Twenty years ago, downtown Toronto’s west side, known by locals as west
Queen West, was a rough part of town with no shortage of seedy watering holes
and drug dealers. Today rents have been hiked, a new crop of entrepreneurs are
opening boutiques, restaurants and galleries – and the drug of choice is good
An excellent starting point for a sugary neighbourhood
tour is the light and airy Soma
Chocolate on King Street, where addictions are couched in an environment of
sophistication and elegance. One of a precious few “bean to bar”
micro-chocolate makers in North America,
Soma’s chocolate is crafted in small batches from a world atlas of fair
trade and organic cacao beans sourced from countries including Indonesia,
Dominican Republic and Peru.
Due to Soma’s popularity, this is the company’s second location in town,
opened in 2011, although co-owner David Castellan said there are no plans for
further expansion: “to us it was never about volume but creating a small batch
of something fantastic, which is the essence of why we started Soma in the
Peer into the onsite lab for a Charlie in the Chocolate Factory
experience or saddle up at the slate bar while sipping an espresso-sized cup of
thick, chilli-laced hot chocolate.
A single bite from any bar or truffle is both memorable and educative.
Consider the difference between a hotel room packet of instant coffee versus
freshly ground fair-trade java and you will begin to get a sense of what many
consider the best chocolate in Toronto. Each bar is a careful experiment of
roasting, conching and aging, with different beans exhibiting unique perfumes
and flavour notes.
The 32% Costa Rican milk chocolate is a prize, its slow melt evoking
whispers of coffee and caramel; while the 64% Dark Peruvian satisfies with a
single square, setting off a burst of endorphins with its heady, vanilla-spiked aroma alone. And
do not leave without trying the Old School: cookie-like fingers of crumbly
goodness. This bar has not evolved far from the bean; unrefined, gritty and
raw, it is a marriage of cocoa nibs and crystals of organic cane sugar ground together.
Hopping north a few blocks and west along
Queen Street, watch out for the diminutive and minimalist Dlish, known to locals as cupcake
heaven, just before Trinity
Through his extensive world travels, Dlish
creator Verge Manuel made two keen observations: that people without deep
pockets will still shell out for flavour indulgences, and that small baked
items make people happy.
Pouring his heart and soul into Dlish, the
energetic Manuel leads by example, and can often be found baking or frosting
the cakes as well as serving customers.
A highly regarded entrepreneur on this stretch of Queen Street, he is known
for donating any leftover cupcakes to local food banks, as well as a few lucky
The former telecommunications store owner said he knew he made the right
move when he ran out of cupcakes on his very first weekend in December 2010, and
the queue extended out the door the second. Now baking some 8,000 to 10,000 oil-
and preservative-free cupcakes each week (a second location has recently been
added uptown), quality remains uncompromised by quantity as he sticks firm to
his philosophy of same-day baked desserts with the sponge made strictly with real
milk, sugar, cream and butter. Natural
flavourings draw from top quality ingredients such as carefully sourced Belgian
chocolate and Madagascar bourbon vanilla.
On a recent visit, regular customers already familiar with the printed
“flavour schedule” had dropped in for their favourite Tuesday offerings, which
include cinnamon, dulce de leche, vanilla on chocolate and the award-winning
red velvet cupcakes. A middle-aged
brunette gushed about the outstanding chocolate coconut (“the secret is cream
cheese”, she said) and grinned widely after buying four.
Forget about anti-aging products.
With a perfected ratio of frosting to moist, fluffy sponge, Dlish cupcakes
transport you to single-digit birthday parties and grade-school Valentine’s
Continue west along Queen Street. After stopping
at a few independent art galleries along the way, you will be hankering for
some comfort food – and Boreal Gelato, just past Dufferin Street,
takes the biscuit.
After working for years in the hospitality
industry, owner Melanie Clancy decided she wanted to create something “more
community orientated; a place where people could bring kids (hence the dress up
box and vintage rocking horse).
Drawing on fond memories of her first job serving ice cream
and embarking on something she wanted to be
“real and Canadian”, the unassuming and increasingly busy scoop shop,
opened in 2011 feels just that: friendly, not too flashy, eschewing style for
substance and demonstrating a strong commitment to principles, one of them
Furnishings include a jumble of reclaimed materials: the serving counter
is fashioned with wood from an old factory down the street, and a dining room cabinet
that belonged to her grandmother has a new life as a garbage receptacle. She also ensured that the biodegradable packaging,
made from potato, corn and sugar cane, would, in fact, decompose, by testing it
in her own backyard. “Boreal is Latin for forest, and the name is an homage to
the Canadian north,” Clancy explained.
Although trained at Carpigiani
Gelato University in New York’s Little Italy neighbourhood, Clancy emphasises
that she makes Canadian-style gelato and sorbetto rather than traditional
Italian flavours. Her creations are inspired by Ontario’s
distinct seasons, drawing on local ingredients whenever possible. In winter,
reach for maple walnut or a delightfully mellow sweet potato with candied sage. For a uniquely coniferous Canadian
experience, tuck into a creamy scoop of balsam, a delicate flavour infusion
derived by steeping balsam needles in milk.
Spring and summer months find cones piled high with flavours featuring local
berries and Ontario peaches. And at any
visit, invariably some customer will be ordering a scoop of salted caramel, Boreal’s
most popular flavour.
Glory Hole Doughnuts
The North American west has always
signified new frontiers, and boundary-pushing is definitely the case at Glory Hole Doughnuts, further west
along Queen Street. Step into the shop
for a retro blast with mint-coloured walls, an orangey-red countertop and a
huge blackboard menu. Souvenirs (besides
a well-earned additional kilo of body weight) include T-shirts and mugs.
Clearly a creative soul, with training in art, fashion, sculpture and
chef school, the “CEO of doughnuts” Ashley Jacot de Boinod explained she has loved
making bread and eating doughnuts, enjoying several cinnamon-sugar ones growing
up in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood. She started off filling corporate
orders, finally raising the money she needed for her own shop in August 2012
with the help of Indiegogo, a crowd-sourcing
website that garnered 6,000 Canadian dollars of start-up money from supportive
individuals, all recognised on a big thank-you board in the shop.
The doughnut display incites kid-in-a-candy-shop eyes and difficult
decisions. Purists might opt for the
classically Canadian maple or cinnamon and sugar doughnut, but creativity is
king at Glory Hole and taste buds will be given a workout with the Elvis: a
sweet and salty topping combination of peanut butter, cream cheese, banana
chips, peanuts, bacon and marshmallow; or the more prosaic but no less
inventive Toast And Butter: an airy, yeast-base doughnut with brown butter frosting finished with sweet
breadcrumbs and cinnamon.
The menu changes four times a year and this may be the only doughnut
shop on Earth that features a monthly bacon doughnut. Only in Canada, eh?