I am at the end of a weeklong trip to Montreal and Toronto with a group of colleagues. We had some very interesting conversations with intellectuals and activists in both cities. We also ate very well. I will be digesting the intellectual material slowly; the meal reports, however, begin a few hours before I leave the group to return to Minnesota. First up, is the very first dinner we ate in Montreal, just about an hour after our (delayed) flight landed. While the rest of our meals as a group centered on the cuisines of more recent immigrant communities, for the first dinner we’d decided to go to one of Montreal’s classic bistros: L’Express.
The restaurant, located unobtrusively on rue Saint-Denis has, been in operation since 1980 and you feel a sense of its history and place as you walk in. L’Express is a touchstone in the city’s dining scene but it is no musty relic; the dark wood paneling is offset by bright light pouring in from glass panels in the roof and the dining room—full on a Monday evening—was lively and alive. I can’t say how many people there were regulars but the hospitality is of a quality that doubtless converts many first-time visitors to habitués (those who live in Montreal, at least). In this it has significant help from the food. L’Express serves classic bistro cuisine; there are no chemistry sets in the kitchen here but they’re not needed to turn out what they do: classic dishes made with good ingredients and executed at a high level. Nothing I ate made me jump out of my chair; all of it made me sit back deeper into it, literally and figuratively, in appreciation.
So what did I eat? We were a group of 13 and split into two tables of eight and five. I was at the smaller table and we agreed readily that we would order as a group and share and taste everything we got (portions are large). Well, four of us would share and taste everything—the fifth is vegetarian but she was gamely along for the ride. We ordered a bottle of rosé, started munching on their excellent bread and cornichons, and got down to decisions. Here is what we ended up with:
- Rilletes L’Express. A large bowl of pork rillettes rich without being cloying. Perfect with their mustard and cornichons.
- Chicken liver paté with pistachios: All of that was also true of this richly flavoured paté, which I liked even more.
- Octopus and lentil salad in vinaigrette. A beautiful plate of thick rings of tender octopus encasing a bright green lentil salad. A tart dressing around the whole. Excellent.
- Asperges de St. Pierre. We were lucky to be in Montreal during asparagus season and this dish—a special—of Quebec asparagus with a few olives, a quail egg and some greens over the top was just great.
- Burrata with heirloom tomatoes: Another special, this was also just excellent.
Between courses we got a bottle of an excellent Haut-Medoc (Chateau D’Arcins, 2015)
- Spaghetti cacio e pepe: This was one of maybe two vegetarian mains on the regular menu (and there was no vegetarian special). It was tasty but the spaghetti was not quite as al dente as I would like.
- Boudin noir maison. Their black pudding, however, was just dynamite. Atop a rack of turnips, topped with pickled onions and greens, this was over-the-top good. We did all agree that it would be a bit much for one person to eat. We were very glad to split if four ways.
- Veal kidney in mustard sauce. This is one of their signature dishes and it is not hard to see why. The kidneys were cooked to a perfect pink and were enveloped in a velvety, not too aggressive mustard sauce.
- Grilled loup de mer, piperade. The sea bass was likewise perfectly cooked.
- Rabbit braised with olives. This was a special and was just excellent. As good as the rabbit was, the sauce with the olives and beans may have been even better.
- Baba au rhum. We got this with extra rum and poured it over. And man, the ecstatic looks on all our faces after our first bites must have been very silly.
- Tarte au chocolat. The correct but more sedate chocolate tart may have suffered a little by comparison but was very good on its own terms.
- Creme caramel a la orange. We were more than full at this point but a pair of young regulars alongside recommended their brulée highly and it seemed rude to ignore them. And we were very glad we did not.
For a look at the restaurant and the food launch the slideshow below. For service, cost etc. please scroll down.
Service was impeccable. Despite the fact that the restaurant was full, despite the fact that the tables are somewhat close together, and despite the fact that our server(s) were dealing with a group of 13 people split across two tables, they were good-natured, warm and ever-present. Hospitality is an art that too many contemporary restaurants either forget or fail to master—L’Express has it down. Ah yes, cost. This meal was paid out of the trip budget and I did not handle payment. I was told our table’s check came to about $320 US. That’s $64/head with two bottles of excellent wine for a meal of a caliber we can only dream of in the Twin Cities, even at twice the price. Such is life.
Next up from this brief Canada sojourn, a meal out of sequence: dinner eaten not in Montreal but in Toronto; not with the group but by my lonesome in a restaurant with an ethos/aesthetic at the opposite end from L’Express. It was, however, the best restaurant meal I’ve had in a long time. That’ll probably go up on Tuesday.