Don Appetit! Cluny’s Modern French Charms
This isn’t your father’s French restaurant. It’s Cluny Bistro & Boulangerie, in Toronto’s Distillery District, and it deftly balances an upscale aesthetic with unfussy, often whimsical, charm.
It’s a beautiful space that recalls an airy Paris brasserie, but in a slightly more casual vein, perfect for the tourist-magnet Distillery zone.
The bright, high-ceilinged room is outfitted in elaborately patterned floor tile, bentwood chairs, attractive globe lights, a snazzy raw bar, marble-topped bread station and curio cabinets displaying antiques. Pop and dance music plays discreetly over the PA system. Tucked away near the front entrance is the “boulangerie” part of the equation: an intimate shop selling bread and pastries.
Helmed by executive chef Paul Benallick (ex-Canoe, Auberge du Pommier, Jump), the kitchen is more assured than ever, backing up creative ideas with rock-solid technique. As for that sense of unfussy charm, the dinner menu, in addition to upscale dishes, offers casual French classics such as a three-egg omelet and tartines (open-faced sandwiches) and a clever take on the French classic pot au feu — pot au ‘pho,’ built on braised lamb shank, cabbage and bonito broth.
Appetizers shine. Perfectly al dente cauliflower is tossed with hazelnuts and fresh mint, a sweet/sour pomegranate-seed vinaigrette bringing everything together. A deliciously clever (and vegan!) take on French Canadian habitant soup substitutes yellow lentils for peas and smoked tempe for ham.
Melted blue cheese animates a superbly moist bread pudding, with candied walnuts and burnt-honey sabayon providing sweet/nutty counterpart. A brilliant dish.
Filet mignon is tender and carries a good char, while saffron-perfumed broth anchors a generous tomato-inflected Provencal stew loaded with prawns, clams and mussels. Halibut cheeks, grilled to smokiness, with just the right amount of chew, ride a hillock of curried steel-cut grits and sweet roasted squash.
Finishing off the evening is vanilla pudding served in an enormous glass goblet and garnished with peach-tea pudding and apricot compote. But best-in-show goes to the soufflé, creamy, feather-light and bursting with passionfruit flavour (and its accompanying pistachio financier, served warm, is good enough to be a stand-alone dessert). Soufflé and financier are as classically French as it gets — and there’s simply no improving on that.
Cluny’s event room seats 80 people and is divisible into two rooms seating 20 and 40.
— Don Douloff has been a restaurant critic for over 25 years and, during that time, has critiqued almost 1,000 eateries. In 1988, he studied the fundamentals of French cuisine at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France. During his time in France, he furthered his gastronomic education by visiting the country’s bistros, brasseries and Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine. He relishes exploring the edible universe in his native Toronto and on his travels throughout Canada and abroad.