Sweet Esc is a dessert cafe located at Warden and Steeles, just a little bit north of the Toronto-Markham divide. When you walk in, you’re immediately greeted by a satisfying sense of design: the ceiling is decked out with geometric hangings, and the clean, minimalist table settings are accented with art magazines and flower jars.
The crowning item on the menu is the “Create Your Plate” option, which allows you to build your own dessert concoction served on a hot plate, with a waffle base topped with your choice of ice cream, toppings, and sauces. The menu also has a variety of fruity tarts, flavourful teas, and what always brings me here: handmade ice cream.
I discovered Sweet Esc during the summer, when I was browsing through Yelp for new ice cream shops to visit. Owner Carrie Lu tells me that this is consistent with how many of their customers find their way here. “When we first opened, more people were coming from downtown. Now I ask people how they find us and they come from Yelp, or they just see it and they walk in. It’s gotten more local.”
I’m going to bold this because it’s very important: Sweet Esc has the best oolong ice cream I’ve ever had. And trust me — as far as Toronto goes, I’ve tried them all. The handmade flavour perfectly captures the delicate mingling of sweetness, floweriness, and complex bitterness that I love about a good oolong tea, and turns it into ice cream. And to make things just that much cuter, the scoops are served in teacups.
I’m also partial to the vanilla cardamom ice cream, which Carrie names as a recommendation — the cardamom is a unique and unexpected twist that adds a chai-like edge to the otherwise predictable vanilla flavour.
While turning thoughtfully through the menu, she also picks out the Sweet Cheese dish as a personal favourite, which I make a mental note of — I’m recovering from a throat infection, and don’t want to overdo it with the sugar and dairy. I order a warm cup of chocolate truffle tea, which is every bit as decadent as you would imagine.
The Markham location certainly allows the cafe an elevated sense of space and airiness. I bring up how rare it is to find a cafe with this aesthetic in the Scarborough/Markham area. I would have loved a place like this to hang out with friends when I was a teenager in Scarborough — we had nothing like this at the time.
Even now, Sweet Esc is unique to the area. Thinking back to her own studying days, Carrie notes that the cafe provides local students with a “cute, aesthetically pleasing-ish area to study,” perhaps over a plate of waffles or a cup of tea.
Funny enough, as a student, Carrie didn’t plan to run a cafe. Her background is in Linguistics, borne of her love for language, with dabblings into the arts — but she was increasingly drawn to the culinary arts.
“I liked to experiment with flavours,” she says, “I would get these opportunities to do food for events.” She thought that having her own little place one day might be cool, but it wasn’t what she was pursuing. After university, however, she was approached by friends who were looking into a food-related investment, and Sweet Esc was born. “Suddenly I was venturing into the food field. It was like, ‘Oh dang!”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people end up pursuing what they’re truly passionate about — all the twists and turns along the way. It’s not a mistake to go another way, or to pursue multiple interests. But when you’re really meant to be doing something, you’ll find your way to it regardless.
This was the case for Carrie and her friends.
“I’m grateful for this project,” says Carrie. “It brought all of our friends together.” The pop-up shop of magazines and art in the back of the cafe showcases the work of Project 40 Collective, whose founder, Jasmine Gui, was Carrie’s university roommate. The menu development was done by a friend of Carrie’s for whom it was a first-time venture, who has gone on to pursue it professionally. Similarly, one of the friends who designed the restaurant interior had taken it on for the first time, and has continued on from there. And Carrie herself had the new opportunity to play around with different food ideas, in a delicious process of trial and error.
In a way, the cafe was a good luck charm for everyone involved. Carrie agrees. “It was a lot of firsts,” she says. “It really opened our eyes.”
Sweet Esc is truly a labour of love. Every aspect of the cafe comes from creative collaboration, and delicious experimentation. This is its second year of operation, and Carrie hopes to continuously elevate and experiment with different ideas.
So, what does the future hold for Sweet Esc? “We might bring back the Maple ice cream for fall,” Carrie says thoughtfully. She also speaks fondly of her love for brunch — perhaps a new menu or future project to follow up the success of the cafe.