Cluny Bistro, a treasure nestled in the historic Distillery District in Toronto across from the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, is a magical escape to a warm and cozy Parisian marketplace without having to leave the city. From the moment you enter, the lively and inviting atmosphere is transporting and everything from the lighting and décor to the open concept approach of the bread station, fresh seafood station and kitchen dazzles the senses and leaves you transfixed. There’s a vibe at Cluny that is both upscale and casual at the same time so whether you’re dressed in finery for a night on the town or looking for a comforting French dinner before a performance at the Young Centre, Cluny Bistro is a wonderful choice.
The ambiance of the establishment is indeed welcoming. The lighting throughout is reminiscent of a vibrant marketplace allowing the fresh produce to take center stage. The bread station is out in the open so patrons can see that which is available, from crusty warm baguettes to focaccia and olive-studded loaves. Likewise, diners can even be seated in front of the fresh seafood stand for a unique seaside experience. Looking into the kitchen invokes the same feeling of a market stand.
Cluny is bistro style French dining – the offered dishes are fancy with enough of a hint of exoticism to be enticing but not intimidating, and the portions are hearty. Appetizers include small plates such as Warm Squash Salad (beluga lentils, lemon pickle, heirloom squash, cilantro, caramelized yogurt, spicy pumpkin seeds – $13.90) and Salt Cod Donuts with a smoked potato dipping sauce ($11.90). There is also a tantalizing array of soups, tartines, cheese dishes, and selections from the raw bar.
Their Large Plate selections fall into three categories – Land includes Two Charred Marinated Lamb T-Bones paired with a toasted couscous salad, smoked tomato, and a mint and pomegranate pesto ($29.50) and a Veal Meatball “Tomahawk” with tomato braised Parisian gnocchi ($24.90). Water includes a Procençal Seafood Stew with prawns, clams, and mussels ($23.90); and a Whole Grilled European Dorade with honey roasted sunchokes, mustard sunchoke pickle, king oyster mushrooms, and a dandelion chimichurri ($30.90). There are also Steak Frites options all of which come paired with lemon garlic aioli.
When my review partner Vance and I settled into our seats at Cluny and browsed the menu, we saw items that immediately caught our eyes but decided to first hear recommendations from our waiter – a smart choice as we would have missed a new experimental special not yet on the menu. It was a French meets Japanese fusion appetizer dish that combined a flat Japanese pancake with duck confit topped with bacon bits, a ginger sesame dressing, Japanese mayonnaise, and bonito flakes. It sounded so unique that we had to try it. We also ordered a selection from their raw oyster bar and the Chestnut and Mushroom soup ($12.90). Vance opted for their Grilled Bass “Almondine” ($27.90) as per our waiter’s suggestion, and I indulged in the 6 oz Filet Mignon with frites served medium rare ($36.90).
I’m always a fan of when an establishment can incorporate an element of whimsy and Cluny managed to do just that. Throughout our dining experience, we were treated to a few tableside presentations that started with my cocktail order of the Marie Antoinette Martini (Luksusowa vodka, Cointreau, cake syrup, cranberry, and cotton candy – $13). It began as a bouffant of pink cotton candy in a martini glass – much like Marie Antoinette’s famous wig – that dissolved slowly as the cocktail was poured over top resulting in a sweet and fruity bright red concoction. Very poetic.
First came the oysters. I have been passionate about raw oysters for many years, so I was very excited for this. They came with a bright and dynamic green hot sauce in an eye dropper, lemon wedges, and an onion mignonette sauce. We chose an array of from their succulent oyster selections and were happy we did so we could see the difference.
The duck confit pancake was presented with the mushroom and chestnut soup and was another dish that came with a table-side presentation as the soup was poured over something much unexpected – a block of maple fudge that melted into the soup when stirred. Never in all my years of making soup have I ever considered incorporating candy into the dish but this worked incredibly well. The soup itself is rich and robust with mushroom flavour. Bits of chewy chestnut gave a great nutty textural contrast and the fudge gave a smoky sweet edge that was unusual yet delectable. As for the Japanese pancake with duck confit, the flavour blend was truly interesting.
Then, it was onto the ‘mains’. Vance’s sea bass was light, flaky and fresh. I had been debating a fish selection but if fish is even slightly overcooked it becomes rubbery with a pronounced off-putting metallic taste that I can’t get over. The bass was nothing of the sort and was absolutely delightful. The vegetable pairing of arugula, heirloom carrots and shaved radishes was light and fresh in flavour that complimented the fish very well. My filet mignon was perfectly seared and crusted on the outside yet bright pink and juicy in the middle – just how I enjoy my steak. It was paired with light and crispy shoestring frites, and the lemon garlic aioli was a lovely touch. Both were perfectly seasoned at the table.
Afterwards, while we settled in post-dinner tea, we decided to indulge further and explore the dessert menu. We opted for something delightfully over the top – the Grilled Vanilla Crêpe Flambé ($23.90) that came with candied orange peel, dark chocolate pieces, crème Anglaise, cookies and cream ice cream, and was set ablaze tableside with Grand Marnier. This elaborate dessert had to come with an elaborate tableside presentation as the waiter sprinkled the components over the pile of crêpes, doused the dish with the Grand Marnier and set the dish on fire, then calming the flames with an additional dousing of crème Anglaise. This luxurious dessert was plenty enough for four but was so delectable that the two of us managed to devour it. Definitely, the most indulgent dish I’ve allowed myself to savour in years. Sinfully delicious and not one element overwhelmed the others, it was indeed sumptuous and yet balanced.
We loved our experience at Cluny. Vance, in particular, loved that the evening reminded him of summering in Paris with his parents as a child as it did for me as well. The staff was knowledgeable, friendly and welcoming thus adding to the whole experience. A quick look at the reviews on their website confirms that we certainly are not the only diners who thoroughly enjoyed ourselves there. Menu prices might be a tad lofty for diners who are on a budget, but considering the quality of ingredients, the uniqueness of the menu selection, the outstanding service, and the atmosphere, the experience is indeed well worth it. Cluny Bistro is a fine choice for dining. To learn more, check out the restaurant website HERE.
Review and Photos by Samantha Wu
Lead Photo courtesy of Cluny Bistro