Boning up for a recent trip to Toronto, I came across the query posited by Chris Lumsdon in Toronto magazine, “Do cities dream?” He goes on to write, “If people, then why not cities?” France may dream of fashion and London may dream of its history, but Toronto, he states, has the same recurring dream of what it can be. “It’s an ephemeral state, to be a young city in search of itself. But a closer look reveals a creative place that, as it evolves, manages to connect the dreams of a great number of people along the way.” And from architecture to music to food, I think there is an intrinsic creative vibe—diverse, energetic, and exploratory—that makes this city an interesting place of discovery. Unlike Montréal, Toronto has an up and coming sense of modernity about it. It reminds one of New York City in its cultural diversity, Salt Lake City in the friendly laid-back attitude of its citizens, and something about the low-rise, row-style buildings and cultural vibe recall a bit of San Francisco.
Perhaps because it is a city still searching for its identity, imagination abounds, and the city manifests this imagination with abundance in its food scene, which traverses the globe, moving from Indian to Spanish to New Canadian with ease. And sweets? Well, now we have come to point. Here, Torontonians are taking the cake, so to speak. What follows are a handful of desserts that after spending a blissful few days tasting what this delightful city has to offer are now wandering through my own dreams.
For creativity on supercharge, a visit to Kensington Market Organic Ice Cream is a must. Owner Brad Kurtenbach lets his imagination roam in the flavor equivalence of Technicolor. Switching careers from hospital orderly to gourmet ice cream purveyor, he sells ice cream, popsicles, granitas, and even vegan soft serve in his Lilliputian shop. Located at 650 1/2 Queen Street West, you might miss the shop altogether if it weren’t for the pastel ice cream fabric wrapped poles to lead you around the street corner. The granitas are made using a state of the art machine purchased at a yard sale for a bargain and his house-made fruit flavorings (blueberry, strawberry, grapefruit, and lemon, to name a few) are stored in spigotted glass bottles purchased from the art deco antique shop down the road. Christened Parasols, strawberry lemonade/mint popsicles are frozen in water cooler cups and fitted with cupcake liners across the bottom so they look just like miniaturized versions of their namesake. Ice cream options on any given day could turn up anything from fresh peach to chocolate with figs and cayenne or chocolate chai with candied ginger.
I like the Blue Goat made with goat’s milk custard, blue cheese, and walnuts (it’s meant to be served as an appetizer rolled in dried breadcrumbs with greens or fruit on the side, but I was told patrons often eat it scooped on a cone just like his Vanilla Proper) and the Strawberry Devil: black pepper, anise, and strawberry. Some of his best flavors, however, are his most simple. The mango I tried was amazing in its richness and integrity and the blueberry/lavender chased with a not-so-tart lemon bordered on the divine. Speaking of the divine, a recent concoction he was testing the day of my visit, Amen, featured a Dutch cocoa-based ice cream mixed with coconut, fresh nectarines, and apricots. A lineup of gumball machines, filled with nuts and candies, provide complimentary toppings, and you can also drizzle a honey/lemon syrup on top your scoop if your taste buds crave a little something more to your ice cream. Although Kurtenbach’s flavors aren’t for everyone, those possessed with catholic tastes and experiment-craving mouths will appreciate the flavor gymnastics he goes through to make up his combinations. With patrons who have followed the shop through its many moves to many neighborhoods throughout the city, Kensington Market Organic Ice Cream has definitely won a loyal following.
Across town, make sure to stop by The Distillery on Mill Road, a cab ride east of downtown. The impressive 1832 Gooderham & Worts distillery has been revamped, keeping all the old architecture but making this a shopping destination with foods, art dealers, and high-end boutiques inhabiting the loftlike spaces. At Brick Street Bakery you can buy rustic European and sourdough breads flavored with the likes of Moroccan olives, walnuts, or basil and parsley and flaky pastries (try the morning buns or the currant filled Eccles cakes), which are worth every extra calorie. Just down the way, Soma produces chocolate from various origins and sells flavored chocolate bars (green tangerine was a favorite), Italian cookies, truffles, hot chocolate, and gelato. If you like a little tart with your sweet, try the lemon/sour cream gelato. Truffle flavors include: Orange Marzipan Pinch, Beurre Noisette (brown butter/hazelnut), Douglas Fir, and, in honor of the location, Gooderham Worts Whiskey. They also offer single origin truffles with tasting notes, such as Santo Domingo 70 percent and Tanzania 75 percent.
Heading uptown to the area known as the Annex, take a slightly out of the way stop at Dish Cooking Studio. Owner Trish Magwood, who won a James Beard Award in 2008 for her first cookbook, Dish Entertains, runs a cafe, take out, and small retail shop next to her cooking school. The space feels fresh and modern with its stainless-steel, blond woods and marble fixtures. Go early as the breakfast and lunch crowd have the shop cleared out by late afternoon. With interesting flavors such as green pepper/Parmesan/pine nut or grilled peaches/berries/goat cheese, her scones are worth a try. The lunchtime menu expands from the breakfast muffins and scones to include gourmet sandwiches served on ACE bread as well as soups and hearty salads.
The restaurant scene in Toronto is in full bloom, and whether heading to Vertical, Treadwell, or Lee, one can try the best talent this city has to offer. Located in the The Hazelton Hotel in the Yorkville neighborhood, Mark McEwan’s One Restaurant is a chic scene. Small shops and restaurants stretch in both directions. A few blocks away, well-heeled shoppers can visit the upscale Holt Renfrew department store. The actual restaurant is understatedly cool with crocodile skin-embossed brown-leather stools at the bar and warm tans accented with sophisticated swathes of red and slate throughout. The selection of house-blended teas includes options such as the Royal Relaxer with cornflower, rosehip, sage, and blackberries. And desserts although classic in their inspiration are clever in their inception. On the night of my visit, a peanut butter/chocolate bread pudding was dressed with both a peanut butter and a chocolate sauce, sprinkled with sugar pieces, topped with banana slices and served with a quenelle of yogurt sorbet—sweet, salty, tart, and bitter played off one another without losing a sense of belonging to the dish as whole. Other seasonal offerings included a Dulce de Leche Cheesecake and a Crème Brûlée with a candied ginger sauce.
Down the street and around the corner you’ll find The Cookbook Store. Stocking cookbook gems from around the globe as well as highlighting the best of Canadian cookery, the friendly, knowledgeable staff can help you find just what suits your fancy. They also offer cookbook signings and lectures from luminaries of the likes of Ferran Adrià and Hervé This.
These are just a few of the sweet dreams Toronto is dishing up. For more, I suggest you book a flight and head to this burgeoning city to discover some sugar-laden visions of your own.
Kensington Market Organic Ice Cream
650 1/2 Queen Street West
Brick Street Bakery
55 Mill Street, Building 45A
55 Mill Street, Building 48
Dish Cooking Studio
390 Dupont Street
116 Yorkville Avenue
The Cookbook Store
850 Yonge Street