Dining Old School in Montréal
L’Express – Montréal, Canada
French – Visited (twice): September 2019
While planning the Montréal portion of our trip, there was one restaurant I desperately wanted to try.
I am not usually one to follow food critics, but in my research I did find it interesting that noted Montréal Gazette food critic Lesley Chesterman gave L’Express four stars (out of four) in 2016, something she had very rarely done for any restaurant (the last one receiving four stars at that time was in 2011 for Joe Beef). She once said that Montréal would be “unimaginable” without L’Express.
I’m also a sucker for historic restaurants (see Hollywood’s Musso & Frank Grill in Tom’s Dining Out), so L’Express intrigued me. Although L’Express has the feeling of a very old restaurant, it’s not quite as old as one thinks. Pierre Villeneuve, who started the restaurant (along with Colette Brossoit) 40 years ago in 1980, said, “At the beginning, we wanted people to think that L’Express had been there since 1950.”
Entering L’Express (which has no sign on the outside … I guess the name is written in front on the sidewalk, which we missed completely), is like stepping back in time. I almost expected to be greeted by a white-suited maître de. The bar runs alongside one side of the narrow space with the 66-seat dining room occupying the other side. With the black and white checkered floor and tables covered in white linens, L’Express really does have the feel of a Parisian bistro.
In a recent NY Times article, it said that patrons and staff often speak “Québécois French.” A lawyer who has eaten at L’Express since its opening in 1980, said, “It’s like a French brasserie, where they speak in Canadian.”
Our waiter on this evening was Yves, who has been with the restaurant for 30 years. He was wearing the traditional “uniform.” Villeneuve once said, “That is the thing that is closer to France, the uniform … But you have to be nice, not like a French waiter.” Yves was very nice (as has been our experience with most of our servers in France, too). The creamy yellow walls of L’Express are covered with group photos of the staff taken every year.
At each table, a big jar of house-made cornichons sits alongside a basket of fresh bread and a small container of Dijon mustard. I was in a pickle because I am an avowed pickle hater, but reluctantly tried one of the cornichons and grudgingly agreed they were good!
In addition to the specials, L’Express offers comforting French classics such as confit de canard, duck foie gras, Croque-Monsieur and baba au rhum (I should have ordered one of those). After poring over the menu and consulting with Yves, I kicked it off with a “Wow!” appetizer of chicken liver pâté with pistachios ($15). For my main course, I ordered the steak tartare with crispy fries ($27.75). I’m the rare person who loves steak tartare (photo from internet.
Tracy started with the roasted beet salad ($11.75) followed by the raviolis de Maison, beef and spinach with mushrooms, veal broth and sherry sauce ($21.75). Both of which were delicious.
Kim decided upon the special Velouté de Volaille et Légumes d’automeue (creamy chicken soup) and the raviolis de Maison for his main course.
Mary ordered the Huitres Trésor du large (6 oysters, $18) and the special Escalope de Veau de Lail; veal scaloppini on mashed potatoes, ($28.55). Mary declared the veal a Wow! dish. After tasting Mary’s veal, Tracy asked Yves if there was any way we could get a reservation for dinner the following evening. Yves pointed to the maître de and wished us “bonne chance.”
We passed on dessert (kicking myself over that … waistline be damned) and went to beg for dinner reservations the following evening, which would be our last night in Montréal. There were no table reservations available, but we did manage to score 8:30 p.m. reservations at the bar (Tracy and Mary can be quite persuasive), which seats 15.
The following evening, after a stupendous day starting with a morning tour of Basilique-Notre Dame and then exploring Montréal Jardin Botanique (including a fantastic evening lantern festival) …
… and Le Stade Olympique, we were greeted by Yves, who remembered us from the prior evening (hopefully his memories of us were nice).
Everyone seated at the bar was dining (it seems that many bars in Canada are mainly for eating, not drinking, although we deftly multi-tasked in that department. Our server was Matthew who was also doubling as the bartender. Matthew told us that the staff rotates positions to keep it interesting.
Decisions! Decisions! Decisions!
I made my choices as I sipped one of Matthew’s marvelous Manhattans.
I started with the soup special Velouté de Volaille et Légumes d’automeue (delicious) and the Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe ($19). I’ve yet to meet a Cacio e Pepe I didn’t like. Tonight was no exception.
Tracy opted for the warm goat cheese salad ($14.25) followed by the special Escalope de Veau de Lail both of which she enjoyed.
Mary went old school with a Parisian bistro staple, celery remoulade ($8.50) and, in a surprise move for our fish loving friend, ordered the hanger steak with shallot butter and fries ($28.50).
Just in case Mary changed her mind, Kim ordered the grilled salmon on spinach and lentils ($26.50).
All our meals hit the proverbial spot. Should we have dessert? Who are you kidding? We skipped dessert last night, but not tonight.
We glanced at my Fitbit, which showed we had walked more than 13 miles! That meant time for a guilt-free dessert. We shared profiteroles with maple syrup ice cream and crème anglaise ($10.25). Wow! The maple syrup ice cream really takes this dessert to an entirely new level. Or as Guy Fieri might say, “It was totally off the charts!” This was not the only time we were wowed by a maple dish in Canada… oh, they love their maple.
Before leaving, Matthew brought four of the darkest chocolate truffles I have ever seen over to us. Mon Dieu! Kim devoured one for his heart health (or so he tried to convince us), but Mary, Tracy and I had no more room, so Mary wrapped them up for later. It made for a great breakfast appetizer the following morning.
Judging by Kim and Mary’s expression, dinner was a winner!
L’Express is open seven days a week serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The kitchen is open until 1:45 a.m. and the restaurant closes at 3 a.m., but reopens every day for breakfast at 8 a.m. The restaurant is only closed on Christmas Day and closes at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Overall, we were very impressed with L’Express from the first moment we stepped inside. I’m sure there are plenty of Montréal restaurants with more innovative & hip cuisine, but if you want old-school ambiance, elegance and a wonderful experience combined with a terrific meal, you have to visit the renowned L’Express. Merci!
3927 Rue Saint-Denis, Montréal, Quebec, Canada
Monday – Friday: 8 a.m. – 3 a.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m. – 3 a.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m. – 2 a.m.