Cumbrae's new Queen St. location opened a couple of weeks ago on a stretch of Queen St. already known for great food - albeit for crowd-pleasing restaurants instead of butcher shops. The former Izmi Sushi has been converted, thanks to extensive renovations, into marble-covered, high-ceilinged, two-floor temple to butchery, one that suits the venerable Toronto butcher - which has locations on Church and Bayview and supplies some of the city's most notable restaurants - perfectly.
Though it's decidedly a butcher shop, with the dine-in experience consisting only of a couple of grab-and-go sandwich options and some bar stools, there are also counters rendered in white marble or upholstered in leather, butcher-block floors, and a tooled-wood mural that, if you look closely, resembles the marbling in a side of beef.
It's an opulent interior worthy of any Queen West restaurant - fitting, since owner Stephen Alexander was excited by the prospect of finally being on the ground floor of the thriving west-side food scene. "The west end, I find - the only word for it is 'exploded'," says Alexander, who's been pondering a Queen St. location for nearly 10 years. "I just fell in love with it. It's got a fantastic vibe, a soul, a feel."
Another draw: The "fantastic food neighbours - I love being next door to Sud Forno ," he says. (The bakery next door spent a year developing the perfect "Cumbrae's bun" for their sandwiches - the recipe was designed as a "canvas to showcase the meat.")
The blackboard of Cumbrae's-supplied restaurants high above the meat counter, meanwhile, lists local names - Terroni , the Drake , County General - alongside some marquee spots like Canoe , Carbon Bar , and Nota Bene .
It's worth noting that the new location just serves retail customers, not the trade. "Mind you, I felt like it's been industry week here the first week - we've been seeing chefs all day. Our restaurant clientele come here, and they can talk, taste, test, buy - it's good for ideas, things like that."
Renovating the new spot took 18 months - Alexander says he looked it at it as a "very long-term" move. "I thought, if we're going to do it, we may as well go all in... People were saying, 'Oh my god, why did it take it so long?' I think once they come in, they'll realize why."
The centrepiece of the new space is - of course - the central butcher case, which runs along the right side of the shop, packed with all manner of impossibly-photogenic cuts of beef, poultry and pork from the network of Ontario-based farms that supply the shop.
Alexander points out a number of in-house specialties, including their steaks, several varieties of sausage (up to nine at once) and house-smoked Moulard duck.
Greeting customers when they walk in is a "ham bar" stocked with dangling hunks of prosciutto and iberico, ready for the slicing. Opposite the butcher case is a fridge well-stocked with various shrink-wrapped Cumbrae's delights: Bacon and ham, smoked duck breasts, house-blended butters, and grab-and-go foods like quiches and soups, all made upstairs in their prepared-foods kitchen.
At the back of the bar is a to-go food bar for lunch items like sandwiches and soups, a first for Cumbrae's.
Whole chickens spin on a rotisserie, available for takeaway ($7.99 half/$14.99 whole), while sandwiches are available to eat in at the front of the shop or for takeout.
The three main options ($9.99) are wine-braised beef short rib, roasted chicken and slow-roasted pork shoulder, all of them as savoury, meaty and piled-high as you'd expect. ("The sky's the limit" for daily sandwich specials - look for grass-fed sirloin or lamb.)
Alexander's "masterpiece" is the fishbowl-like aging room, a massive walk-in fridge just off the back kitchen, where whole sides of beef, steaks and ducks are aged to perfection. Upstairs, there's a full-service kitchen where the shop fixes up prepared food items and smokes all their own meats.
Even with all these new bells and whistles, Alexander says, he wants to ensure the new shop puts their craft first. "I love all of these additions, but at the true heart, we're a hardcore butcher shop, full nose to tail. That's what we are. I like to think of these as nice additions to what we do, but I still want the shop to be seen as a hardcore butchery."
Despite their gourmet pedigree, that includes keeping an eye on cost: "I built this beautiful stage for the product, but I also wanted to be really conscious of pricing. We've really sharpened our pencil at all of our stores, and are really trying to not be intimidating or too expensive. I want everyone to be able to shop here."
Now that the shop is finally open, the plan is to feel out what Queen West-ers and their "adventurous palates" want - whether that's wider sandwich options, a vast library of dry-aged steaks, or by-the-bound brisket. "To keep on challenging ourselves, and to keep evolving, you've got to keep doing things like this," he says. "I wanted it to be an evolution of everything we've learned."
Photos by Jesse Milns.