French Immersion: Cluny is a belle époque fantasia of marble, mirrors and giant portions
Cluny, an ambitious new bistro in the Distillery District, elevates the neighbourhood’s ho-hum restaurant scene
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Fifteen years ago, arts degree in hand and no prospects in sight, I took a job as a background extra in the first X-Men movie. It sounded exciting, especially the $250 a day, which was a suspiciously high compensation for someone with no acting experience. I arrived at a set in the defunct Gooderham and Worts distillery on Parliament, and followed my fellow extras into a warehouse where we were given scratchy woolen prison outfits and had our heads shaved. It turned out we were playing inmates in a concentration camp for a flashback scene with the villain Magneto. This left me uneasy, and I considered grabbing my stuff and fleeing—until I remembered the money. I spent the next three days in ankle-deep mud, drenched by rain machines, wondering what the whiskey barons would have made of all of it. The movie’s final cut includes a split-second shot of what I believe to be my forearm.
The cobblestone street that stood in for Auschwitz is now lined with a row of frantically busy restaurants operated by Cityscape Holdings, the development company that took over the complex in 2001 and remade it as the Distillery Historic District, a twee pedestrian zone of vintage gaslights, chocolatiers and a dog festival. Aside from Perigee, the excellent tasting-menu restaurant that often sat empty and closed in 2009, dining in the Distillery has remained a dull mix of beer halls and ho-hum tourist traps like the seafood gastropub Pure Spirits, where the wait staff struggle to handle the nightly crowds, and El Catrin, a middling Mexican restaurant with an awesome 160-seat patio for which there’s often an hour-long wait.
The options greatly improved this summer, when a bistro and café named Cluny opened directly across from the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Cluny is part of a French mini-renaissance in Toronto, alongside the new, expanded Ici Bistro in Yorkville’s Windsor Arms, and Colette, an extravagant bakery and restaurant that replaced the Italian spot Scarpetta in the Thompson Hotel. They’re French without being too French—the food is authentically Gallic but the service is friendlier. A bistro is a sure thing in a place like the Distillery, which has effectively become the city’s romantic date destination.
On the way into Cluny you pass by the café, where bartenders pour trendy absinthe cocktails, and the restaurant’s streetside boulangerie counter, where staff fold crêpes and sell a daily selection of pastries—neon macarons and golden croissants. The head baker, Lucas Craig, previously worked at the fancy uptown pâtisserie Rahier and makes an exceptionally good, tangy olive sourdough.
The main dining room seems to go on forever, a belle époque fantasia of ornate mirrors, curio cabinets, towering floral arrangements, a marble oyster bar and hand-painted signage in period script. It’s France by the numbers, especially the uniforms on the waitresses, skinny Jeanne Moreaus in slim black skirts and nautical-stripe tops (“They forgot their berets,” my dinner guest said snidely).
Cluny’s chef is a fine-dining veteran named Paul Benallick. He got his start 20 years ago at Pronto, climbed the ranks at blue chip O&B restaurants like Canoe and Auberge du Pommier, worked at the well-respected chef’s school at George Brown, and now is something of a hired gun, most recently running the kitchens at Stock (the Trump Hotel’s ridiculously ostentatious restaurant) and Jump. I don’t envy his challenge at Cluny—every night he has to fill 250 seats, 450 when the patio is open. His solution is a menu that’s part mass appeal, part high roller, and he mostly succeeds at both. You can add seared foie gras as a side to any dish or order whole Australian truffles, which come with a grater for the table. (The black beauties cost $100, and Benallick told me he serves at least one a night.) He includes a few modern-day concessions, like a kale salad and, more to my liking, asparagus spears that he dredges in a sesame-seed breading and deep fries, serving them with a chili-spiced yogurt dip. But he mostly sticks to classic crowd-pleasers, like a traditional French onion soup. It was a late summer night, but I couldn’t resist, and the tables near us had the same hankering. Benallick makes his with heaps of buttery, nutty gruyère de comté, which nicely cuts the cloying sweetness of caramelized onions. At one point, as I was slipping into a pleasure coma, the floor manager stopped by and asked, teasingly, if we’d found any soup in our cheese—there’s no disputing it’s a lot of cheese.
Steak frites, the top seller at any bistro, is offered in six cuts, including filet mignon, hanger, rib-eye, chop, tongue and my choice, a peppery, intricately marbled, 10-ounce Pennsylvanian strip loin that arrived blushing as ordered, with a side of golden, crisp, sliver-thin rosemary fries. Benallick also makes a poutine—with a pile of pulled duck and, for good measure, a fried duck egg—but he does his with thick-cut, pont neuf–style potatoes, which needed salt and grew mushy as they cooled.
Another night, my dinner date and I were seated next to a prim woman and her granddaughter, both in twin-sets and pearls and sipping glasses of burgundy, and a party of 10 who kept changing their seats to snap pictures and gossip. The room is loud, chatter ricocheting on the hand-painted tile floors. We considered asking to move to a more isolated table, but the place was plainly full—a line was forming by the reception stand—and anyway, the point of going to a trendy bistro is to feel immersed in the scene.
Frogs’ legs, the most stereotypical bistro dish of all, are making a comeback on city menus, including at Colette, where they serve them deep-fried with a pea purée. Cluny’s are tender and meaty, in a crisp breading of rice and tapioca flours, though they’re served with a chili-ginger dip that didn’t pack enough heat. Many dishes were similarly reserved, which I suspect is a concession to the tourist palate, as are the gluten-free and vegetarian options noted with special symbols.
No one will complain about leaving hungry—the portions are uniformly Brobdingnagian. We split a plate of ravioli that Benallick serves open-faced—he folds one large pasta sheet back and forth across the plate, layering it with poached salmon, smoked salmon, salmon roe, sorrel and a light saffron sauce. It’s a clever presentation, but there’s too much of it and we gave up partway through. A veal meatball, served pierced with a rib-eye bone (an obvious—and effective—ploy to encourage Instagramming), is similarly massive. We polished it off, along with its accompanying bowl of fluffy gnocchi made from pâte à choux instead of potato flour.
Our sailor-striped waitress, pretending not to see our hands clasped over our bloated bellies, asked tentatively if we wanted dessert. I looked down the list of sorbets, profiteroles, chocolate truffle cake and—what’s this?—a passion fruit soufflé. It was delicious.
As we left, a Molière play was ending at the Young Centre, and couples made their way into Cluny for a nightcap. Above our heads, string lights crisscrossed the length of the cobblestones. Squint your eyes, and it could be a street in Montmartre. No one would recognize what it had been before.