While, bistros abound in the city, French dining does not. Since opening in 1984, Chef Fabien Siebert's King West Bistro continues to operate as a casually reliable destination for "what the French cook and eat." In 25 years Marcel's has been a staple on the strip, attracting legions of individuals to dine on steak frites, Toulouse sausage, escargots and creamy crÃ¨me brulée.
On this particular mid-week evening, Marcel's Bistro is calm after a busy service catering to the pre-theatr
e dining crowd. Occupying one of the most popular spots for a restaurant in Toronto, Marcel's is known for a well populated and moderately priced menu that provides both value and quality to their clients. It is here that Chef Fabien has defined a career on offering diners consistent reflections on true rustic French cuisine in an affably comfortable environment.
Chef Fabien tells me, "The French eat where they are always welcome... they eat simply but superbly everyday because they can. I feel that our visitors can recognize these qualities." The words echo in my mind, without refrain, throughout a meal articulated by efficient service in a small, yet bright, space. A simple wood side board is a service station, mirrored boards communicate chef specials and my window front table, against the far wall opposite the bar, overlooks the street. This occasional reflection on French aesthetics is a subtle ode to Chef Fabien's roots as a chef coming of age in his home country of France. From apprentice to a certified professional chef, he worked in kitchens in Germany, Corsica and Holland before making the leap to Toronto - a move that quickly brought him to the doorstep of the Johann Strauss restaurant in late 1983. The property was purchased by him and his then partner, Marcel Réthoré, to be transformed into Chef Fabien's first restaurant in the city, Marcel's Bistro. Ten years later, he opened Saint Tropez, the downstairs property that specializes in the flavours of the South of France.
However, it is the celebration of Marcel's Bistro's quarter century anniversary that brings a year of monthly contests, prize draws and an affably priced $25 prix-fixe, available daily after 7:30pm. The activities are all aimed to encourage clients to remember why they fell in love with French cuisine; a simple task when the prix-fixe features some of the most popular daily specials Marcel's has offered over the past few years. Although, keep in mind, for $25 it does not include drinks or dessert.
My guest ordered Escargots au basilic frais, ail rôti, consommé de tomates et sauvignon blanc/Snails with fresh basil, roasted garlic, tomato sauvignon blanc broth ($9.25) while I stuck to the $25 celebration menu and ordered the Velouté de homard au Cognac/Lobster bisque with Cognac.
It was refreshing to enjoy meaty bites of escargots amidst a brothy tomato sauce as opposed to the cliché of garlic butter. The velouté offers a rich soup with an earthy lingering after taste which is a kind finish to the inherit sweetness of lobster, tomato and Cognac.
Following our starters was the Escalopes de renne grillées, pommes de terre douce "Anna" et jus aux groseilles/Grilled venison scaloppine with sweet potato pommes Anna and lingonberry jus ($24.75) and the Filet de boeuf en croûte avec une duxelle de champignons, sauce périgourdine et légumes de saison/Filet of beef Wellington with perigoudine sauce, served with seasonal vegetables, again, an item off of the prix-fixe menu.
The dishes were comforting and accessible. The attention to make each plate authentic and homey was offered minus any suggestion of "fusion". Surrounded by a generous serving of jus, the venison was tender and the sweet potatoes were softly spiced and fluffy. In fact, the portion of jus offered on both mine and my guest's dishes was so incredibly generous that if you only prefer a taste, remember to ask for it on the side.
The beef, on the other hand was accompanied by finely diced mushrooms and enveloped in a buttery crust with a rich sauce that had the faintest hint of truffle. Cooked medium-rare, it was a tender cut that proved the ongoing worthiness of the prix-fixe menu. Keep in mind that the English translations of the menu items might not necessarily be bang-on. The velouté is translated as a bisque, while clearly exhibiting characteristics of the former and there was no discernible coating of pate on the beef "wellington". Truthfully, the translations only added a charming element as their French counterparts were accurate. When in doubt, do refer to your server, they are knowledgeable and helpful here.
As dessert arrived at our table we were skeptical that we would be able to finish the Tulipe de nougat glacé au miel et aux fruits confits, coulis à la mangue/ Tulip of frozen nougat with honey and
candied fruits served with mango coulis ($6.50). However, the lovely dessert is incredibly deceptive. This frozen nougat is closely akin to ice cream, however, the light and airy texture dotted with candied fruit, it was the easiest dessert to indulge in after such a hearty meal.
Chef Fabien sums the experience up best, "Marcel's serves what the French cook and eat. It is not pretentious. It is the freshest ingredients purchased daily at the market and placed in the hands of our chefs who have the talent and philosophy to be innovative... It is not a North American interpretation of French cuisine but what generations have celebrated in all its styles." It's what Toronto has celebrated for 25 years upstairs at Marcel's Bistro on that busy King West strip.