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Oct 14, 2008 08:25 PM

Okay - who is the best butcher in toronto?

Hi - I have a few (okay 16) serious foodie friends - and I cook for them a lot. One of them decided to start a dinner club - and I'm doing the kick off meal. I'm planning 5 courses - several of which have meat - mostly beef. I am so tired of being disappointed by the cuts of meat I get. I bought a candle roast (pork) at whitehouse that I should have paid closer attention to. It didn't have enough fat on it for dry roasting - which I ignored - and it was DRYYYY. Sadly, roast the week before from no frills out performed by about 100%.

I need some beautiful cuts of meat - some beef, some bison. Who is the best butcher in toronto? I know the grading sysetm - know the US vs Canadian - and to buy Canadian prime and avoid all US cuts (significantly inferior grading system) - but I really don't always find that white house lawrence mkt. ..and sometimes even cumbrae's delivers the best. It seems the focus is sometimes on lower fat than it is on proper cut to be cooked/roasted/braised/seared - whatever.

I am really looking forward to reading responses - the help is so much appreciated.

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    1. The shops you mention are fine, but pay close attention to what they offer, and tell them what you need. The grading system is only a guideline, or a prediction by the meat inspector of how tender the meat will be; moreover, it is done without seeing the interior of the carcass. Check the inner marbling and outer fat layers in the beef and pork you are looking at. Generally, more is better, but the marbling strips should be at least 2mm thick, or slightly more. If they are hairline they won't be much good. Ask for stocky, fat breeds, such as Angus, or Berkshire. There are several other types of pig raised for lard rather than lean loins. I see that Cumbrae's is using some Charolais beef now, and this breed is large and lean, without the marbling of the short stocky Aberdeen Angus cows.

      4 Replies
      1. re: jayt90

        jayt - I'm aghast, your beautiful white dog has been replaced by a scary red monster!

        1. re: JamieK

          I'm looking for a puppy to replace the late, lamented hound!

          1. re: jayt90

            ah, well then, my sympathies to you, and I'm going to miss that doggy grin.

            Just to keep things on a chowish thread, I like Royal Beef for my steaks and other cuts of beef in the east end, although I'm no expert.

        2. What neighbouhood did you want to shop in letaylor96?

          1. There really isn't an all-around "best" butcher, though there are some excellent choices. I can't think of any meat purveyor that has satisfied me 100% of the time.

            I've found that the Cumbrae's on Bayview is best able to meet special requests and to source/cut meat to your exact specifications. You can specify aging and marbling for many cuts and sometimes even the breed of cow or pig.

            They've been honest with me when I just walked in and nothing in stock met my specifications. They will also check on stock at their downtown store, though Church St is much smaller and not nearly as well provisioned. If you order in advance, many things are possible.

            Grade isn't that emphatic an issue - if the cut you want has the marbling and conformation you want, who cares what it says on the stamp? Most of what the sell is AAA; some is Prime. The counter staff isn't necessarily knowledgeable, but they get help rather than trying to bluff. The master butcher (tall skinny guy with an earring) is great. Others aren't in the same league, but still better than elsewhere.

            With the exception of the long dry aged premium cuts, Cumbrae's is less expensive than you might imagine. When they have Wagyu (not often), they are much cheaper than others. Very little of their stock is actually on display. Ask for what you want.

            Oliffe is also outstanding. However, they have much less selection than Cumbrae's and are much less flexible (especially if you aren't known). They are often much more expensive, and I object to their cute Rosedale affectation of refusing to display prices. I could be wrong, but their meat appears to be wet aged (vs the dry aging at Cumbrae's). They seem to have mainly AAA, with some Prime and some USDA Prime.

            The main Pusateri's store has a good selection of high quality stuff. Prices are high and service, while perfectly fine, is not equivalent to the customized service that is normal at Cumbrae's and possible at Oliffe. They carry several high US and Canadian grades, clearly marked. It all seems wet aged.

            Summerhill Market has high quality stock, but less variety. Prices are high relative to other places selling comparable quality.

            The Cheese Boutique sells dry aged meat of spectacular quality, but I consider their prices a joke. They are ridiculously expensive.

            I have regularly picked up beautiful Certified Angus rib cuts at Loblaw's. This is a brand name, is US in origin, and is not government graded. It seems to be at the high end of the "Choice" grade in quality and is sometimes closer to Prime. If you know what to look for, you can snag a beautiful slab of extremely high quality rib, sometimes for under $10/lb on sale. You can give it a couple of weeks of dry aging in your fridge for a better result on the plate. I've never had one spoil, though your fridge may vary.

            Don't be so quick to demean the US grading system. I used to tell people that the Canadian health inspection system was better, but I'm beginning to doubt that given recent events. The grading systems are neither better nor worse - just different. However, you don't want USDA Select meat!

            The Healthy Butcher is a puzzlement. I can't fault the ideals, the ingredient quality, or their willingness to please. They have gone so far as to offer me lambskin or collagen sausage casings (rather than the standard hog casings) by advance order. They can cut meat in interesting and unusual ways. Knowing the provenance of all they sell is a great idea, though Cumbrae's claims to know this also. The problem is fat. I tried Healthy Butcher eagerly and I kept trying. I wanted to love them. I couldn't. The steaks are not marbled, and suffer. The sausages are dry. The prices are high. I finally decided they weren't right for me. I'd rather eat fat and eat less.

            Meat on the Beach sometimes has beautiful meats on display, though the eating quality may or may not be there. Service can be okay or appalling, depending on who is working when you are there. While there is great variety on display, you won't always find a butcher who can handle special requests.

            Royal Beef sometimes has great beef. Everything else is banal. You must deal only with owner Gord at the back counter. It isn't as good as it was under original owner Paul (who would special order, age, and cut whatever you wanted) and the best stuff is hardly ever on display. The other butchery staff is not helpful.

            For Jewish style cuts, I'd recommend Nortown. For Asian, the Galleria is very good (though my experience and expertise in this realm are limited). T&T, though incredibly cheap, has not impressed me. Beef cuts usually looked better than they tasted.

            The Butcher Shop in Etobicoke has an incredible depth and breadth of stock listed on their website. However, I don't know whether they sell retail or, if they do, whether the retail options are much more limited. No personal experience as to quality, though I do know restaurants that buy there.

            I'm sure others can mention some less well known places that would meet your test.

            12 Replies
            1. re: embee

              The Butcher Shoppe does sell retail but you don't personally get to select what you want. You have to let the guy in the back of the shop know what you're looking for, he'll disappear for a few minutes and then return. You can buy it or not, no selecting for yourself. They do usually have some cryopackaged steaks at the back, some sausages, bacon, ham hocks that you can browse through but they are set up as a distribution point, no butcher's counter....

              Saying that, I had some amazing ribeye steaks from there this past summer, and I've ordered six briskets from them and they've all been excellent so far. They are cash only, so go prepared.

              1. re: embee

                wow - thank you so much for the time you spent replying - super appreciated. I'll have to read it again - but thank you for taking time out of life to give me such detail - heartfelt appreciated.

                1. re: embee

                  Wow, this is a great post on butchers embee! I'm sorry I missed it the first time it came around. I agree with you on the Healthy Butcher-I never buy my steaks there due to the serious lack of marbling.

                  1. re: embee

                    a lot of the beef at healthy butcher is grass fed, and finished off on corn prior to slaughter. This will explain the difference in marbling compared to traditional corn fed beef.

                    It is a personal choice, but that's the reason why it's different.

                    1. re: aser

                      Most beef from Ontario and Alberta is grass fed all summer, then hay and grain in winter, finishing on corn in Ontario or barley in the west. Our farmers do not usually get involved in big feedlot operations, but some producers aim for tender beef at high prices, for Cumbrae's, while others are organic, for Healthy Butcher, at equally high prices. Most producers are in the middle range: grass, hay, and grain finish.

                      Traditional corn-fed beef is practiced more in the U.S. Mid-west, with huge feedlots, but not a lot comes into Ontario. Sometimes you will see U.S. Select in a sale bin, or U.S. Prime in steak houses; while they are miles apart in quality, corn is the usual feed.

                      1. re: jayt90

                        I can't speak for Dave (the head butcher @ healthy butcher), but he isn't trying to offer what some of you are looking for (ie. high corn marbling). For that, go to Cumbrae's. If you're more concerned w/ the provenance of your meat, total transparency in the supply chain, then HB has all other butchers beat in this city. if someone's offering grassfed beef year round, you can be sure it isn't local when there's a big pile of snow on your driveway.

                        Also, they bring in half steers, breaking down all parts. They don't just order 20 tenderloins from St. Helen's. There are only so many tenderloins per steer. Their philosophy is trying to utilize the entire animal, trying to educate the customer to not only eat the prime cuts.

                        It is a different market, a noble one. Again, it's a personal choice. North Americans are pretty used to the taste of marbling of corn versus grass. It's just not possible to get the traditional corn marbling that people expect with grassfed.

                        1. re: aser

                          Actually, we do have grass in the winter: hay.

                    2. re: embee

                      Gord actually does not own the store and was actually a friend of Paul who became teh butcher after Paul passed. The beef is still special order , and aged and cut to you specifications should you ask ....

                      1. re: Pepsi

                        I thought Gord had bought the business. Is Carm the actual owner?

                        1. re: embee

                          My understanding is that after Paul passed away, the business was divided, in that Carm took over the front deli, and Gord bought the back end (i.e. the butchery).

                          1. re: millygirl

                            That was my understanding also.

                      2. re: embee

               seems like embee lives in my

                        Only change to your menu is that if you go to Pusateri's and you seek out Luciano - you will not only receive the service you get at Cumbrae's, you will also have a chance to see what they have hiding in the back (like beautiful veal brisket, yes, I said it, veal brisket!) - really interesting or gamey stuff you will need to order in advance but Luciano will tell you straight if he can or cannot get it. Joe (i'm pretty sure that's his name) is the meat manager and is seemingly knowledgeable and these gentlemen haven't led me astray yet.

                        Matt at Cumbrae's, although fairly new to the trade, will work hard for you and is a good kid. As well, perhaps the master butcher's side kick, the shorter, meatier fella is very helpful and will sort out your summer wagyu problems.... if you are polite :)

                        Martin at Whitehouse on Bayview is a pretty knowledgeable as well, and will source stuff for you too, please and thank you.

                        I eat a lot of meat, sadly and wonderfully, and you pretty much hit it bang on the money in terms of butchers or decent meat in the city. I can't find a fault with your review.

                        Excellent, excellent post embee! Thanks

                      3. If this is supper dinner club, I'm going to assume that you won't be simply walking into a store on the day of the event and hoping to find everything to your standards. I simply cannot give higher marks to Cumbrae's, their product (most of which is raised on their own farms which affords 100% control of feed and conditions) is beyond compare. If you are in the Church St area, pop in and ask to speak with Stephen, the owner. He's a great guy and is there several times a week. He would be more than willing to discuss what you are looking for, and probably give you a guided tour of his walk-in. If Stephen is not there, you can speak with either Hank or Jerry, both of them know their product inside and out.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: finelydiced

                          I agree with embee on Cumbrae.
                          I ask for well aged steaks with lots of even marbling .
                          They go to the back, and invariably come back with the perfect steaks.
                          Having said that , for a lot of people, I have been getting some perfect rib-eye roasts that I cut into steaks from Costco.
                          Much cheaper, but you need to know what to look for.
                          Purple, not pink.
                          Marbled evenly throughput.

                          1. re: erly

                            I agree about Costco. If their supplier can't send enough AAA Alberta beef , the default is prime. The trays of steaks are thick cut and well marbled. Wet aged, so a few days hanging in the fridge will make them even better.

                            In a previous discussion about the Butcher Shoppe it was noted that they have a retail counter, through an unmarked door at the north end of the building . You may have to line up behind restaurateurs, and wait for service, but the quality is said to be good. Certainly worth a shot if you can drive to industrial Etobicoke.

                          2. re: finelydiced

                            You are right - I've been stressing for weeks already :). I think I finally decided on a course though...actually 2 now. Thank you for the names :) and the advice.