L'Express is a true little taste of Paris in Montreal, an archetypal bistro doing what would be overlooked by some as decidedly outdated bistro food but argued by others, like us, to be perfectly executed bistro classics. Tourists coming to Montreal looking for that little taste of European flare that all of the travel brochures romanticize about, look no further. L'Express is the epitome of french bistro dining, almost like stepping back in time in the best possible sense. Not much has changed in 30 years here, and that's just the way the patrons like it. Mirrors abound, burgundy painted walls (which could really use a touch up in a few places, most notably at the waiters' station) black and white checkered tile floors, well dressed waiters, and a barman who tends to an immaculately clean stainless steel topped bar with ample overhead glass racks. In textbook bistro fashion, the tables are small and in such close proximity to one another that bumping elbows with the couple next to you is not unheard of. The ambiance is lively, and the dining room always packed and boisterous. The pace of the staff is brisk, which can at times be mistaken for arrogance but is assuredly not so.
The restaurant is, or at least should be considered a Montreal landmark. It's a true classic that may not be held in the same iconic regard as smoked meat joints and bagel shops but for goodness sake, the place will celebrate its 30th anniversary this December; after serving the city for that long it's certainly worth at very least an honorable mention. Somehow though, L'Express continues to fly narrowly below the radar, for some reason there are still so many Montrealers who don't know about this gem. It was when the two of us began working in restaurants years ago that we first learned of the place. It's a favorite for late night crowds, especially kitchen and restaurant staff coming off of their shifts because the dining room is open until 2:00AM. In Montreal as the evening turns to night and then rapidly onward to early morning, your food choices become limited, it's either Chinatown, casse-croutes or shish taouk. L'Express affords you the option of not being forced to settle for fast food or Chinatown (again) when you come out of a late-night movie, off of a graveyard shift, or finish partying.
The wine list is famous among wine lovers for being so reasonably priced, there are some treasures on that list that would easily be marked up quite a bit higher in most other dining rooms in the city. We began our meal with a bottle of Burgundy: Yan Chave Crozes-Hermitage 2009. Our waiter was knowledgeable about the selection offering a nice short description without overdoing it. For appetizers we ordered the bone marrow and the cod brandade.
The bone marrow comes as a titanic portion of three immaculately cleaned, large bones served with croutons and a small pot of sel gris. The marrow was rich, unctuous and milky white, the result of letting them soak for an ample amount of time in salt water to draw all of the impurities out from deep within. Each bone was served covered with a cut out circle of savoy cabbage, we were unsure whether this was strictly for presentation or an indication of a technique used to cook them, unfortunately a search through our cookbooks at home and Google yielded no further insight. Although there was an insane amount of marrow, it seems awfully unfair to criticize a dish for being too generous in size and to be honest, it always seems so stingy when restaurants charge 15$ for an appetizer of marrow and you're left wanting more. Bones are cheap, bottom line, the profit margin on a dish like this is enormous, at least at L'Express you get what you pay for. Ultimately we recommend this dish to share, surely you're cardiologist would also agree with this advise.
Marrow Bones - 13.15$
Our second appetizer was the cod brandade, it came served warm in a shallow dish garnished with an olive and a few croutons cut in the shape of fish, a borderline tacky but cute touch. The brandade was a touch salty for our preference but remained quite successful because it hadn't been over-whipped, which often results in a homogeneous spreadable texture that lacks a little bit of character. This brandade still had identifiably flaky pieces of fish in it which made it far more interesting on the palate. It was a good heartwarming choice for a crisp and cool night.
Cod Brandade - 12$
For our mains we chose the veal kidneys in mustard sauce and the shrimp risotto. The kidneys are as quintessential a bistro dish as it gets, they've been on the menu since the day L'Express opened, cooked and served identically to this day. The kidneys are cut into bite sized pieces and sauteed with uniformly cut white button mushrooms or "champignons de Paris" if you want to get sexy about it. They are smothered in a rich mustard sauce made fundamentally from demi-glace and served over patates risolées, which is basically a fancy term for cubed and sautéed potatoes that most people are more familiar with as breakfast potatoes. The kidneys were cooked perfectly, rosée (pink) as we requested them to be. The dish was fantastic, certainly the best kidneys we can remember eating, perhaps even the best kidneys we've ever had, it's no wonder the dish has been on the menu for 30 years.
Veal Kidneys in Mustard Sauce - 19.95$
The risotto was excellent as well, studded with zucchini and cherry tomatoes the dish was clearly prepared with a deeply flavorful shrimp stock that resonated front and center through every bite. It's color was bright yellow most likely from the use of saffron without even nearly approaching the territory of tasting cloyingly of shampoo which can sometimes occur when overused. The risotto was an impeccable consistency that ran when the bowl was tipped and, in good time, oozed back into the holes left by each spoon full. The shrimp themselves were good but that's about it, the smaller ones teetered on the edge of being overcooked while the larger ones were cooked quite a bit better. In the end we finished the plate clean so it's not like the matter impeded our enjoyment of the dish, the rice was certainly the star of the show, as it should be in a risotto.
Shrimp Risotto - 19.90$
Rather than order two desserts we decided to share a cheese plate and one dessert between the two of us. We ordered a piece of Le Gré des Champs to eat with the last of our wine, it's a firm raw cows milk cheese made here in Quebec, it tastes rich, nutty, and buttery. We can't say it enough times that too few people have ever ordered a cheese course between dinner and dessert and it's a big shame, they're really missing out on something special. The cheese came served with croutons and a few halved walnuts in the shell.
For dessert we shared an orange flavored crème caramel. Objectively we can say that it was clearly cooked at a slightly higher temperature than it should have been because the air bubbles were visibly suspended in the custard, nonetheless it had a very smooth and pleasant consistency. The soft caramel was sweet without being too sweet and had no trace of burnt flavor or odor which can be a big turnoff when eating crème caramel. The dish was infused with a lightly bitter orange flavor that we assume but cannot be certain came from the use of Grand Marnier, it was garnished with candied orange zest and a sprig of mint. It was a delightful and suitable way to finish a terrific meal in a true bistro.
Gré des Champs - 7.15$
Crème Caramel - 5.70$
With both of our appetizers below 15$ and both mains below the 20$ price point value is just as good a reason as any other argument we can make for visiting L'Express. We may be a tad biased because classic french bistro dining is the ultimate high for us, but we are in love with this restaurant. Maybe it's the conscientious service, or the romantic feeling of sharing a date in an authentic Parisian style bistro. Ultimately there's just something about eating the food we were taught to prepare at school by old-school European chefs from our "On Cooking" textbooks and in the old books and cooking journals we've accumulated from family, friends and teachers of decades past. Classics are designated to be so for a reason, like Disney movies that will never lose their appeal to a young mind regardless of how "out-dated" they may be. The Little Mermaid is just as amazing in 2011 to a 6 or 7 year old girl as it was in 1989. To us the classics prepared this well can never go out of style, and when we have the pleasure of combining them with a conversation about whether or not the espresso machine behind the bar is older than us or not, the same remarkable feeling comes over you as when you stand alone in a bagel shop early in the morning waiting for a fresh batch and are humbled by the thought of how old the wood oven is. So, go and try it for yourself, 30 years of happy customers can't all be wrong.
3927 Rue St-Denis