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The Best Restaurant in Montreal? Seize the Moment!

Posted on: December 23rd, 2014 by No Comments

IMG_20141009_130659My favorite restaurant in Montreal, perhaps even in North America, is L’Express, where the food and service are impeccable. I know this sounds like hyperbole, but my view is shared by many. To confirm this, just google the restaurant and read the raves.
I have dined here many times and could not contemplate a visit to Montreal without a meal at L’Express. The place is a bistro that could have been transplanted from Paris, where I have also dined many times and where my favorite bistro is Chez Georges on rue de Mai. Chez Georges is superior to L’Express in only one way, décor, but when the cuisine is as fine as it is at L’Express, décor matters little.
If you are looking for plush carpeting and large tables, waiters in black tie and live background music, save your money for someplace else. L’Express is all about food and, of course, the way it is served. The bilingual staff here is as professional as can be, and some of them have been on board for decades. During our visits, perhaps only four or five times a year, we get smiles of genuine recognition that were not purchased with large tips.
Roch Arsenault, the manager, always greets me by name. He has been on the job 34 years–in his words, “since the beginning.” When asked if he has a piece of the action, he replies, “No, but I tried.”
Menu prices at L’Express are moderate, even more so now because of the weak Canadian dollar, which is about as weak as I’ve ever seen it, so the present is an especially good time for Americans to visit. One sumptuous lunch for two in October, with kirs for our cocktail and a bottle of excellent wine, came to $146.50 American (including taxes but not tip).
Another lunch, in November, cost $119. This time we ordered wines by the glass so as to sample a wider variety, and we cut costs by sharing an appetizer. In lieu of dessert, I ordered a Fonseca Terra Prima, a lovely, deep purple slurp from Portugal’s Douro Valley vineyards. A chocolate truffle, delivered gratis with it, set off the Port superbly.
The prices that I am quoting are not exactly Hamburger Heaven, but they are modest for this level of quality. And one could dine for even less by ordering, for example, the cheapest Italian wine on the list at a cost of only about $16 American for the bottle.
Reservations are a must, at least a day in advance, although you could get lucky on the same day. One option is to eat at the bar that runs the entire length of the restaurant and offers comfortable stools.
Each time I’m at L’Express, I’m torn by what to order, because I try not to order my favorites from the previous visit. This is why, over time, I have eaten my way through most of the menu, so I believe I am qualified to evaluate and comment. I’ll not discuss every dish here, because you’ll want to do your own experimenting. I will just mention the ones that have consistently been superb.

The wine that I usually order is a Cotes-du- Rhone or Beaujolais, about the best buys anyone can expect. On one visit, in early October, we were able to upgrade because I found an incredible bargain among red Burgundies, and the favorable currency rate helped. We enjoyed a Cotes de Nuits-Villages 2011 from Domaine Henri Naudin-Ferrand for $46.75 American, which might cost that much at retail in the U.S. If you are determined to drink a Bordeaux from a classified first growth and have deep pockets, a Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1995 will set you back about $550 U.S.

The list here has surprising depth, and there are many options in wines from all of the world’s important growing regions, an extraordinary collection for a bistro. For example, a Barolo 2006 Cannubi from Chiara Boschis would be $131.75 U.S. and a Sassicaia 1994 from Marchesa Incisa della Rocchetta would be $255. In a nod to the greatness of Sassicaia as one of Italy’s premier reds, there are 16 vintages of this wine on the Express list, the deepest collection I have seen outside of Italy. An Opus One 1995 from Napa Valley would be $370 U.S., and a Priorat 2003 Clos Mogador from Spain would be $149 U.S. The Beaujolais -Villages that I used to buy when the Canadian dollar was at par is now only $37, and the Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages from Cuvee du Vatican is a modest $27.
If you opt for the best bargains in both food and wine, one person could easily dine at L’Express for less than $50 U.S., not counting tax and tip, a possibility unimaginable a few years ago. Most of the prices quoted herein, by the way, do not include tax and tip. You should note that two taxes will be added to your tab, both a provincial and a local sales tax, which will come to around 15% for both.
All of the prices cited here, by the way, are approximate, because of the uncertainties of the currency markets. On some past visits, with the Canadian and American currencies then roughly at par, most Montreal restaurants were happy to accept American currency. These days it’s best to use a credit card or Canadian currency obtained at a bank. Avoid the money brokers along rue Ste. Catherine and other byways because their exchange rates and commissions are usurious.

The warm goat cheese salad is also a favorite first course.

The warm goat cheese salad is also a favorite first course.

One of my favorite starter courses is celery remoulade ($6.90 U.S.), which seems to nicely prepare the palate for the rest of the meal. Another favorite starter is rillettes “L’Express” ($8.15), a wondrous pâté of duck that Julie and I often share and still have enough left to take home. There is also a lush bone marrow with coarse salt ($12.25) that is so generous and filling that it could be a meal in itself.

The Quail with Wild Rice is so delicious we have enjoyed it many times.

The Quail with Wild Rice is so delicious we have enjoyed it many times.

Among entrees, the breast of grain fed chicken in mustard sauce ($19.70) is Julie’s favorite. That sauce moutarde is classic. I am often tempted by the savory veal kidney in that same superb mustard sauce ($18.70) , ‘tho I am rarely able to finish it. I am an admitted fan of organ meats, rarely found in most restaurants, so it is not unusal to see them on my plate when I can find them.
Unless you are a true trencherman, you will not be able to finish the generous hanger steak in shallot butter with fries ($22.60). The quiche du jour ($10.00) is a splendid bargain. The pot-au-feu ($18) is equally generous and equally delish. The home-made raviolis (also $18) are as good as you’ll find in the best Italian restaurant.

Sweet and silky with a hint of orange - the Creme Caramel is a work of culinary art.

Sweet and silky with a hint of orange – the Creme Caramel is a work of culinary art.

If you have enough room left for dessert, the cheesecake ($7.40) is as satisfying as always and the Ile flottante with caramel ($7.30) is an island of flavor.  Lemon sorbet ($6.40) is an excellent palate cleanser, and the rum baba ($7.50) is so drenched with alcohol that you’d better not expect to, pass a breathaliser if you devour all of it.
After such a sumptuous repast, a glass of Graham’s 1985 Vintage Port ($21) can be very satisfying. Finding a glass of mature Vintage Port on a restaurant list at such a modest price is rare. If you want to order a half-bottle of Fonseca 2000 for the table, it will be $76.50.
To repeat, with currency rates as they now are, now is the time to dine at L’Express or anywhere else in Montreal. Seize the moment!

3927 rue St. Denis
Montreal (on the mont)

Note: There is metered parking on rue St. Denis, and it’s best to use a credit card because you get very few minutes for a quarter or even a one-dollar Canadian coin (known as a “loonie” because of the loon depicted on one side).

Terry Robards

Terry Robards is one of the formost wine journalists and authors in the world. He is the author of the New York Times Book of Wine and Terry Robards New Book of Wine, he is a former wine columnist of the NY Times, a former columnist of the Wine Spectator and a former editor and columnist of the Wine Enthusiast magazine. His radio program "The Topic is Wine" was aired on WQXR in New York for several years in the 1970s. He is a member of many of the most prestigeous wine societies in the world. He has owned and operated Terry Robards Wines and Spirits, Ltd, in Lake Placid - the foremost wine emporium in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, since 1988.

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