Toronto, ON M6C 1B1
(416) 651-0002

*Photo by Helene gp from Stock Xchng.

 
 
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A new Haartek salon opened up in the Manulife Centre last year. The company obviously took over the space from another styling hub, and on my recent visit, they were still a little behind schedule on the switcheroo. (No new pamphets yet, no services list to look over.)

My experience was decent, if not amazing. I popped in on Thursday during my lunch break to book an appointment for the next day. I knew in advance that I'd only have an hour to spare for the cut and they accommodated me, no problem. I have straight hair, and just wanted a basic cut and blow out, no colour, so I can't speak to their talents for harder jobs, but I was happy with what I got.

The whole thing cost me about $55 not including a tip and I think my stylist did a nice job. It's been a few weeks now and I'm very happy with how the cut is growing out. You know how it is: you get a cut, it looks good for ONE DAY and it's never the same again. Not so in my case. I said I was low maintenance, and they listened. The cut I got is generally stylish, even when I do nothing but comb it after showering.

I frankly didn't love the girl who actually cut my hair. We didn't have much a connection, so I generally just stared at myself in the mirror while she worked, which wasn't exactly relaxing. I was offered coffee or tea or water, though, and as I said, they got me out in good time, which is what I really wanted.

This is a solid salon. It didn't blow me away, prices are in keeping with city standards and nothing irked me about it. Make of that what you will.

Haartek Salon
55 Bloor St. W.
Toronto, ON M4W 1A5
(416) 962-3355

*Image by by Moi Cody from Stock Xchng.

 
 
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Epi Breads, for me, is more about pastries and desserts. I am currently addicted to their almond croissants. Addicted!

That said, the place isn't perfect. The best stuff tends to sell out quickly, and none of it is particularly cheap. Also, I expected this place to be a mom-and-pop-style hole in the wall, when in reality, it has a very chain-y, corporate vibe.

That's not big deal, if the food's good.

And it is. But not ALWAYS.

This weekend I hit up Epi in search of those delicious croissants. No luck. They were sold out by the time I'd arrived. I ended up with a Strawberry/Rhubarb pie that I took to a family dinner. (It was a HUGE hit. Sweet/tart and perfectly done.) And I also bought a couple of snacks: a lemon tart for me, and a creme-filled doughnut for my friend. He enjoyed his, but my tart fell flat. It was very eggy. Not very lemony. I felt like I was eating something half way between a lemon tart and a quiche. I threw most of it away.

I reported this incident to a friend later in the day and he said it must have been an aberration. His experiences with Epi's lemon tarts have always been good. Even so, I don't like that sort of crap shoot.

In the end, I still give Epi four stars, because barring this single exception, they've been seriously delicious. But I'm going to monitor them closely. Mostly, by stuffing my face with their desserts at every possible moment.

Best. Monitoring. System. EVER.

Epi Breads
1526 Bayview Ave.
Toronto, ON M4G 3B4
(416) 488-1952

*Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilián from Stock Xchng.

 
 
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I'm going to start this review with a disclaimer: Sushi Island is not "real" sushi. That is to say, it's novelty sushi, fun sushi, sushi for westerners. And that's okay. I don't know that anything on the menu authentically Japanese, but what I do know is that the All You Can Eat is a great social option.

When I go to Sushi Island, I get the $16.99 All You Can Eat menu, and go crazy. I usually visit with a pack of friends (primarily men) and let them do the ordering. It gets pretty obscene, but it's great too. We take paper and a pen and write up massive lists of what we want, from hand rolls, to dragon rolls, to lots of what we call "kitchen food" or appetizers of mixed bbq meats, gyoza, and other hot options, and we always save room for dessert (friend banana and/or ice cream). And then... we feast. We roll out the door on our distended bellies and feel awful for hours afterward from all that pressure, but it's worth it.

What you really need to be aware of when you go to Sushi Island is that you can't over order. You should probably come up with a strategy, because they charge you for uneaten items. You also can't sit forever, picking slowly away like you're at a languid European dinner. You need to be done in under 2 hours, I think. So you need to focus. Eat competitively, if you like. Whatever works.

Again: foodies beware. This is not real sushi. Rolls are purely western and often silly. They contain things like banana peppers and even actual banana at times. Sashimi isn't really on offer unless you pay significantly more, and the joint is not exactly classy. But man howdy, is it fun. Especially delicious options (aside from the rolls) include the tempura shrimp, bbq beef cubes, and seaweed salad.

The $16.99 options means a bill of about $25 per person, which is easy to tally, but not cheap. Still, if fullness and fun is what you seek, drop anchor at the Island and you won't be disappointed.

Yes, I did lie in bed groaning for a good two hours after eating a disgusting amount there last night. If you're going to do "All You Can Eat" I say, do it right. It's not about need. It's about want. It might hurt, but it hurts so good.

Sushi Island
571 College St
Toronto, ON M6G 1B2
(416) 535-1515

*Photo by Rob Owen-Wahl from Stock Xchng.