Cheese Boutique, open since 1970, is located on Ripley Avenue just off South Kingsway. It has been passed down through three generations and has continued to provide a wide range of gourmet ingredients for Toronto chefs such as foie gras, prosciutto, truffles and, of course, cheese.
But all this has nothing to do with why I decided to stop in, to be honest. I grew up in Bloor West Village and my childhood memories are filled with the joy of running through the store's entrance and slowly making my way around the wraparound counter.
I would look about in awe while my mother interacted with the salespeople and then bashfully take a candy from the little hanging basket by the cashier, skipping out the exit with glee.
Since they moved to Ripely Avenue eight years ago, I haven't been a single time. I had heard that the new location was bigger and better than ever and so decided to take a peek.
There was no way I could have prepared for what I see when I arrive. I knew they'd moved to a big warehouse but had no idea that they'd taken (most) of their old location with them.
I walk through the large glass entrance of the building and find myself in front of a second entrance -- to the old location of my youth, right down to the old address on the door.
My eyes grow as I take it all in -- the bronze, the wood, and the whimsical decorations. But that's not what I'm here for so I take to the shelves. The variety! Oh, the variety!
They have everything I can imagine (and a lot I'd never think to) from all over the world. As I walk in, I first see the produce and the prepared foods. I notice fresh white asparagus -- something I can't say I'm that accustomed to in Toronto (I did say fresh, right?).
Moving along, I try a strawberry sample, and I'm delighted by its candy-like sweetness.
I hear oil popping behind me and turn around, wandering over to the chef who's frying up some spring rolls in the open kitchen beside me. I notice he's shallow frying in a pan, keepin' it old school; there's no fryer in sight.
He's amazingly friendly, stopping his work to welcome me and help me navigate the goods -- everything in this section being made by one of the in house chefs.
There are all sorts of prepared foods, both savoury and sweet, and I try the lavender shortbread -- it's rich and creamy, and the fragrant lavender renders me giggly and surprisingly speechless.
Beside the lavender are chocolate chip cookies with the smallest little chocolate bits I've ever seen, brioche croutons, and bagel chips lustily drizzled with olive oil and spices.
I order a small slice of "meat pizza" to take with me for lunch and the chef warms it up for me in the oven while I continue to look around.
There are tarts of all sorts, each more beautiful than the next, as well as cakes and pastries. The bread is baked fresh daily, both at the Cheese Boutique itself as well as by other local bakeries.
A smiling employee asks me, while stocking the shelves, if I enjoy espresso. Within moments I'm sipping at the bitter treat, noticing there's no cream in sight, which feels exactly right.
The next room is filled with olive oils of every kind and a cornucopia of pastas (including the fresh variety). Spanish Jamon (ham) hangs over the archway and I walk under it into the next room. Here there is cheese in abundance, and I excitedly notice a sign informing customers of a "cheese cave".
In 10 seconds flat I've found the cave and gone inside. It's a no-touching zone, but the staff are more than happy to let customers in to look. The strong, pungent aroma fills my nostrils, and I'm surrounded by enormous rounds of all sorts of cheese. It's brilliant.
I continue to explore, finding a butcher's counter, spice nooks, and entire walls of different ingredients and condiments from all over the world. There's an entire section dedicated to chocolates and truffles.
The deli is brimming with different luncheon meats and the counter proudly bares stacks upon stacks of olives.
Every step I take there are samples, and it's clear from the numerous miniature toothpick cups that if you ask to try almost anything, they'd be more than happy to let you.
Behind the wraparound counter (yes, the original one) employees work diligently--not a single soul is idle, but they're all smiling and laughing with each other. I feel like I'm on a movie set in a small town among the Swiss Alps. The mirth is contagious...or maybe its just the sugar high from all the cookie and chocolate samples.
I make it to the cashier where I pay for my slice of pizza ($3.56) and bite in. I've never encountered such an abundance of toppings on a pizza, and am in love with the crisp sesame crust. I only wish they had some seating.
I finish up and make another few rounds of the store -- each time finding more. The choices seem endless and the prices, judging by the more "everyday" items, are reasonable. This place puts Whole Foods to shame.
While nostalgia does have a big part to play in my excitement, I'm still convinced the Cheese Boutique is a food lover's wet dream.
They're open Monday to Friday from 9-7 p.m. and weekends from 8-6 p.m.