It has taken me almost the entirety of my 48 years on the planet to learn one simple fact: Getting started early on your day, even weekends, means a happier and more interesting life. For decades I was under the impression that a lie-in on a Saturday followed by a day of doing literally nothing was the key to happiness. It sounds great in theory. For me, though, I realize now that I’m someone who takes great satisfaction in doing interesting and ideally productive things.
And so it is that first thing this morning, Sage and I leave the house. Our plan is to go to an art store to pick up canvases and paint for her, and to get breakfast. The art store is right next to the Bus Terminal Diner. This restaurant has been around for decades and has a really nice retro decor with big cushy booths, a counter with round stools for those eating alone, and most importantly big greasy American breakfasts with bottomless cups of coffee. After that we’ll go across the street to the Danforth/Coxwell Library.
However, those getting to know me should learn one thing about me. My luck is not good when it comes to restaurants. If I invite you to go to lunch somewhere, it is not unreasonable to expect that the restaurant will be unexpectedly out of business, closed for renovations, or even destroyed by fire. All of these things have happened in the past. (Edit: Sage read this and said to me, laughing “Also the restaurant is 5 bus rides away, it’s 9 PM, and it’s snowing and the next bus doesn’t come for 45 minutes. Adventures!”) Today my curse took effect again with the restaurant seemingly under new ownership, their usual signage gone and new hours that no longer include breakfast scrawled in red crayon on the window.
We are not daunted, though. We pick up Sage’s art supplies and head for Lalibela, an Ethiopian restaurant a 10 minute walk away that is also open for breakfast.
The air is cold and damp and Sage didn’t wear a heavy coat so we’re briskly walking down Danforth Avenue. In this part of town there is a mix of businesses. There are more than the average number of traditional Canadian bars where you might expect to watch a hockey game in the winter or sing karaoke to Gordon Lightfoot. There are also a number of African and middle-eastern restaurants and shops. On previous outings, Daegan and I were able to try Yemeni and Moroccan food in this neighbourhood. Italian grocery stores sit next to shops advertising sales and alterations to traditional Ethiopian clothes. A shisha bar sits next to a Chinese restaurant and both are across the street from a restaurant serving Dutch food. A few steps later we see a relatively new masjid. I remember its being expanded several years ago and it looks very much at home just a few steps down the street from a classic theatre that has been renovated and turned in to a Tim Hortons. To me this is very much what Toronto is about.
Finally, after what seems like forever, we arrive at the restaurant. When we enter frankincense is burning and coffee has been freshly roasted and the smells together are amazing. Music is playing which, thanks to Shazam’s identifying it for me, I can share with you as well.
We take a seat and look around. The space is cozy and warm. A lovely contrast to the freezing temperatures outside.
I usually get the same thing when I go for Ethiopian breakfast – foul – but today I’m determined to try something new and order something I’ve never had. Sage makes my decision easier by ordering foul for herself. I can taste some of hers and not miss out. It isn’t long before the food arrives.
I order the firfir special. It’s in a spicy and delicious sauce with jalapeno peppers as well as a little beef. It’s served on injera, a soft flat bread.In it is more injera that has been rolled up and soaked in the spicy sauce. On the side is still more injera in rolls. This is torn and used to pick up and eat the food.
The sauce is flavoured with berbere, one of the more common spice mixes used in Ethiopian food. As a cook it is really interesting to me because while the flavours taste extremely different from Indian food, the common spices in it say otherwise: coriander, fenugreek (methi), cumin, allspice, black pepper, green cardamom, cloves, red chillies, paprika, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric. Combine them differently and you have any number of Indian masalas. Combine them the way they did here, and it tastes like a something entirely different. It reminds me of language and how if we listen to, say, Spanish and Italian we can hear similarities. They use similar roots and sounds to mean similar things, but as a whole they are different enough that they are mostly unrecognizable to each other. The same is true here. You can taste a hint of cumin, and definitely chillies but the similarities end there.
Even the injera feels familiar. On one level it is a bit like a crepe or thin pancake. At the same time it makes me think of an utthapam or not so crispy dosa. However, it reminds me most in terms of flavour and use of the ghavan I had in the Konkan area of Maharashtra. That is also a soft pancake-like bread and it, too, is relatively bland and often served with something spicy. You can see an example of that that I made some time ago for breakfast served along with poha and green chutney.
Sage orders foul, a dish made of fava beans seasoned with berbere. This is my usual choice and it is spicy and delicious. For me it is the perfect breakfast: spicy, with protein and a bit of bread. As I look at it, though, I see not only the same foul served throughout North Africa and the Middle East. I see misal pav. I see the spicy pinto beans I’ve had in the southern US. The propagation and evolution of food is a fascinating topic for me and I want to find more information about this. As an aside, for my Hindi speaking readers, a show I found on the topic (Available on Netflix Canada and a few bits on Youtube) is Itihaas Ki Thali Se. It explores just this sort of thing – answering the question of “Where did this food come from and how did it come to be?”
After we eat we make our way back to the area near Coxwell and Danforth where we started. There is an odd thing I have noticed about this particular intersection. While in many parts of the world, markets are organized in such a way as to put like stores together. For example, walking through Old Delhi you might go through a section that sells lighting, or jewellery, or clothes. That’s usually not the case in Toronto, but oddly enough, this area seems to be something of a “dental district” with several dentist’s offices within sight of each other.
We make our way across the street to the library. From the outside this appears to be one of the larger branches.
From the inside, however, it is a different story. While it appears to be a two story library, there is only one floor in which you can find books.
This library was built in 1989, and unlike many of the branches we’ve visited before, it hasn’t been renovated except for a brief closure a few years ago to improve accessibility. Of course this is not HGTV and I am not disappointed that this library is dated as compared to the others. On the contrary for me it comes down to a few different criteria that make a library one I love:
Ambience: This library feels good. People are coming and going. People are using the space and enjoying it. The staff seem happy and are helpful.
Seating: This library has lots of places to sit. While it might lack some of the more comfortable seating of other branches, there’s enough space to relax and enjoy the space.
Selection: As Sage and I leave this is the first thing we say. While the library is one of the smaller ones, we found so many interesting things for us both to enjoy – even more than we have in many larger libraries in the city.
So all in all this is a bit of a hidden gem. From the outside it appears unassuming but when you delve deeper you find there is much to love about this place.
Before I end this, I want to add a new element to these last few entries: I want to talk about some of the programs that the Toronto Public Library has that even some people within the city may not be aware of.
This entry I want to tell about the Museum and Arts Pass Program. In our city, people with a library card can visit many museums and attractions including the Royal Ontario Museum, Ontario Science Centre, Art Gallery of Ontario, Aga Khan Museum, the Toronto Zoo, and even arts performances throughout the city for free with a family pass that can be checked out from the library like any other library material. It’s a great way to see lots of places in the city with your family at no cost. That said, this is a very popular program for those in the know so be sure to check with your librarian to find out when the passes are released. I know a line begins to form at our neighbourhood library well before the library opens in order for families to get these passes before they run out.