Finding a sushi spot in Montreal is no difficult task. They seem to be everywhere you look, like pigeons and bike couriers. Finding a good sushi restaurant on the other hand, can be challenging. Contenders range from the trendy variety, where people go to see and be seen more so than focus on the overpriced and underwhelming food they're ordering, to the all-you-can-eat sort where you find yourself willingly overlooking things you're relatively certain are health code violations. Somewhere in the gray area in-between the two lie the places that offer good quality, creative sushi at a reasonable price; in our opinion Tri Express is at the top of this category.
Before popular Montreal sushi spot Kaizen moved, it occupied the space across the street from its current location. The ground floor was Kaizen which at the time doubled as a live jazz bar and upstairs was the Treehouse, a word play on both its second floor location and the name of their rising star sushi chef Tri Du. Diners who were in the know would bypass Kaizen heading straight for the elevator which opened on the second floor to a hostess and a flamboyant red couch in the shape of a woman's lips. Tri and his innovative menu captured the attention and taste buds of Montrealers with esthetically gorgeous offerings like his at the time signature "eye of the dragon" maki roll and creative riffs on classic dishes like his oysters "Tri-affelar". For one of us, it was the first place we had ever eaten sushi, and experiences like the first taste of a spicy tuna roll or a raw quail's egg yolk nestled in a pile of flying fish roe called "tobiko" became lasting memories. The food was very good but expensive, aiming to capitalize on the initial influx of our city's sushi craze and its opportunistic location in the high income neighborhood of Westmount.
A few years later the management moved Tri to a new location on the main between Sherbrooke and Prince Arthur; the new endeavor was called Le Petit Treehouse. The ambiance was over the top and so was the price of a meal; high end products like caviar, foie gras and kobe beef were used rather liberally and fusion was the hype word at the time in the restaurant scene.
Today a lot has changed. After determining that his fans would follow his deft hand and inspired cuisine anywhere he chose to hang his hat in this city, Tri decided to do his own thing. In 2006 he left from beneath the umbrella of his former investors and opened his own restaurant, Tri Express on Laurier, one block west of Papineau. The space is tiny, and even that might be an understatement. What was intended to be primarily a take out spot with a few tables for good measure has become a restaurant packed to the gills with eager customers every time we've ever visited - which is often. On the ground floor of a residential building with one electric stove, no liquor license, printed paper menus and a pretentiousness level of zero, for the past few years this gem of an establishment has been our hands down choice for sushi night ten times out of ten.
After having sampled the majority of the menu over the years, the following are the items that we've narrowed down to be our favorites and are normally our go-to choices. We begin with the "Nouveau Style" sashimi, it can be ordered as tuna, salmon or red snapper, we prefer the snapper. Thin slices of raw fish are doused in a liberal amount of the house specialty dressing, a dusting of cayenne, topped with a light sprinkling of chopped green onion and a handful of green apple cut into matchsticks. The majority of the components in the dressing are a mystery to us, but we can confidently say there is some sort of light soy, oil and a citrus note we can't put our finger on involved. We choose the snapper because we find it's flavor and firm texture stand up to the rest of the flavors in this dish better than the salmon or tuna do. The well balanced proportions of salty soy, sour citrus, sweet and tart apple, lightly pungent onion, heat from the cayenne and round body of the oil hit all the right spots waking up your taste buds. We find the dish to be a particularly good way to wet the appetite.
"Nouveau Style" Sashimi (Red Snapper) - 12.15$
We like to follow our sashimi with the filet mignon salad. Julienned carrot, cucumber and mango are tossed with enoki mushrooms, seaweed, avocado, raw filet mignon slices and a pretty average mixture of salad greens that are really the only lackluster component of the dish. The commonality between most dishes at Tri Express is their ability to strike a solid balance between tastes and textures; we rarely order salads in restaurants but this one is pretty special. The slices of raw filet mignon and enoki mushrooms add substance to the dish and the mixed salad greens are really just filler but it is after all, a salad. We probably should note that depending on the ripeness of mango the kitchen has on hand, this dish can sometimes be better than others, but it's never bad.
Filet Mignon Salad - 12.25$
The following dish is in our opinion, the best thing on the menu. More than any other dish it's what we return for time and time again and most often what friends talk about for days after we introduce it to them. When you arrive to the sushi/sashimi portion of the menu jump right ahead to the items labeled as being prepared "a la Tri" trust us, do it! What arrives are 3 units per order of your chosen fish or shell fish finely chopped and mixed with a little spicy mayo, tobiko, and crispy tempura bits each served piled high on a rice cracker; in this case we chose the lobster, shrimp and hamachi (yellow fin tuna) varieties. These bad-boys are addictive so watch out, they're essentially everything you love about spicy maki rolls minus the roll. We could go on forever talking about how much we love this dish but you'll only really understand once you try them for yourself, you can thank us later.
Shrimp, Lobster & Hamachi Sashimi "A La Tri" - 6.35$ for 3 units
Next we go with a variety of maki rolls, in the first photo are the regular sort of maki rolls you would expect to find in most sushi spots but at Tri Express we find them to be particularly well made. That's not to say that other places don't make maki rolls just as well but we like these ones a lot. We find them to have a certain amount of restraint and ingredients you can actually identify rather than just one noted amalgamations of whatever wrapped in rice and nori that we are often unimpressed by elsewhere. As good as they are though, the truth is they're not the reason you're coming here, the other dishes are the stars, these just round out the meal.
Not all of the maki rolls are as pedestrian however. In the second photo are the ones that ARE in fact, worth specifically coming here above other places for. We certainly recommend that they be your first choices of maki rolls before rounding out your order with the rest. Similarly to the case with the sashimis you can immediately identify these items on the menu because they have the restaurant and chef's namesake in their descriptions. They are: "Lobster maki a la Tri", "Maki de Saison a la Tri" which changes seasonally and is rolled in cucumber instead of nori and "Tri's Favorite" which is rolled in the same transparent rice paper you might be familiar with from Vietnamese spring rolls rather than nori and can be made with your choice of tuna, salmon or lobster all at the same price so we pretty much always choose the lobster. The three come with a specifically prepared dipping sauce and stand head and shoulders above all other maki rolls we've ever had in terms of creativity and flavor.
"Quebec", "Montreal" & "Marquette" Maki Rolls - 8-9$ per roll
Try to keep a few things in mind if you go to Tri Express. They only accept cash, there is no alcohol available, and try not to linger after your meal is done, there aren't many tables available and there is more than likely someone waiting for your spot. A good rule-of-thumb for the menu is to remember you will without question be impressed by anything on the menu labelled with chef Tri's name on it or if you're feeling adventurous go for the Omakase, a Japanese word which roughly translates to the english "to entrust", meaning you leave your choice up to the chef which is always a lot of fun as well. We love this place and any suggestions you may offer have a lot to live up to, but we always like to keep an open mind. So, if there's a sushi restaurant hidden on some nondescript street corner that you're fond of please let us know either by e-mail, Twitter, or Facebook. Until then you know where to find us on sushi night.
1650 Laurier East