Monday, November 27, 2017

When croissants sell out

There is nothing that better convinces me a pastry will be amazing than learning that it will be near-impossible to acquire.

Recently, when on the Yelp page for a different bakery, I saw a review mentioning that the really good croissants were from somewhere called Tasso. Tasso? How had I not heard of this bakery? From the moment (a good long while ago at this point) I knew I'd be moving to Toronto, I've been keeping track of the eternal best-croissants-of situation. I thought I'd tried all downtown contenders, as well as some from further afield. While the baseline croissant standard is quite good (much better than, oh, say, New York), they sort of peak at Nadège or Bistro Normandie. From photos available online, and reviews, it seemed as if Tasso might be on another whole level. The real Parisian deal, but somewhere walkable (or TTC-able) from my apartment. How had I not known??

Here's how I hadn't known: it's only open three times a week, from 8:30am until they run out, which can be... not long after. It's also not near where I work, live or used to live, so there's no reason I'd have ever happened to pass by. (It's on a street I've been on maybe twice, both times to go visit an urban farm.) Convenience-wise, this was not so far from trying to go and get a croissant in France itself. But I was up, I was curious, so finally, today, I went.

I arrived and didn't see any sign indicating the name of the bakery. Instead, what I saw was a line. A San Francisco line. Not a November-in-Toronto line, or at least not one for something other than sneakers. (Young men regularly camp out all night in front of sneaker stores here, in all seasons.) But there was enough of a crowd, and not much else around that it could be for, that I deduced this was the place.

It was the place, all right. I got in/on line (which is it in Toronto? I'm trying to acculturate), between two families that knew each other. There was no Canadian politeness on any front in terms of either they or I moving position, as the whole thing is croissant scarcity, and everyone was very on edge about the possibility of the place running out. The man in front of me was telling the people behind me that one time, they ran out of kouign amanns at 8:35. So clearly I was going to need to order one of those. The woman behind me was saying that she no longer recommends the place to people she knows, as it's getting too popular, but not too popular as in too mainstream (I've just finished reading The Rebel Sell, so I feel obligated to point this out) but as in, someone else might get the last croissants. I felt sort of bad, being this interloper from outside the neighborhood, from America, even, which somehow makes it worse.

The people standing near me seemed to think the place was about to sell out. (Again, not sell out as in, like what some 6th grade classmates of mine were very concerned was happening to Green Day. Sell out of pastries for the day, or, rather, the week.) Others kept leaving with these big paper bags full of pastries. Why so many? That did it - I was going to get multiple pastries, too, if I wound up getting any, that is.

My turn came, and I could see... a bunch of things, really. I noticed a sign they put up when they're "almost sold out," which is amazing. I noticed that there's no seating - it's take-out only, but does serve coffee. An unusual choice in Toronto, to be sure. But mostly I noticed the pastries. Exquisite. Not over-hyped in the least, by the look of them.

Having now tried them (croissant and kouign amann), I can say that they are indeed the best in the city (barring any extra-secret bakeries open only ten seconds a week), easily as good as Parisian ones, and better than any in New York. The plain croissant has that flawless middle-of-croissant dough that I've basically only ever encountered at Le Boulanger des Invalides Jocteur, aka the best Paris bakery, which has sadly closed. This means... what does it mean? It means I now need to get up early on at least one weekend day and take some pastries home on the subway. In a very ambitious version, this gets incorporated into an early-morning jog. But the damage that could do to the pastries themselves might not be worth risking it.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Recommendations, "they were fresh when they were frozen" edition

-"Le Meilleur Pâtissier." Much as I wanted to love "The Great Canadian Baking Show," much as I like it and will totally keep watching it, a Guardian piece about global Bake-Offs led me to what I'm just going to declare the best of the bunch: the French one. Predictably? Yes. It seems at first like the usual cozy, homey, hygge (?) set-up, except the assortment of random French (and Walloon) contestants, with varied day-jobs, all turn out to be exquisite French pastry chefs. The level is something else. The harshness, for me, a graduate of two French programs, familiar. (Not cruel, but unapologetic about the search for perfection. The French answer to Paul Hollywood, Cyril Lignac, seems more than up to the task. Everything is just pushed a bit further, with the contestants making more complicated things, and the judges giving more detailed feedback than in the British original, and a whole lot more than in the Canadian one. The show has also solved the problem of combining French cultural consumption with times of the week when I'm keen to relax, and not to catch up on spillover novels purchased here and there, for possible dissertation-related reasons, but not gotten around to. 

-The Toronto public library card. With access to the university library, and a whole lot of books I own that I need to catch up on, I'm ashamed to say I only just got this. But the card is not just for the library - it also allows access to all sorts of movies and TV shows. Thanks to socialist Netflix, I watched a curious 1967 CBC documentary about the Six-Day War, with a (stated; it had to do with sources) perspective so pro-Israel that even I went hmm on occasion. The Canadian angle - which kept taking me by surprise - meant, among other things, that Israel was referred to as being around the same size as the Niagara Peninsula. 

-The Danforth. The part of Toronto I live in - Yorkville - is convenient for work, has worked out surprisingly OK (by expensive city standards) rent-wise, but is very much the rich-person going out district by night, with assorted super-expensive boutiques, car dealerships, cosmetic surgeons, assorted non-surgical beautification offices, etc. There's a Whole Foods, and the Kebaberie (and more specifically, the lentil soup at Kebaberie), but otherwise, not much, or really, not much for me. Which means weekend trips to other areas. Often "other areas" winds up being, near the old neighborhood, so either the Kensington Market or West Queen West, both of which have more going on, but take forever to get to. The Danforth, however, is one short-enough subway ride away, and has... stuff. As in, bookstores (one of which had my book!) and a Japanese café, but also a French bakery whose specialty is - bear with me - pastries shipped in frozen from France and baked in the shop. That may not sound promising, but the croissants and flan, at least, defrost magnificently.

-J-town as day trip. I'd wanted to try an udon place that's effectively inaccessible on the weekend subway, so - as planned - I took a weekday subway to it over fall break. The noodles were good, maybe not good enough for that long of a subway ride, but the advantage of having taken the train to the end of the line was... I was right there on the bus route to J-town, the Japanese strip mall! This entire trip took forever, but is the sort of thing I enjoy tremendously, especially when (apologies to the NJ years) it doesn't involve me driving. The kitchen is now stocked with all the necessary Japanese pantry items, and - for better or worse - I now know that the best (bread) bakery in the city is very likely Bakery Nakamura. It might be more efficient to learn how to make raisin bread than to attempt that trip again any time soon, but given the likelihood I'll figure that out, seems like another trip may be in order.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Fall break, fantasies and realities

All semester long, I'd known something was coming up called "fall break." I knew it mainly as the reason planning syllabi would get tricky around that week of November - some of my classes have their "Week 9" before the break, others after, which seems entirely normal to me now, but which I found mega-daunting at the time. It's hard to say what I imagined fall break would consist of. Going somewhere? No - it's not a vacation. But maybe something like leisurely catching up on work? Getting dressed and going to a coffee shop, rather than determining that more work gets done if I just stay in dog-walking sweats and work during the non-poodle-stroll, non-classroom hours at home, in those? There was also the more ambitious variant of this, which also involved profound levels of reading, writing, socializing, and attending cultural events of all kinds.

I suppose I hadn't realized quite how busy this term would be, nor had I (fully) anticipated that every practical life-thing that couldn't be done during the semester would more or less have to happen this week. So it's basically a work-week, but without the physical act of being in class, and thus with more hours to work with.

But I must have absorbed - along with that inexplicable desire to own-but-not-wear highlighter makeup - those millennial mantras about self-care and reclaiming one's time and so forth, given that I decided, what must have been a few weeks ago, to preempt the likelihood that the week would be entirely sensible. I did this by making two reservations, both for Tuesday (that is, yesterday). The first was for a soba weekly pop-up night, on a night when I normally teach. The second: a full-on hair refurbishment, with cut and color and everything. (Well, those two things.)

Tuesday Of Break became this thing lingering in my mind as the day of bliss. Rather than scrambling from one task to the next, making 5pm 'lunch' out of various snack foods I keep in my office (bulk-purchased seaweed snacks from the Korean grocery store are now finished),  I'd be turned into a balayage'd Pinterest lady, eating at Toronto's answer to Sobaya. Rather than quickly grabbing whichever caffeinated drink also has the most sugar at the coffee shop near my evening class, I'd sit, all serene, drinking tea, say, somewhere inconvenient, just because I could.

It seemed maybe not the best omen for the week when, over the weekend, the man who runs the soba pop-up called to say there's an issue with the buckwheat and could I go instead next Tuesday, which... I cannot. (Maybe in December, I said, and oh, I meant it!) It wasn't about the soba - which is, obviously, far worse news for the soba-sellers than for this aspiring soba-consumer - but what the soba night represented. Everything seemed to be very much not falling into place, serenity-now-wise. I could already see how the hair appointment might also be a bit above and beyond (I'd gotten greedy!), and might also have to be cancelled. Between this and the time change gloominess, etc., etc., I was feeling mighty sorry for myself. Or however one euphemizes that mood in hyperaware, 2017 terms.

And yet, somehow (OK, I know how - it involved taking like my fourth-ever Toronto taxi ride) I made it to the hair salon, on time and everything. It was my first time going to the salon in question, but I was put at ease immediately by the presence of a wonderful, napping dog. While I don't look radically different, I think the ~balayage~ and haircut improved matters tremendously. If nothing else, I now look like someone who had the time, on one recent occasion, to be refurbished. At least as importantly, I came away from the experience feeling very time-reclaimed, and more than ready to spend the rest of fall break either working or (we all have our things) taking tremendous amounts of public transportation to the Japanese strip mall and udon restaurant in the sort-of-suburbs.