Vancouver gets ready...Lights, Camera, Ac...Hey, where's all the snow?
VANCOUVER - Okay, nobody was expecting a white Olympics on Robson Street. But when it's 10 degrees and Torontonians are walking about in light jackets or even shirt-sleeves, it's hard to feel properly Winter Olympics-ish.
They're hauling helicopter loads of snow in from the interior of British Columbia to make up for the lack of white stuff on Cypress Mountain, where they'll be doing freestyle skiing (aerials, moguls, etc...) and snowboarding. Of course, up in Whistler it's a winter wonderland.
But it's often like this for the Winter Games, so everyone just chill (if you'll pardon the pun). They had a lot of rain in Nagano in 1998 and nobody died from a few delays. At least I don't think so. There wasn't much snow in the hills around Turin until just before the Games, and everything went off great. It never felt like the winter Olympics in town, mind you.
So far, they're doing a pretty good job of dressing things up out here. Yes, Torontonians, there are pansies blooming in the parks and the daffodils are getting ready to sprout and there's damn little white stuff on the spectacular mountains that ring the northside of this Pacific city. But the pin traders are out and the buildings are sheathed in giant posters and the kids are getting excited.
Not to mention the volunteers. Damn, these folks are friendly. The people at the airport for accreditations are awesome. The cops are smiling and saying hi. I stood outside the main media centre on a stunningly beautiful Saturday afternoon and snapped a photo with my Blackberry. A guy I'd never seen before came up behind me and insisted he take my photo with the mountains in the background. We quickly discovered the Blackberry camera sensed the light in the sky behind me and couldn't compensate, making me look like I'd spent a month in a Yonge St. tanning salon. So I had him take a shot of me with the media centre in the background; the centre being the big building on the waterfront with the sails that's left from Vancouver's 1984 Expo.
He took a shot but didn't like it, saying I wasn't smiling. So he took another, which you can see. Yeah, that looks like a smile.
When I got on the bus for the Main Press Centre on Sunday, a woman reporter from the U.S. was asking the bus driver for directions to the Westin Bayshore Hotel. He and I both pointed her in the right direction, and as she got off the bus and started to walk towards the Westin a reporter from New York laughed.
"Boy, you Canadians are nice. In New York we'd just tell to take a cab and figure it out."
Turns out the bus driver, John, was brought in from Toronto and lives down near Jarvis and Bloor. Guess we should send a note to the all Toronto-haters in Western Canada that even downtown T.O. types are pretty damn friendly.
The Games haven't started. But the restaurant wars are going full tilt. Over at Yew Restaurant at the Four Seasons, they've got a 1.5 pound (don't ask me how many kilos that is; I think Imperial, not metric) burger with 70 per cent Kobe beef and 30 per cent Alberta prime AAAAA, or something like that. In a word, spectacular. It's got double smoked Canadian tyroler bacon, local cheddar cheese and tomato chili jam (a new experience) and it's something to behold. Kinda the thing you'd expect a guy like David Wells could polish off in one sitting, but not most of us. They say if you eat the whole thing you get a free Olympic Spirit drink at the bar.
But it's the bar where barkeep Justin Taylor puts on a particular Olympic shine. He's come up with a series of cocktails, the bronze, the silver and the gold. Each is named after a Canadian city that has, or is about to, host the Olympic Games. The bronze is named after Montreal and costs $19.76 (get it?). It's got prime Canadian rye and is basically a whiskey sour with a solid shot of creme brulee on top. You have to punch through the creme brulee with an apple slice to get at the drink, and it's amazingly tasty. Twelve of those and they'll be fishing you out of the sewers.
The silver is named for Calgary and costs, wait for it, $19.88. It's a Caesar (the drink was invented in Calgary, they say) with a real spice kick, complete with buffalo jerky-infused vodka, horseradish and chili pepper and it comes in a glass shaped like a giant cowboy boot. Great fun.
The gold drink is for Vancouver and costs $20.10 (all the drinks have ultra-luxe ingredients and take a long time to make; hence the price, Taylor says). It's got Vancouver Island gin (the only gin made in Canada, he says, and I had no idea) along with mashed dill, cucumber, citrus and egg whites, with a smoked salmon garnish. Phew.
Over at the Shangri-La, they're not quite as overt about exploiting the Oly rings. But they do have a series of five drinks with sports/Olympic themes at Jean-Georges lovely Market restaurant; the Oh, Canada, the Victory, the Excellence, the Gold on Ice and After the Celebration, another variation on the Caesar but with an olive wrapped in smoked meat as a garnish.
My personal favourite (I got to try all five and finished one and part of another and managed not to fall asleep on the bus back to the press centre, by the way) was the Oh, Canada, with Canadian maple whiskey, Canadian rum, spiced maple syrup, bitters, lemon and maple smoke, garnished with smoked citrus pearl (I thought it was an orange peel). Not enough "o's" in smooth to describe that one.
They also serve a fabulous butternut squash soup with morel mushrooms and a black truffle fontina cheese pizza that's only $15. Most entrees at dinner are $24 to $26; not bad for a high-end spot in a hotel that gets terrific reviews. There's a lunch menu with an appetizer, main course and dessert for $29.
Top dessert has to the 'Snow-Capped Cypress," their tribute to (and wish for) Cypress Mountain. It's a white chocolate pavlova with Yuzu sorbet and Thai basil syrup (see photo at right). Yum.
I didn't see a particular Olympic theme, but there were several senior International Olympic Committee members out for dinner at Coast the other night on Alberni St. And I can see why.
One of the specialties is the cold seafood selection, where you get an enormous wok-like container filled with crushed ice on a bed of dry ice that spills vapour all over as the wait staff brings it your table. Piled high are large, choice selections of shrimp, oysters, mussels (probably better warm than cold, but that's just me), king crab, local dungeness crab (yum) and east coast lobster.
They make crab cakes that are probably 99 per cent crab, plus the best smoked fish chowder you might ever have the chance to slurp down. A Tahitian vanilla cheesecake lollipop goes down pretty easy after dinner, but the most fun is a jasmine tea-infused hot chocolate in a small waffle cone.
If you're lucky you might get a table upstairs, overlooking the beautiful people at the bar. Most nights, there's a few of them.
THIS AND THAT
A poll I read said 84 per cent of Canadians think the Winter Olympics will finish in the red. What on earth the other 16 per cent of folks were smoking, I'd love to know.
Actually, to be fair, the Games probably will break even or thereabouts. But they base that on operating costs. It doesn't include the Sea-to-Sky Highway or the SkyTrain or the Richmond Oval or changes in Whistler or any of the CAPITAL costs. So it's extremely misleading. Olympic organizers always crow that those projects were needed anyway, but that's only partially true. And they never talk about the security costs, which were originally estimated at something like $175 million.
Not to toot my own horn, but I wrote at the time that that number was a joke. It has since risen, ahem, to $900 million. And what do you have to show for yourself at the end of the day? A lot of rich cops who got overtime, maybe a bit of improved airport security and such and nothing else. They've put security cameras all over downtown, but most folks, and understandably so, want them removed once the Olympics are over. So, yes, technically the Games might break even. But it's extremely misleading.
On a completely, wholly and also totally unrelated note, I saw on the official Olympic news site for journalists that there will be more athletes taking part in alpine skiing than any other sport at the Winter Olympics. Kinda surprised me, actually. I would've thought maybe snowboard as you don't need, well, Alps or anything like them. But the IOC says there are athletes from 73 National Olympic Committees taking part in alpine skiing, including participants from Ghana, Morocco, Senegal and Pakistan.
Pakistan??? Who knew???