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Don Appetit! Cluny Bistro’s Delicious Evolution

Don Douloff, Food WriterEach time I visit Cluny Bistro & Boulangerie, in Toronto’s Distillery District, the food holds new surprises as the kitchen continues its ongoing evolution.

Credit the latest evolution to Murray McDonald, who, last April, joined Cluny as executive chef. Chef McDonald brings with him an impressive pedigree, including four-and-a-half years as executive chef (and founding chef) at the highly regarded Fogo Island Inn, in Joe Batt’s Arm, Newfoundland, and stints at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, in Vancouver, and at a Ritz-Carlton hotel near Cancun, Mexico.

Chef’s pedigree shows up on the plate in any number of impressive ways. For example, he reconfigures piperade, the French dish of eggs, tomatoes and peppers, into a soup built on a silky puree of tomatoes and red peppers loaded with soft ’n’ sweet grilled red peppers and topped with a sous-vide cooked egg.

Seared duck breast.

There’s a winter-perfect salad of roasted squash, crisp julienned parsnip and earthy goat feta in tangy buttermilk vinaigrette. A rich and deeply flavoured beef broth anchors a soup loaded with oozing gruyere and sweetly caramelized onions.

The kitchen bakes a disk of sauvagine cow’s milk cheese, whose flavour is buttery and hints at mushrooms, a perfect match for sauteed wild mushrooms that surround the fab fromage.

Mains show more of chef’s creativity and rock-solid technique. He partners snails (in the shell and jazzed with garlic herb butter) with a half rack of Ontario lamb, wearing a dandelion/garlic crust and oven roasted until it’s rosy and fork-tender. Riding shotgun are ratatouille, collard greens and creamy polenta.

Perfectly cooked wild Atlantic turbot melts in the mouth and swims in a luxurious Provencal pan sauce. Cranberry relish, parsnip/apple puree and frisee salad join seared duck breast, a nightly special.

Nestled on a bed of fluffy couscous, Moroccan chickpea and sweet potato tagine is hearty and perfumed with sweet spices.

I can’t wait to see what chef McDonald and his kitchen do next…

Chocolate soufflé.

Courtesy of patissier Chris Kwok, who oversees Cluny’s dessert, cafe and bread programs, sweet endings bring bittersweet chocolate soufflé garnished with a cocoa orange madeleine; rich chocolate pot de crème accessorized with flourless cake, raspberry sorbet and a sizeable tuft of pink cotton candy, spun in-house; and clafoutis, the classic French dessert of fruit topped with batter and baked (the texture can be cake-like or closer to pudding, depending on the chef’s preference). Served warm, chef Kwok’s version is gloriously cake-textured, studded with cherries and garnished with pistachio ice cream and velvety, rich caramelized chocolate Chantilly.

Cluny’s beautiful space recalls an airy Paris brasserie, but boasting a casual, approachable vibe perfectly appropriate to its location in the tourist-magnet Distillery District.

Outfitting the bright, high-ceilinged room is elaborately patterned floor tile, bentwood chairs, attractive globe lights, a snazzy raw bar, marble-topped bread station and curio cabinets displaying antiques.

Cluny’s event room seats 80 people and is divisible into two spaces seating 20 and 40.

— Don Douloff has been a restaurant critic for over 30 years and, during that time, has critiqued more than 1,400 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.

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