East Side Social: A Lesson in the Evolution of My Homophobia

I think I’m still homophobic.

Before you cast stones and banish me to hell, let me explain.  I believe there has been an evolution in the definition of homophobia over the past two or three decades.  As a high school student at an all guys school in Sudbury, Ontario in the late eighties, I sat around the lunch table with a bunch of social rednecks and laughed at  gay jokes like the rest of them.  I had little regard for the struggles associated with homosexuality. First, I naively thought that none of my friends could possibly be gay.  Secondly, I believed that in fact nobody in Sudbury was gay and that the whole movement was a trendy urban phenomenon.

After high school, I was keen to get out of Sudbury (much like my gay friends it turns out)  and I pursued my post-secondary education  at the University of Guelph.  Guelph was interesting in the sense that it was quite dichotomous; one one side were flocks of macho agricultural students and on the other were the advocates for social justice in which gay and lesbian rights lead the charge.  Add the learnings from my first year sociology course, and I grew to realize that I needed to tolerate people who were different than me in whatever way that was.  Still, I was leery to full embrace the movement because, while I was being taught the need for tolerance in order to live in a utopia, my science courses challenged me to believe that everything, whether it was faith in God or same sex attraction, required a biological rationale.  If you could show me that brain size or the expression of a specific gene could explain why I don’t steal or why I would prefer men over women then I would be much more accepting.  I never found definitive evidence which continued to allow me to live in a bubble and live with the mentality that,although I was in the midst of gays and lesbians, I still really didn’t know many so I really need to understand.

Years later, with the advent of social media and other means of communication, I learned that many of my schoolmates and,  in fact, a few of my  closer high school friends were now overtly gay. It was a bit of an epiphany and really the first time when I truly understood my self-righteous nature.

There is no question that in the past few years, gay rights have been at the forefront.  The explosion of the pride movement and changing legislature catalyzed by a proactive federal and provincial government have set the stage for mass social acceptance of anybody regardless of gender, race, age and, of course, sexual orientation.  During this movement, I have further evolved along my homophobic spectrum to a point where I think I finally get it.

So, why am I still homophobic and why the hell am I writing this stuff on a food blog?  It’s simple; I had a dining experience which put things into perspective.  I met a couple of work colleagues for dinner at Eastside social.  Located in mercurial Leslieville, Eastside offers a seafood heavy menu in the trendy prohibition decor. Since it was still summery outside, we opted for the quaint back patio and were introduced (or at least playfully warned) about our waiter for evening.  Eccentric to say he least, we was a 53 yo gay guy who hails from…yes….Sudbury, Ontario.  I relayed that this was my hometown and for the remainder of the night we had conversations about our native neighborhoods, porchetta bingos at the Beef ‘n Bird, Tarini’s meat shop and why we both got the hell out.

Fighting the desire to order off the small but impressive cocktail menu, we each ordered a pint each from the small draught menu (I went with the Junction Conductor’s ale). His passion for life mimicked his passion for the food.  He quickly agreed when we suggested the sardine crostini to start.  For the main, he proudly boasted that there wasn’t a bad offering but in particular recommended the fish tacos and octopus. We agreed and also added the crab stuffed leeks to the mix. One of my colleagues had a seafood allergy, so, although there was an arctic char special, it was suggested that he stick to land dwelling protein for safety purposes.  When he asked about the hanger steak, the waiter explained it was quite good, especially since it was seasoned with a rub and that he likes anything which involves rubbing meat.  My normal reply would have been “Why do you think I’m ordering the char?” but a total lack of confidence in the given situation killed it and I simply laughed.  This is why I think I’m still homophobic; my phobia lies in my confidence about being straight. For some reason I have it in my head that I should be apologetic about liking woman; a philosophy which upon reflection is simply ridiculous.

As for the meal, the sardine crostini was brilliant in its simplicity and presentation.  The crab stuffed leeks were quite interesting in that they were almost a modern spin on the famed Crab Louis salad.  The fish tacos were smartly served on corn tortillas and gently breaded so the flaky fish instead of everything else was the star.  The octopus was charred a little more than I prefer but still very tender and seasoned beautifully with olive oil and citrus (personally it’s nice to see a generous portion of octopus minus the potato and/or olive which seems to grace most of the other menus in town).  Each of the dishes, however, was served with the waiter’s confidence which almost forced me to agree that the meal was great and maybe even better than it actually was.

As mentioned, the whole experience got me thinking.  The biggest barrier I had in the past was the need to believe that people needed to make decisions for reasons which are rooted in science or logic or whatever you want to call it and that by making decisions outside of norms will draw attention so a person needs to consider this when deciding what to say or do.  That couldn’t be further from the truth. Some people seem to think that our forefathers fought for the freedom of our country with some sort of stipulations. I don’t think even the most conservative veterans put their lives on the line for some Canadians..they did it for all Canadians.  They were protecting the freedom and liberty of us all and last time I checked, this meant making whatever decisions we want.  If someone wants to wear pajamas to Walmart, so be it.  If sometime was to tattoo their mother’s name on their shoulder or the first letter of Paul to Corinthians on their forearm then so what.  If a little girl decides she’s going to escape poverty and blow the world away, she has the ability to do so.  What took me years to understand was whether a person chooses to be gay or is biologically gay is a moot point..the fact is they are gay and have a right to be.  In saying that I came to realize that I can be confident and proud about the fact that I’m straight in the same way I’m proud to be of Irish or English descent.

In the end, confidence is a virtue, whether it is expressed as an establishment or as a person. Claims  such as “The Best Wings in Town” or “Sudbury’s Best Fries” have been effective and primarily unproven claims of restaurants for years because they are rooted in confidence.  Despite the aforementioned waiter, an experienced owner and a swanky decor designed by celebrity stylist Cherie Stinson, perhaps the biggest swagger Eastside Social has is setting up with some success within the boundries of the stubborn Leslieville scene.

On a personal note,  I can get up in front of a group of 200 and speak.  I can lead a team building discussion with ease.  So why can’t I declare my frank heterosexuality in the midst of a confident gay man?  Maybe it’s because I’m still homophobic. In this regard, next time I come here I’ll confidently order the char and better yet, switch to the chicken shortly after.

Eastside Social Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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New Orleans Day 4: Compere Lapin and Shaya Reminded me that Drew Brees Won’t be Around for Ever

With the NFL season now in full force, I am reminded that there is a changing of the guard when it comes to quarterbacks.  With Peyton’s retirement, the Brady suspension and iffy performances by some of the league’s veterans QBs coupled with the emergence of new blood lad by the likes of Carson Wentz, notice has been served.  This might not be that different than the food scene, especially in New Orleans.  Although the long standing staples of Cajun cuisine continue to be alive and well, one can argue that they are being upstaged by the new kids on the block which include Shaya, the 2016 James Beard winner for best new restaurant in the US.

Day 4 was a brunch more than breakfast day so my food adventures began down the road at Compere Lapin in the Warehouse district.  Once again, the weather was ominous so a location close to the convention centre was most desirable.  The website describes this destination as follows :”Inspiration for the menu comes from the traditional Caribbean folktales featuring a mischievous rabbit named Compère Lapin that Chef Nina Compton read during her childhood in St. Lucia. Drawing on the story’s themes of exploration and play, she mixes the indigenous ingredients and rich culinary heritage of New Orleans with those of her Caribbean roots. Tapping into her classical French culinary training and deep experience with Italian cuisine, the result is a playful menu that takes food you know, and makes it food you love”. In addition, Eater New Orleans included it on their where to have brunch list.

The decor is roomy and industrial.  We were there early so the crowds had yet to materialize.  The smallish brunch menu featured a mix of sweet and savory so I indulged in a little of both.  I started with a vanilla bruleed grapefruit which I thought was a smart twist on the breakfast classic. Next was a mix of two of my favorite things: biscuits and gravy and poached eggs. I found it a bit underwhelming; the heat from both a spice and temperature perspective was a bit lacking.  The service was decent but I actually found the cleanup crew better than the waitstaff. My water glass was never empty and the gentleman was polite and courteous.  The actual service was just ok.

Since it was brunch I really didn’t have a formal midday meal but took the opportunity when I had a few minutes to sample the famous grilled oysters from Drago’s. Almost 25 years ago, a little experimentation with one of nature’s most delicious offerings became what is now Drago’s signature dish.  I was a bit reluctant given my wariness toward cooked oysters in general but figured garlic, butter, herbs and cheese on anything is never a bad idea on anything.  I sat at a seat in front of the grill and watched the magic happen.  With a beer in and a cup of gumbo on the side, I delved into a half dozen for $12. Even with the large chunk of baguette covering part of the plate, it’s clear that a New Orleans half dozen is a bit generous.  Not only that, I felt like a bit of a seagull because I was also thrown an few extra by the guy at the grill once in a while.  I wasn’t complaining because they were delicious and cooked just enough to maintain the taste and texture I enjoy with a platter of raw ones. The gumbo was pretty solid too.  In the end, it was an excellent pseudo-lunch rounded out by great food and incredible service.

Dinner was at the highly anticipated Shaya which took this year’s James Beard crown as best new US restaurant. Also located in the popular garden district,  Shaya, which is the namesake of respected chef New Orleans Alon Shaya,  totally deviates from the definition of New Orleans cuisine and instead offers food inspired by Israel. The decor is a modernized old Europe but we found the table a little odd in the sense that it was ridiculously high.  Perhaps it was a means to deter people from putting their elbows on the table because unless you were six foot five, this task was nearly impossible.  I was happy to be with a larger group which allowed me to sample a number of the small plates they offer on the menu. For example, they offer ten or so small plates for a reasonable $23 when you order 5.  We went with the tabouleh, morrocan carrots, ikra, pickles and baba ganoush.  To go along with it we also got the tahini and soft cooked egg hummus.  All hit the mark in their respective ways.  With that we also ordered a spattering of other traditional offerings including fattoush, crispy halloumi, falafel and some tahini and soft cooked egg hummus.  All were fresh, nicely presented,well spiced and a reasonable value.

The service was less than stellar which is likely one of the reasons there were long delays between the above and main dishes.  That said, it allowed our bodies to adjust to the copious amounts of freshly baked pita (there is an oven in the back) that we inhaled with the above dishes so I wasn’t upset that we only opted for three mains; the chicken, hanger steak and the slow cooked lamb. Each main incorporates both elements of middle-eastern ingredients and cooking styles (eg. tagine and slow roast) to produce food that hit both modern and traditional notes.

Ok, maybe my visit was reminiscent of my childhood compete with soft food, a high chair and service on my mother’s terms but the food was spot on and beautifully presented.  Whether or not it is deserving of best new restaurant in America I will leave it to the real critics but I’m convinced the James Beard committee has a soft spot for both New Orleans and for pumping up the ethnic flavour of the day and Shaya meets both criteria.  What was most disappointing was the service.  It seems like even the boundaries of the big easy, which once housed the definition of southern hospitality, can’t repel the infiltration of self-centred service typical of the new foodie generation. Oh well, I guess even Drew Brees will have to hang up the cleats someday.

Shaya Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Drago's Seafood Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Compere Lapin Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato