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Cava chef's cheeky shop celebrates swanky sweets

Later this week in a bland, outdoor mall in midtown Toronto, the world's favourite aphrodisiac is getting a new lease on life.

Cava chef and co-owner Chris McDonald has taken a quaint candy store in Delisle Court, next to his much-praised restaurant, and turned it into a chocolate shop. Infused with his unbridled passion for all things Latin, it looks like a stand-up tapas bar crossed with an ice-cream parlour. "I want to be cheeky," he says with a Cheshire grin.

Xococava (pronounced shoco-cava) will carry signature lines of chocolate bars and truffles, a dozen flavours of ice cream, small cakes and other assorted pastries, all made in-house. McDonald, who has won acclaim particularly for his charcuterie, which he has crafted over years of study and experimentation, is breathless about his new work.

"We'll have five collections of chocolates: Wild, Exotic, Classic, Spanish and Savoury." The imaginative flavours range from chorizo to spruce jelly, mint to masala. "I love the chemistry of food, of cooking," he says.

McDonald's move is part of a larger momentum in the city: chefs branding their names and expanding into retail. Marc Thuet did it with his Liberty Village shop/cafe Atelier; Marc McEwan is doing it with a gourmet grocery store and Jamie Kennedy has just opened Cafe Gilead, complete with takeout dishes.

So why focus on candy? For one, says McDonald, it seemed a natural fit when the 600-square-foot space that Mother's Sweets occupied for 25 years came up for lease. "It was partly wanting to control who my neighbours would be. I didn't want a pantyhose shop next door."

Most important, the chef was inspired to tap into the Spanish and Mexican cultures of chocolate and Italy's love affair with gelato. He returned to Spain this winter for more research. "I found the newer pastry shops and candy stores there were all kind of whimsical, and so I'm trying to come up with something like that."

From salami to sweets, McDonald does nothing by half-measure. The ice-cream dispenser cost him one of his late mother's two grand pianos, a trade he gladly made with Gelato Fresco owner Hart Melvin. (Melvin has been coaching the chef in the finer elements of ice-cream making.)

"This is what will make us different from everyone else," explains McDonald. "There will be no temperature fluctuation and the ice cream will keep that soft, perfect texture it has when it's just made."

With only 12 tubs, the flavours are basic, such as chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, pistachio and caramel. But individual containers for take-away will allow for more creativity. "Say if I want to do prunes and Pedro Ximenez," he says, referring to a type of sherry. "You can take that home."

Former JS Bonbons chocolatier and pastry chef Laura White is collaborating with McDonald on all aspects of Xococava, with most of her attention dedicated to the chocolates.

The sources will be top-grade, she reports, including the Tuscan, family-run Amadei and Callebaut.

Even the brand of espresso has been carefully selected. McDonald is an award-winning barrista, which means he knows how to pull a perfect espresso.

A special blend has been ordered from Toronto's Classic Coffee. Cava business and chef partner Doug Penfold and other staff members were recently trained at Classic's headquarters.

"Five of us on staff will know how to make coffee," says McDonald.

The design of the shop is just as high-concept, from the Carrara marble countertops to the chic graphics.

On the day I visited Xococava, McDonald had just put the finishing touches on a permanent installation he created in his spare time. It's a wall of broken china, made from dishes he had left over from his pre-Cava restaurant, Avalon, which closed in 2005. In spite of rave reviews, not enough clients came to eat in the fine dining room.

Bits of Rosenthal, Dudson and other expensive brands are artfully arranged into a sculptural mural. "It's supposed to be a take on that porcelain look of an old-fashioned ice cream parlour - but with a Catalonian, Gaudi twist."

Source: Toronto Star

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