Come hear about ‘Dark Ambition’


Pre-order at Amazon or Chapters/Indigo

I’ll be speaking about my new book, Dark Ambition: The Shocking Crime of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich on Thursday November 3 at the Barbara Frum library.

Although Dark Ambition won’t be officially released until November 8, there will be special copies for sale on Thursday.

Also speaking will be Jeremy Grimaldi, author of A Daughter’s Deadly Deception, the story of the fascinating Jennifer Pan case.

Here are the details.

Hope you can make it if you’re in the GTA.

A really good thing Rob Ford did for the TTC

 TTC Chairs Stintz and Augimeri opposed the mayor’s smartest public transit decision

When Jon Stewart asked Robyn Doolittle why Torontonians put up with Rob Ford, she gave the standard answer. He was good at answering constituents’ calls and getting things done on their behalf. As much as that may be true, it’s only part of the answer.

A lot of people, myself included, were fed up with the David Miller regime, which fiddled while Toronto burned. Take the TTC, for example, which became an almost daily disaster during the Miller years and under the mayor’s appointee as chief general Manager, Gary Webster.

Anyone who rode the TTC — and I speak as someone who experienced the total hell of commuting on the Yonge line during rush hour for two years — knew this organization had huge problems that went far beyond whether the Eglinton extension should be a subway or light rail. And Webster, a TTC lifer who appeared to be in denial about the seriousness of the situation, clearly was not up to the job.

His successor, Andy Byford, has been a study in contrast. Almost immediately after Byford took over things began to change in a way that even commuters like me noticed. Announcements about the ubiquitous service stops became more informative, Byford showed up at stations regularly to talk to commuters, and he brought up a subject that had been all but forgotten during the endless Scarborough subway/light rail debate — the downtown relief line.

As a somewhat new Torontonian (I arrived in 2008 although I had also lived here from 1989 to 1992 when the subways actually worked), I had never heard of the downtown relief line pre-Byford. It was a giant CLICK that made total sense. I couldn’t believe that city council, transport reporters and the public had let themselves get so dangerously sidetracked for so many years. Where did everyone think these Eglinton line passengers were going to go if not the already jam-packed Yonge line?

Byford made the downtown relief line a priority again, showing that everyone who had hinted or come right out and called him Mayor Ford’s patsy were just plain wrong.

So, remind me, who opposed the Byford appointment? None other than outgoing TTC chair and wannabe mayor Karen Stintz, who, according to the Toronto Star, suggested that Webster’s departure would inject instability into the system at a time when the TTC can least afford it.

And incoming TTC chair Maria Augimeri, who said this to the Star about Webster:

“What message are you sending to the rest of our employees, that professionalism gets kicked out the door and toadyism wins? … This man is a consummate professional. You can rely on him to give you the truth. You can rely on him not to hide reports,” she said, in a pointed reference to a report revealed by the Star last week that Ford hid from the public because it didn’t support his plan to extend the Sheppard subway.
“Today is a clear demonstration of an abuse of power,” said an emotional Augimeri.

In hindsight, it’s clear that both Stintz and Augimeri were very wrong about Byford, who’s been the best thing to happen to the TTC in a decade. They were prepared to carry on in the Miller tradition, afraid to make a change.

Even if he Ford — who I find completely clueless about public transit and the desperate need for a downtown relief line — fired Webster because he wrongly thought Byford would be a yes man, at least he got rid of a guy who was not up to the job and replaced him with one who is. And for the record here’s the statement Ford, a non-TTC rider, made at the time:

“The general public — and subway, streetcar and bus passengers — all tell me it’s time for a change,” said Ford. “The time is right for a new leader to take the reins at TTC.”

It’s something to consider next time someone asks why anyone would vote for Rob Ford. The answer is because they didn’t want more of the same and that’s all the opposition was prepared to give them.

Thoughts on Toronto and Rob Ford

I have an article on Toronto’s travails in Chatham House’s The World Today magazine. It carries on where my La Presse piece from three years ago left off.

Here’s the start of my new article:

Toronto is a city that knows its place, or at least it did until recently. It had earned its nickname ‘Toronto the Good’, and was used to compliments from visitors who praised it for being ‘so clean’ and ‘so safe’.

Although Toronto overtook Montreal to become Canada’s largest city in the mid-Sixties, it always accepted it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. Torontonians were content to forgo glamour and a home-grown independence movement for their booming job market and rising house prices.

It has helped, too, that over the decades Toronto, once seen as an uptight anglophile enclave, has succeeded in rebranding itself as the world’s most multicultural city – more than half of its inhabitants were born outside Canada. Toronto has gained enough confidence to ignore the barbed comments from the rest of the country.

Read the whole thing and see the very apt Rob Ford picture the editors chose to accompany the article.

Divino’s never managed to fill Terroni’s shoes

Divino Pizza

Sorry, I've never developed a taste for chicken pizza

After perennially-packed Terroni moved out in late 2010, Divino moved in in early 2011. But the newcomer has never managed to fill Terroni’s very large  shoes and whenever I go there — mostly to pick up takeout — I wonder how much longer Divino can hang on.

Divino definitely has some good dishes — the casareccia with homemade spicy italian sausage, garlic, rapini and red peppers is a personal favourite — but it’s not something I want to eat all the time. So why did they take the angel hair with lobster off the menu just when I was getting addicted? And do they really think that the lobsterless linguine di mare that has replaced it will make us forget what came before?

Along with its shifting menu and lack of white pizzas, Divino also has a service problem. Wait staff are friendly, but they’re not particularly efficient and meals, no matter what time of day, take much longer than they should. Even when we were the first arrivals for the newly revived brunch, we waited forever just for coffee. Yes, it was a nice bagel with lox and cream cheese, but I could have assembled things faster at home and that’s including a trip to Montreal Bagel to buy the ingredients.

If  Divino’s going to succeed, they’re going to need to staff up properly, find a menu that works for them and then quit changing it. Oh yes, they could also add a few killer desserts, which neither Terroni nor any of the other neighbourhood Italian joints do particularly well.

Divino Italian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

The Monk’s Table: Don’t take that poverty vow if you want to hang here

The Monk's Table on Yonge St.

Everybody would be happy to know your name

The Monk’s Table is one of those places where you get the feeling that everyone is trying very hard to be a regular, even if they’ve only really been here two or three times before.

In theory, the Monk’s Table should be great. The food is supposed to be way better than the average pub fare (a reputation earned in the days when this was still the Abbot on the Hill), it’s a good space if a tad cramped, and the staff are chatty enough that they reinforce the feeling you could easily become a regular. But there’s a problem and it’s this: Once you leave, the whole experience becomes eminently forgettable, not to mention that you spent more than you bargained for. In short, you don’t care if you ever go back or if you become a regular.

This is not to say that the burgers and the curries aren’t decent. And items like crème brulée pâte do indeed zing up the menu not to mention sticky toffee pudding for dessert. But, compared to Wylie’s down the street, it’s far more expensive and not really worth the price premium. In short, it’s hard to get by on a monk’s stipend here, which might explain why they’re always auditioning regulars who eventually decide they’re not cut out for the Monk life.

The Monk's Table on Urbanspoon

Harry’s Social Kitchen: Why oh why isn’t it what I wanted it to be?

Bang bang shrimp at Harry's Social Kitchen

Another Harry misfire: Bang bang shrimp ($13) are tasty enough, but too much (cost and portion) for an appetizer and too little for a meal

Yonge and St. Clair is way overpopulated with sushi joints and Italian restaurants. We desperately need a diner or a Lady Marmalade or a Rushton, but it seems we’re not indy enough or the rents are too high or both, which means, instead, we got Harry’s Social Kitchen.

Maybe I’m bitter because I had high hopes for Harry, that there would be comfort food and cocktails for not unreasonable prices, that it would serve a great weekend brunch and that it would be a fun place to hang out. Alas, those dreams have been quashed. Harry is stingy on the tuna and cod, serves frozen fries, calls his sandwiches “handhelds,” doesn’t do Saturday brunch, and, as of late, has been completely closed on Sundays.

I do give Harry’s credit for trying but after six months, it doesn’t appear to have hit its stride and I’m wondering if it will even be able to survive much longer.

Won’t someone please give us the restaurant we need?

Harry's Social Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Holy Chuck: Average burgers with interesting but pricey shakes and sides

The Holy Chuck signature burger

The Holy Chuck is ithe signature burger

Call me old fashioned, but when a burger, fries and shake get up into the $20 range, I expect either a little bit of atmosphere or an extraordinary eating experience. Given that Holy Chuck, the new(ish) burger joint at Yonge and St. Clair is a classic flourescent-lit, order-at-the-cash-and-eat-in-an-uncomfortable-chair-at-a-table-that-may-or-may-not-have-been-wiped-clean type of place, the onus was on the food to turn in a spectacular performance. All it managed was a “meh.”

To save room for the other stuff, I chose the Jr. Cheeseburger (all dressed, hold-the-hot-peppers) for $5.99. It was fine but my tastebuds couldn’t tell that the meat had been ground on the spot.  When I saw the $4.29 price tag for the sweet potato chips, I thought twice about ordering them but then caved. They were good enough that I had them on their own a week or two later only to be disappointed when they arrived slightly soggy.

If you choose the cheaper French fries at $3.29, know that they’re seasoned with thyme, a practice I disapprove since, at best, it does nothing to improve the fry experience and, at worst, it detracts from it.

Holy Chuck’s crazy milk shake flavours seem tailor made for a bucket list, but after trying the Reese’s Pieces and Banana, and the Bacon, Fudge and  Sea Salt, I no longer feel that I’ll have to return to sample the Peanut Butter and Jelly and Grandma’s Apple Pie. At $5.49 each, that $11, I can spend at Greg’s.

What else do you need to know? My teenaged eating companion really likes the Holy Chuck signature double cheeseburger with caramelized onions, which at $9.99, she should. And she’s a fan of the deep fried Twinkie, not the shakes, when she wants something sweet.

Here’s the entire Holy chuck menu.

Holy Chuck on Urbanspoon

Best Dry Cleaner and Tailor at Yonge and St. Clair

My Tailor Alterations and Dry Cleaning (mysteriously listed in the phone book as My Taylor) is hands down the best and the cheapest in the neighbourhood. The epitome of a Mom and Pop shop, they scrutinize every item you take in and will phone you up if there’s anything that could possibly go wrong.

“Pop” runs the sewing machine and he’ll fix your leather purse for you on the fly or take up your jeans in a hurry if you ask nicely. “Mom” is in charge of the dry cleaning and the expert in stain treatment.

The only caveat I have about this place is the hours. They’re not open first thing in the morning, which can occasionally pose a problem. Apart from that, I love them.

1394 Yonge St. (south of St. Clair)

XocoCava: Best croissants in midtown Toronto

I’m from Montreal so I don’t kid around when it comes to croissants. When I say Xococava’s are the best, that means they are absolutely, undeniably the best, beating Patachou hands down for both butteriness and flakiness. The only drawback is that Cava, first and foremost a chocolatier, doesn’t open until 10 a.m.

The other thing you need to know is that Cava’s Spanish-style hot chocolate is so good that if you try it just once, you will likely never drink straight coffee on the premises again. Customers are so addicted to the drinking chocolate that Cava actually stopped making chocolate croissants. Even the fiercest chocoholics couldn’t combine a chocolate drink with a pain au chocolat.

If you go in the afternoon or evening, try the churros, which come dusted in cinnamon sugar and ready for you to dip in chocolate.

There’s golden sponge toffee, s’mores, ice cream and chocolates to take home.

Wylie’s midtown Toronto pub serves decent Thai food

You don’t go to Wylie’s for the decor. You go for a pint and a curry — a Thai curry. Because, go figure, this place is some kind of strange hybrid of English pub and Thai / Malaysian restaurant. But wait, it gets even more complicated. Wylie’s also does Indian curries, and some of those come with Greek salad.

Personally, I recommend the takeout or the delivery (minimum order = $15) because I prefer the atmosphere at home and saving money on beer.

Wylie’s is definitely as good or better than some of the Thai and Asian restaurants a few blocks north at Yonge and St. Clair.

Try the green chicken curry. And I hear the breakfasts are good too although I can’t vouch for them personally.

Wylie 2 on Urbanspoon