Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Cheese Boutique aka The Mini Bar

Like last Saturday, Darcy and I found ourselves today with no food and we were too lazy to go to Sobeys or even up to Bloor Street. Actually, Darcy was feeling a bit under the weather so I nutted up, braved the cold, and walked to the Cheese Boutique, which is pretty close (5-minute walk).

The Cheese Boutique is a pretty famous gourmet shop that has been around forever. It began when current owner Fatos Pristine's father bought a convenience store on Bloor Street in 1968 after immigrating to Canada. Recently, Toronto Life did a very lengthy piece on the Cheese Boutique and the Pristine family, which you can read here. Over the years, the convenience store gradually metamorphosed into a gourmet food shop and became very popular. In 2000, the same year that Darcy and I moved to Toronto, the shop relocated to my neighbourhood. Fate? I think so. We stumbled upon it when we were walking around taking in our new surroundings. The big cartoon mouse logo on the sign really didn't prepare us for what was inside.

The Cheese Boutique is a beautiful store. The entrance area overflows, especially in the summer, with both potted and fresh flowers for sale. When I need to bring flowers to a party or an event, I usually buy them here because they are consistently fresh and gift-ready. In the summer, they sell the prettiest Ontario roses and they have these great cone-shaped clear plastic bags for carrying bouquets. With these bags, you can easily transport a heavy bouquet without having to cradle it like a baby and use your butt to open doors.

Inside, every wall is lined with shelves from floor to ceiling that are packed with every food-related item you can think of. Exotic extracts, oils, condiments, sauces, biscuits, cookies, chocolates, crackers, jams, jellies, tea, coffee, pasta, rice, spices, hot sauces, chutneys, goes on forever. They have a glass-fronted case filled with aged balsamic vinegar that looks very old and expensive (I can't tell how old they are. That one in the middle can't be 100 years old, can it?). The centre of the store houses the enormous selection of cheeses, deli meats, fresh meats, and olives. They are happy to let you taste anything you like before deciding on whether or not to buy (this is probably why they have a million people working behind the counter).

Also on the main floor is a walk-in cheese vault where they actually age cheese. The vault is open to shoppers, so you can go in, cool off (unnecessary today), and inhale the salty, funky smell of parmesan. This also where they keep the truffles and truffle-related products (under lock and key).

Further toward the back is the dessert case filled with lovely cakes and pastries, the prepared food counter (serving dips, samosas, spring rolls, stuffed veggies, etc.), and an amazing produce section. The produce section is relatively small, but full of impeccably fresh items, including very exotic things that you don't usually see at other places (tomatillos, purple potatoes, fresh figs, kumquats).

Lastly, upstairs is a sort of wraparound balcony that is stocked with pretty much every tea and coffee in the world. In between the stacks is a grand throne-like chair with a hanging cowbell beside it. If you sit in the chaird and ring the bell, someone from the deli counter pulls on a rope that lowers a basket of candy in front of you. Don't worry, I didn't ring it; I watched some kids do it once.

Tonight Darcy wanted pizza, so I bought some bocconcini, fresh basil, tomatoes, red peppers, white mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, King mushrooms, mild pepperoni, spicy pepperoni, and prepared tomato basil sauce. Since our cupboard is completely bare, I also bought cucumber, lettuce, ham, turkey, smoked gouda, sliced provolone, ground beef, chicken breasts, bread, baba gannouj, and veggie samosas. I was in the mood to take home a really smelly, runny, advanced cheese, but the girl who was serving me was brand new and she didn't really know anything at all so I thought I'd leave that for another day. She actually really put me at ease. I was feeling a little intimidated in the presence of all that cheese and Fatos who was walking around the shop. I've read so much about him that seeing him feels like a celebrity sighting and I have this irrational fear that he won't like me. My girl also called me "Miss" several times, which is so nice to hear after being "Ma'am-ed" all over the place while I was in India.

So, all of that fit in 3 bags and came to about $100. Darcy and I were looking at the prices of some of the stuff ($4 for the cucumber, $2.69 for each samosa, $7 for the small container of baba gannouj, $10 for the 250mL of tomato sauce) and it's no wonder that it was so expensive. It's sort of like shopping from a mini bar. I knew while I was there that I was spending too much, but I let myself go ahead anyways. I spent all morning and afternoon working (AudienceView has a new release coming out soon), so I think I felt like I deserved it.

The pizza came out really well. I made one with sliced tomatoes, bocconcini, and fresh basil, one with spicy pepperoni, bocconcini, red pepper, and white mushrooms, and one with sauteed mushrooms (King, shiitake, and white), provolone, and fresh basil. The pizza dough recipe called for all white flour, but I ran out so I used a combination of white, whole wheat, and rye. It was okay. Healthy-tasting. So, we have lots of leftovers for the Superbowl tomorrow.

The Toronto Life article says that Fatos is thinking of retiring soon. He has four sons though who I have seen working at the shop and, according to the article, are very interested in inheriting the business. Hopefully, we all can keep enjoying the Cheese Boutique for a long time. If you haven't been yet, go. Be prepared to spend.

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