Stay on the 501 streetcar long enough for it to wind its way west to the Lake Shore and you’ll find Mimico’s own Willy Wonka.
On a busy summer Sunday, kids press sweaty faces and sticky hands against glass display cases, trying to choose between flavours, while adults face the same difficult decisions, showing only slightly more restraint. Will it be a roasted-marshmallow chocolate skull? A wasabi Buddha truffle? Maybe a scoop of Gravel Road? The counter staff at Sweet Olenka’s is patient—they’re used to this sort of thing.
When Olenka and her partner, Ray, opened the shop eight years ago, it was strictly a chocolateria. Growing up in Ukraine, Olenka’s grandfather made chocolate, and memories of being in the kitchen with him may have influenced her career choice. Olenka’s mother likes to refer to her daughter, who came to Toronto in 1995, as “a third-generation chocolatier.”
But soon after opening the shop, Ray and Olenka realized that people eat less chocolate during the summer, so they decided to add ice cream to their roster. Neither had any experience with the frozen treat, and their first attempts at making it were, according to Ray, “disastrous.” Little by little, they taught themselves the technique, playing with the scratch-made base until they perfected a basic mix. For something to be labelled ice cream, it needs to contain at least 10 per cent milk fat. Sweet Olenka’s ups theirs to as much as 18 per cent, with no added oils or corn syrup and very little air, making it richer and smoother than most.
After they had the base down pat, “things got easier, and we started experimenting with flavours,” Ray says. And experiment they did. Goat cheese with fig, Ontario green plum, and the Kahlua-laced “Jersey brown cow” all appear on the menu. “Her Majesty’s brown bread,” a classic British favourite, is made with caramelized breadcrumbs and tastes better than it sounds (just ask HRH). The customer-inspired “Mr. B’s” is a mess of coffee, toffee, dark chocolate, chili, and orange—but it works. Whatever fruit is in season becomes part of a creation; the two buy produce several times a week at the Ontario Food Terminal, and for more exotic flavours, they swing by Chinatown whenever they have the chance.
Unique to Sweet Olenka’s (and worth the trip to Mimico alone), the gourmet ice-cream bars fuse two of the shop’s specialties. The process, which occurs daily, is seriously labour-intensive. Ice cream is first scooped into moulds, at which point there’s a rush to get sticks in before the ice cream starts to melt. “We yell at each other, ‘Faster! Faster!’” Olenka says.
“It isn’t a lot of fun.” Once the sticks are in, the bars are put into a blast freezer until they’re rock hard, then quickly dipped in chocolate and refrozen. That chocolate coating is their trade secret, and for good reason—a bite into one of the bars doesn’t trigger seismic cracking. The satiny shell bends instead of breaking, so the interior isn’t indecently exposed, and every mouthful yields a satisfying ratio of ice cream to chocolate.
In terms of flavours, Ray says there is a “nice synergy” between confections: What’s happening in the chocolate kitchen will inspire what’s done with ice cream, and vice-versa. While he favours smooth blends like classic vanilla and chocolate, Olenka is all about “crazy stuff with chunks and crunch,” and she says it’s “always a battle” to see whose creations are more popular. Note: Her recent cinnamon-brittle bar was a clear winner.
Given that they’re at the shop seven days a week and often take their work home with them, it’s surprising that neither partner is sick of sweets—or the business. “It’s a creative science that we both enjoy,” says Ray. When asked to choose between chocolate and ice cream, a pained expression crosses Olenka’s face, like a mother being forced to pick a favourite child. She does have a soft spot for the blueberry-riddled chocolates and her ice-cream sandwiches (especially the salted caramel), and anyway, why choose? As she says, “Ice cream isn’t all that bad for you. The secret is to eat just a little bit…every day.”
2790 Lake Shore Blvd. W., 416-521-7444.