Escape from Toronto - Chapter Two


Toronto. New York run by the Swiss. Part 2.

altThe hardest thing about Toronto is getting there. We go there once, maybe twice a year on business. In case you were wondering, no, we do not go there for the coffee nor for any real coffee business. This is a ruse. My wife and I work for the local University and they often send my wife, the executive, on sorties to Ontario's largest city. It only makes sense that, as the consort of my dearly beloved, I make as much hay (or grist) of the visit as possible for the benefit of the dedicated readership.

If sitting on a plane is your idea of a good time then you might enjoy the 4 hour flight from Vancouver Island to our inland destination. For me, it is tedious and unpleasant and any diversions that I can cook up prior to departure make the whole ordeal more tolerable. Think about it - being cooped up with 175 people in a titanium-steel tube buzzing along at three-quarters the speed of sound at 30,000 feet with air that has been exhaled about 500 times is as much fun as enduring the passage of a kidney stone. So, I bring a good book.

The city of Toronto has become, for me, a second home on some levels. This phenomenon is realized when it occurs to you that you are now following familiar patterns within a city of this size. You walk out of your hotel lobby and instinctively turn left onto Main street without thinking. The city quickly becomes as comfortable as a favorite old coat. Unfortunately as fashion goes, Toronto is a city that does not wear well on me.

As it is in many parts of Canada, great coffee and tea is a sadly neglected afterthought and the current trends are not promising. Great coffee (and tea) flourishes in an environment that encourages relaxation, frivolous or voluble periods of conversation, meditation and honest to goodness time wasting. Toronto does not have any of this. Toronto does power lunch, power coffee, power dinner and, as we discovered in our previous chapter, Toronto does the nightlife like it was their last night on Earth. Yes folks, these people are just too busy and too important to slow down long enough to savour the flavor of a fine single origin rain-forest friendly sustainable arabica bean. Keeping this in mind, my visits to 'TO',  it is often called, are much like the episode of Star Trek where everyone but me drinks the water that speeds them up into the next dimension. Walking down a Toronto sidewalk at lunch or, ahem, coffee-break is akin to fly-fishing the middle of the Mississippi River during rainy season - the undertow is a bitch and you're way over your head in a sea of fast moving humanity.

The cafes of Toronto, at least the self-proclaimed gourmet spots, do not really fit any molds or impressions I have formed elsewhere in North America. Like the nations capital, Ottawa (where I have had the most miserable cups of mud on this continent), Toronto is like the all-you-can-eat buffet that promises you atmosphere and leaves you with gas. There are exceptions so keep reading. Of the higher-end cafes and micro-roasteries  I have visited, they all proclaim to be successful operations and, of course, the best in town. In virtually every case, every single one had substandard coffee and espresso beverages, bad preparation techniques, poorly trained staff and worse of all, dirt. Yes, dirt, dust, grime, grit, grease, dust-bunnies, soil and glacial til. What is going on here? Anyone hear of a recent invention called the broom?

Exception time: Balzac's Cafe and Coffee Roasters. My double-americano was substandard in that the crema was off-white. Bad sign. That said, they had the place polished and wiped to a mirror shine. The Elektra machines were so well maintained the Chromium was practically rubbed off of their gleaming exteriors. The staff, two guys. wore identical black Balzac t-shirts and black blue-jeans. Nice touch. One of my new buddies, Jose Valentino (a.k.a. Joe Espresso) wanted to talk-story with the manager and she came downstairs in a timely fashion and was gracious and professional. It probably helped that Balzac's location is in the new Distillery art and eats development and was surrounded by great restaurants, galleries and, get this, a cocoa-bean roaster and chocolate truffle emporium. Woo-hoo!

In chapter-three we will dig a bit deeper and see if we can uncover at least a sample of caffeine nirvana in Canada's largest city.


Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria, B.C. Canada and will gladly get yelled at by a psychotic barista in any snooty local Cafe Roaster than wrestle dust-bunnies in self-important Toronto Cafes.