Toronto’s summer of ice cream has officially come to a close.
We’ve had our last few rounds of patio weather, but now winter is coming. It’s a tough time for ice cream businesses in general, but especially now that the city is hyper-saturated with them — from the gourmet, to the novelty, to everything in between.
With so many options, surviving the winter while surrounded by competitors will be even more of a challenge for some of our more adventurous ice cream shops.
Have no fear — with any luck, your favourites will make it through the storm. It won’t be easy, but surviving is all about adapting. With winter in mind, here’s how some of the city’s most beloved new spots are planning to see another summer.
Every ice cream joint has its own remedy for battling the Canadian cold. Fugo, for example, is generating interest by wiping the slate clean — literally. Their chalkboard wall, which is usually covered with menu illustrations, is blank when I stop by.
I return later in the week to sample the winter menu. The wall is back in action, illustrated with specialty cones.
“We’re changing things up for winter,” says manager Josh Joung. I later see him stationed in front of the oven, pulling out batches of fresh tarts that make the shop smell like a hearty kitchen. “We took out the soft serve machine — that’s going to be a summertime thing — to make room for the oven. We’re just doing scoops of hard ice cream now. We’re always working on new stuff… Have you heard of Kinotoya?”
I haven’t. Kinotoya, it turns out, refers to a cheesecake tart trend that is “pretty popular in [East] Asia right now,” Josh tells me. Although it comes from Japan, it’s different from the fluffy Japanese cheesecake that has been popularized — it’s a smooth, creamy dessert with a liquid-like consistency, baked into a tart.
I taste Fugo’s take on the dessert after coming in from the cold, and the timing is perfect. The shortbread tart makes a firm shell around the sweet marscapone cheesecake — the combination melts warmly in my mouth.
When it comes to ice cream, Fugo is putting the oven to work with hot desserts that can split open and served with a scoop — “It’s a more enjoyable way to eat ice cream in winter.” They have two new ideas in the works. The first is a pineapple bun — which has nothing to do with actual pineapples, but is named for the checkered texture seared into the crust of a sweet Hong Kong-style bun. The second is a layered brownie that alternates with thin bars of cookie dough baked into the mix.
“We love food,” says Josh. “There’s always an opportunity to try different things — we base it on our personal tastes and experiences.” Many of the new dishes are inspired by desserts the staff have tried on their travels, or emerging global food trends.
“I think a lot of people dismissed us a bit after the summer — we were very hyped for the Cookie Monster.” No kidding — the image of a bright blue scoop topped with miniature cookies was all over social media. “It felt like a fad type of thing… [But] we’re not here just to be seasonal. We want to always bring something new to the table.”
Menu renewal is certainly one strategy for drumming up interest. The rapidly-expanding empire of Sweet Jesus has been teasing with images of topping-heavy hot beverages surrounded by autumn leaves. The original downtown location hit the one-year milestone this fall, which means they already have one winter under their belt — doubling as an espresso bar seems to be working in their favour.
Montréal-based ice cream shop La Diperie, which recently made an appearance in Toronto, is following suit. Declaring that ice cream season isn’t over, they’ve rolled out new flavours — including Cinammon Bun, Gingerbread, and Green Tea.
Death in Venice is no stranger to refreshing their menu seasonally. The culinary-minded gelato joint on Queen West never keeps it simple — their gelato offerings are created like a meal, methodically extracting flavour from savoury ingredients. Because of this model, the flavours are always in seasonal flux, depending on what’s available from their local suppliers.
“We thrive from collaboration,” says owner Kaya Ogruce, a former chemical engineer, turned chef, turned gelato-maker. “Right now we’re working with Monforte — we’re getting cheddar, we’re getting sourdough, we’re doing a Grilled Cheese Gelato.”
Our conversation hints at future flavours — farm-inspired savoury elements like beetroot, squash, and parsnip will all feature down the line. A collaboration with Niagara’s Creekside Winery is in the works. Their signature Hay gelato is due for a comeback. One of the new flavours is Spicy Pad Thai, which I adventurously sample. It’s strangely satisfying. There’s something great about a savoury gelato that doesn’t mask its flavours with sugar, but still tastes sweet and nuanced.
“This summer was crazy,” Kaya says of the Toronto ice cream boom. At that time, Death in Venice was a cart in the window of Constantinople Bakery, along with a booth at the Union Summer Market. Now they own the whole store. “Winter is less busy, yes, but it feels more fun now — more time to experiment.”
And experiment they do. I’m pleasantly surprised by the Raspberry Ginger Tandoori, which starts off tart and berry-like, then hits you with a sweet and spicy kick. Kaya names Pumpkin Ale as his favourite out of the current offerings, in collaboration with Great Lakes Brewery — “It’s bright, it’s delicious, it has this subtle, playful undertone.” The smooth and warmly-infused Vanilla Saffron Ginger has a nostalgic feeling to me — like eating really, really good kulfi. White Truffle & Sage has a savoury edge that warms me up rather than feeling like a heavy indulgence. And although I rarely use UberEATS, I’m tempted by their exclusive flavour: Pumpkin and Chocolate.
I take my time indulging in a large scoop of Mexican Chocolate Mole, which Kaya describes as “a pain in the butt to make” — but he likes it so much that he can’t stop making it. Like a spiced hot chocolate, the bright chocolate flavour is underscored by a warm, spicy richness. The process, which involves multiple infusions, is so dedicated that Kaya says, “It’s like making a dish — twice.” One batch takes four days.
Kaya is confident about the value of his culinary creations, and their ability to ride out the winter. “We’re in our tenth month,” he says, “So this is our first official winter. We’ve done well, but of course, there are no guarantees.”
It’s true — there are no guarantees. Many new arrivals to the ice cream scene are closing up shop, or have adopted a pop-up model to bypass the cold season altogether.
Forest Hill’s Booyah Inc. are among the winter closures. The charming neighborhood shop is known for their taco cones and plentiful toppings — appealing to the kid in everyone. “We are closing down retail and focusing specifically on catering events,” owner Blair Mincer explains. Although they are leaving the neighborhood for now, they look forward to making a return next spring.
Another 2016 newcomer, Nice Pan has taken the pop-up approach. Their deliciously tempting ice cream rolls will only be available until October 31, before they close up shop for the winter. The inside “scoop” is that they will make a comeback next summer, with plans to add a permanent shop. They are also catering in the off-season.
The list of winter ice cream casualties goes on: earlier this month, Bar Ape pulled the window shut on its chocolate-dipped gelato bars — but the vintage gelato cart promises to return. 00 Gelato has also bid Torontonians goodbye, taking their Ferrero Rocher and Peanut Butter Brownie flavours with them. And Scoop Shop, too, has said their seasonal farewell, although they will still cater and deliver in the interim.
It’s not all bad news, though. Eva’s Original Chimneys, riding off its donut cone success from the summer, is gearing up for a storefront location. Pancho’s Bakery, home of Toronto’s first churro cone, is still going strong. And established staples like Dutch Dreams and Sweet Olenka’s, along with relatively newer hotshots like Bang Bang and Kekou, have survived multiple winters and proven they are here to stay.
Ice cream in the Canadian winter, eh? Not as crazy as it sounds. “I prefer to eat gelato in the winter, actually,” Death in Venice owner Kaya Ogruce confesses. “In the summer it’s so hot, it just makes me more thirsty. In the winter, I can really enjoy it.”
I can vibe with that. No matter how cold it gets, eating a frozen dessert always fills me with happiness. I don’t need to wait for high temperatures to indulge in ice cream or gelato. There’s something to be said for settling into a warm place, shaking off the cold, and just digging in — regardless of the weather.
“It’s an experience,” Kaya emphasizes. “People just enjoy it. You don’t have to force it.”
That’s what I tell myself as I brave the windy cold to meet a friend for ice cream. It’s an experience — and every sweet bite is worth the bitter struggle.
Are you the kind of person who can still eat ice cream in the winter? Where do you go for your cold weather ice cream fix? Leave a comment with your recommendations!