image courtesy of www.thedistillerydistrict.com
Writing, or should I say critiquing restaurants is tough and very personal. Having an opinion on something someone took the time and thought to create is not for the weak. If you write something, you must stand by every word. It's only a recent development that the need to write about my dining experiences are appearing with more frequency on the blog. When I find myself thinking about the words I'd like to use to describe the decor, or the service almost immediately upon arrival, that's when I know the restaurant has truly made a personal impact to make me want to write about it.
Whenever you offer opinions or advice, it's almost 98% guaranteed that the response to said 'advice' is "what the hell do you know?" Well, speaking for myself, I know that I can write a review with some degree of authority. I've done my time in the culinary business (close to twenty years), with enough credibility to write about it without looking like an idiot. Plus, I personally enjoy writing about memorable dining experiences, good or bad, rather than letting it linger in my memory banks. After my recent dining experience at Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie, I immediately wanted to share it.
Cluny is nestled in the historic and bustling Distillery District in downtown Toronto. The area is just booming right now, with the complete revamping of the historic buildings and construction of new condos, it has brought an increased population to the area. Young professionals on the hunt for good food and good times has completely changed that neighbourhood. I'm telling you, not ten years ago that area would have been completely dismissed as any sort of destination, let alone a culinary one.
Cluny is ready to take advantage of this hungry, new crowd. It's a French inspired bistro, and the first thing you can't help but notice upon arrival, is the sheer size and beauty of the place. It is very clear that meticulous detail and planning went into the design, and the result is an absolutely gorgeous room. As my dinner companion and I were seated, our server introduced herself. We asked how she was doing that evening and her response? "Amazing." That answer just stuck with us. Why? Because it was just such an unexpected, original answer to a mundane question, and she clearly meant it. We loved it, and as we dined she proceeded to become the best part of the entire evening.
I've mentioned numerous times on this blog how much I love French food. It is one of my biggest passions as a cook and knowledge seeker of of all things culinary. I really look out for it in Toronto because there are some excellent cuisine française to be had in the city. Bistros, pastry shops, restaurants that make you dream of flying to Paris or anywhere in France really without actually having to leave. Notable Toronto French restaurants (and some of my favourites) including Auberge du Pommier, Le Paradis, Pastis Express - which sadly closed, all spring to mind as the places that set the template for fabulous french cuisine. I wish I could include Cluny in that list of favourites, but the food was just not getting along with me that night to make me want to add it to anything but a forgettable list.
Why wasn't the dining experience touching my soul? Why didn't it make my feet curl inside my shoes with excitement? How come it couldn't make my stomach leap with anticipation, instead of groaning with fright? A couple of things; One; I just felt the dishes were 'meh' - a terribly vague description I know, but that sometimes happens when you're expectations exceed what is often produced. Two; I seriously thought every dish I tasted had a slight, yet noticeable, fishy undertone/aftertaste. I told this to my dinner partner, who could only respond by first looking, and then telling me that I was insane. Maybe in his eyes I might have been slightly nutty, but I'm telling you, my so called 'crazy' taste buds found that everything, except for the exceptional chocolate pot du creme dessert, was completely underwhelming and tasted like fish.
I had the seared foie gras to start which was unfortunately paired with a piece of toasted brioche and a black current compote. That sweet combination totally overwhelmed - and in my mind, ruined the dish and rendered the foie gras mute, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment considering it is foie gras. Foie gras, is a luxurious treat, extremely high in fat and so, so bad for you but so very good for the stomach and soul. It really takes something special to kill the flavour of that delicacy. My dinner companion ordered the cod doughnuts, which were deep fried cod balls. Think of a Timbit, but instead of chocolate, it's fish, and it's accompanied by a smoked potato and cheese sauce. At least that dish made up for the foie gras, but was still quite disappointing. The dipping sauce was so bland, and there was more filler than fish in the cod balls.
Our mains consisted of striploin steak frites for my dinner companion, and organic chicken legs, 'Basque' style, for myself. Traditional Basque cuisine encompasses both French and Spanish culinary influences. Typical Basque creations are usually rustic in flavour, and the chicken dish served at Cluny was true to its Basque origins. Plenty of tomato, olives and peppers and chorizo sausage in a stew, that was cooked with the chicken. His steak was cooked the way he asked - medium rare, but it just had a fishy taste to it. My chicken was bland, blah, and again that ubiquitous fishy undertone. I know that I wasn't crazy regarding that fish taste, because I drank enough water to ensure my palate was as clean as possible with each course. But yet there it was again after the third bite of the chicken. And even more weirdly, it showed up when I tasted his Lemon tart for dessert.
For all I know, chef and the cooks in the kitchen could have been having an off night. Maybe I was having an off night. Regardless of whom was having food issues, the less than stellar experience was made a bit more difficult to swallow when it came to the price. I normally never complain about the cost of food when I frequent a restaurant. If I'm going to a higher end establishment, I know, or expect to know, that it usually will be a bit pricey. The same attitude applies to when I'm hitting up a late-night diner - it'll be cheaper. But I also know, that when I am going to be paying a significant amount of money for a meal - including wine, you had better knock my socks off. With my meal at Cluny, I only managed to get one of them peeled off and that was thanks to the chocolate dessert!
Sorry Cluny, other than your outstanding staff and the fact I can't help but think of a certain other Clooney whenever I hear the restaurant name, I can't see myself returning. Unless, it's to pick up a some chocolate pot du creme desserts to go.