Marcel’s French Restaurant, Toronto, Canada

Marcel’s is at 315 King Street West, above the Le Saint Tropez Restaurant in the Theater District, a few minutes walk from the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the Royal Alexandra Palace and Princess of Wales Theaters. It’s an easy 15 minute walk to St Andrews Tube Station, or 25 minutes walk to Dundas Square, the centre of downtown Toronto.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Marcel’s and throughout that time their owner says that they’ve continued to serve what the French cook and eat. “It is not pretentious,” he claims, “it’s just the freshest ingredients purchased daily at the market and placed in the hands of chefs who have the talent and philosophy to be innovative without resorting to trickery.” Hundreds of regular customers seem to agree: over the past 30 years the steady traffic has worn those stairs down a bit in places as they’ve made their way through the unconventional entrance and up to Marcel’s. We followed in their footsteps and this is what we experienced.

The day after our visit we emailed a few questions to the manager, we’ll reproduce our exchange here…

How would you describe Marcel’s – it’s core values, it’s menu, etc – to somebody unfamiliar with the restaurant?

Marcel’s has had a great reputation in the city and beyond since we’ve opened our doors 30 years ago. We value classic French tradition in our kitchen and our dining room service – anything from how food is presented to how our servers carry themselves on the floor. Our unpretentious style and award winning Fine French Cuisine is based on the simplicity of Provençale inspired freshness and classic ingredients that keep people coming back.

In a city with so many eating options, to what do you attribute your long standing success?

We use fresh and local ingredients which has also been the inspiration of french cooking. We also believe in having a classic menu, true to traditional French cuisine and the feature regions we promote monthly. We have many loyal customers who consider coming to Marcel’s a “special occasion” each time they come, and of course our partnerships with the Theatre and entertainment district has given us the opportunity to serve many great customers over the last three decades.

Has the restaurant remained staunchly French, or has a little of Toronto crept into it’s atmosphere, and it’s menu, over the years?

There is very little influence other than that of classic French dishes that we serve and the regions we promote. We want to provide our customers with a traditional experience, as if the only difference between our restaurant and France is a few thousand kilometres.  We create dishes that customers would expect from a classic French chef’s kitchen.

Marcel’s wine list is extensive and, for somebody who knows as little about wine as I do, slightly intimidating! I’m sure the staff can advise on what would compliment each meal best, but, have you general advice on how to order the correct wine for a certain course? Would you say, ensure your dish and your wine originate from the same region of France, or is that too simple? 

The wine we serve is always paired with dishes on our menu. Our staff and management are trained to make suggestions based on what customers are ordering. We also are very specific to feature wine from all the regions that we present monthly, and naturally that will be the best choice to accompany the menu.

Do you offer any vegetarian, vegan or gluten free options?

Yes, we serve risotto with grilled vegetables and jus. It is our signature vegan and gluten free dish that is available all the time. Although, some people ask for other menu items w/out the sauce – which we are happy to accommodate :)

Do you source your ingredients locally, and is there anything that’s grown organically? 

Yes, we always order local and fresh.

What’s your own favourite item/meal that one can experience at Marcels?

The roasted venison pave with cranberry is by far the most favourite among staff and customers.

And of course, Marcel’s Famous Apple Tarte – it’s called famous for a reason :)

Ok, now to our experience. The photographs were all taken by us before, during or after our meal without special lights or equipment; what you see is what you’ll experience if you visit Marcel’s yourself.

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The restaurant has the same homely feel that a distant aunties front room might have – an oak dresser loaded with immaculate china stood against the back wall – whilst the low lighting, rustic paintings and scrawls decorating the walls and mirrors come straight out of a small town bistro.

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The music was soft and reflected the diversity of France; although the cuisine we ate focused on Provence region the music was pulled from all corners of the world. Combine this low soundtrack with gentle candlelight and attentive yet not overbearing service and you have a very romantic, relaxing atmosphere. We visited before we took in a theatre show but I regretted having only an hour and a half to spend here; the theatre was great but Marcel’s is worth much more of our time than we could afford to give it. It’d make a lovely venue for a romantic dinner and I’ll make a point of taking my wife there one day, when we have much more time to spare.

We chose to sit by the window so as to have a view over King Street even though one of the waiters, suitably clad in crisp white shirt and apron over black pressed trousers, advised against it.

“It may be a little cold at that particular table; normally our heating is fine but it’s approaching minus 30 degrees outside tonight!”

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It was nice of him to say that but we wanted the view and it turned out fine, we didn’t get cold at all. We settled down and ordered, then enjoyed the complimentary bread as we waited. It was served warm and fresh, as if baked recently either on the premises or nearby.

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The basket was renewed whenever we asked as was the butter which was served cool – soft enough to cut easily yet retaining enough texture to be the ying to the warm bread’s yang.

For starters I had the Bresaola and baby potato salad, marinated oyster mushroom and blue cheese raspberry dressing.

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Now, I generally try to eat vegetarian whenever I can but I’ve been to France several times and on each occasion I’ve had a hard time staying off the meat as vegetarianism is not a popular concept there and therefore the veggie dishes they serve up are generally uninspiring (apart from bread and cheese, they excel at that!). So I was prepared to eat meat at Marcel’s, although if I could have a good veggie option I’d have been happy. I looked at the menu and saw that I could have Soup, Caesar Salad (which Lamia had, more about that later), Mixed Spring Greens or this dish. I knew the other dishes well but didn’t know what Bresaola was. It sounded interesting so I asked and the waiter advised that he wasn’t sure but that he’d ask Chef if I wanted. I didn’t want to cause a fuss so I said not to worry and that I’d have it and take a chance. I do like trying new food so it was worth a gamble. However, as I’ve since learnt, Bresaola is air-dried, salted beef that has been aged two or three months until it becomes hard and turns a dark red, almost purple colour. Now, I could have announced that I wished to eat vegetarian style and I’m certain they would have advised me what on their menu was suitable, so the fact that I ended up with meat was entirely my fault. So, I tucked in and actually thoroughly enjoyed it all. The beef was served paper thin and at room temperature (which, according to what I read about it later, is how it should be served), there was a hint of raspberry and the quality of the other ingredients was immediately apparent – everything on my plate had a distinctive taste. There is no need for bulk when the beef actually tastes of beef and the mushroom and potato ditto, you understand what I mean? So many ingredients found in other restaurants taste watery, cheap and nondescript nowadays that it’s a genuine joy when you come across a restaurant that cares to select quality produce. This, and the other dishes we ate, may be a little more expensive than at other restaurants but considering Marcel’s prime location and the high quality ingredients they clearly use, I’d consider it very good value indeed.

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For my main course I had pan-seared sea bream with coconut vierge sauce and mascarpone polenta.

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There was an option to have the chef cook pasta, and there was the risotto that the manager mentioned of course, so I could have asked for a vegetarian main but I opted for this fish so I could taste something that was on the menu. When it arrived I couldn’t put my camera down for 5 minutes, the overall presentation (such great use of colour!) was incredible.

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The tail and head was presented to show the fish. They weren’t for eating though, the flesh itself was filleted, boneless and laid out in 2 steaks on top of the mascarpone polenta. Again the flavours were all there yet subtle and the coconut was a revelation. I’ve had the basic ingredients – fish and coconut – so many times in curry, especially in Sri Lanka where I’ve spent many months, yet have never thought to eat it together when the fish is prepared in the European style. There was a slight crunch to the coconut – like it was added to the cooking process right at the end so that it retained it’s texture – that perfectly blended with the soft polenta (I do love my textures, I need a range of them to fully enjoy a meal).

I enjoyed how the manager too time to explain how the chef had made the mascarpone polenta; it bought the dish to life more after I’d had the process explained to me (I shan’t go into how the chef did it right now, it’s a reasonably long story and best told with the dish simmering before you). The fish itself tasted so of the sea that I didn’t want to mix it with any other flavour; every mouthful was savoured on it’s own. It was like the Chef had held it by the tail and dipped it in the Mediterranean immediately prior to cooking. Superb.

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For starters Agni had Carpaccio of Cured Salmon with Lime and Dill.

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Agni says “The salmon was a pleasant introduction to the meal. Every taste was subtle but discernible, there was just the gentlest squeeze of lime, lovely. The presentation, like all of the food brought to our table, was superb.”

For main Agni had the Roasted rack of Lamb with Rosemary jus, glazed Vanilla Beets and Scallop Potatoes.

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Agni says “I have very little experience with lamb so I asked the waiter how I should have it. He took the time to ask questions as to how I liked other dishes that I was more familiar with and was able to recommend I have it cooked medium. The portion size was less bulky than I’m used to at regular Canadian restaurants. The manager explained that the main region of France that the cuisine originates from is Provence and that it’s meant to be mainly light eating, so this perhaps accounts for the restrained portion size. My lamb would be perfect as a meal in a warmer climate, but being so cold as it is right now in Toronto I suppose I would have liked something heavier and more substantial; the lamb was perfect but perhaps there could have been more potatoes for me to enjoy the meal as well as I would have liked”

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For starters Lamia had Caesar salad with garlic herbed croutons.

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Lamia says “This looked like a standard Caesar salad and the lettuce tasted very fresh – crunchy and juicy. The crouton was strongly spiced with a concentrated garlic flavour and the dressing had a deep, tangy taste. It wasn’t thick or fatty at all, instead it was a dressing that knew what it was about. You can’t sit on the fence regarding this salad, you’ll either love it or, well, not. It’s an extremely flavourful dish; there was little that was subtle about it and I loved that. It’s also not a light salad, either, it’s one that demands to be noticed rather than hidden away at the start of a meal. I could easily have this with a glass of wine and some of the lovely hot house bread for lunch and be satisfied.”

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For main Lamia had Grilled 8 oz Angus rib-eye steak, crushed parisienne potatoes tossed with fresh herb and tarragon emulsion.

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Lamia says “Oh my goodness, what a steak this was. It looked amazing, such beautiful colours! The bright greens of the veg and herbs, the deep red of the beet, there were even some little flowers hidden away in there!

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I haven’t eaten steak for years and since I’m used to curried meat (I’m Bengali so the food I eat at home and at the restaurants I usually frequent is generally spicy and slow cooked) I asked the waiter how it might suit me and, after asking me a couple of questions, he advised medium to well done. This suited me perfectly, I could slice through it with relative ease. The meat was a fine mix of lean with a little fat and there were no uncooked areas. The emulsion added moisture but I didn’t taste anything specific in it, the herb usage was extremely subtle (plus as I said I’m used to more heavily spiced food). I asked for no pancetta, as that’s what the dish usually comes with, and the waiter said he’d make sure that it was removed, and that was the case. The potatoes were halfway between mash and boiled, broken up and soft but with chunks to focus on, which was a new way of eating them for me, and a way that I enjoyed.”

For dessert we all shared a plate of profiterole, lemon cheesecake, dark chocolate round, orange jelly and meringue.

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Lamia’s favorite here was the lemon cheesecake.  Citrusy and velvet with a medium crunch base. Agni’s was the profiterole, full of lush ice cream, glazed in chocolate and midway between a golf and tennis ball in size, the pastry soft but firm enough to break easily when we dug into it with our spoons. My personal favorite was the dark chocolate round.

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It was pure luxury. A very rich chocolate, firm and dense inside, wow, I will dream of this dessert for some time, I’m sure.

For drinks we had water through the meal and coffee and 4 spice tea for after. Lamia thought the 4 spice tea might be like Asian chai but it was more of a flavoured tea with a European hint, served in a pot that held 2, or perhaps a little more, cups.

Marcel’s has an extensive wine list with a variety paired to everything on the menu. I think that perhaps to get the most out of the restaurant you’d want to enjoy a glass of wine with your main, and maybe also another glass especially selected for the starter. It’s also worth mentioning that the menu changes every month and features a range of appetizers, main courses and deserts from a different region of France, each with its own distinctive gastronomic tilt.

Our meals at Marcel’s were light, perfectly suited to theatre-goers who want something substantial yet not sleep-inducing and full of the distinct taste and aroma of quality ingredients. I like that they buy whatever they can at local farmers markets, a lot of it organically produced, it means their food tastes better and also that they also help support local farmers, which we love to see.

To discover more about Marcel’s please visit their wesbite - http://www.marcels.com

To finish, here are a few more images of the restaurant.

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