L'Express, Montreal, QC
A classic French bistro reveals itself when the doors of L'Express open up for you, which they do with happy anticipation, as if the entire space -- with its hum and buzz of conversation -- has been waiting just for you.
There's no sign announcing the institution that hides behind this facade (which, for what it's worth, is about to be renovated). There's merely the lone staff member who opens the door as you approach, welcoming you to the home you didn't know you were missing.
We scored a table in the back of the restaurant, beneath the atrium-style windows, where we were surrounded by the 37 annual portraits of the restaurant's staff. Each frame captures a moment in the developing narrative that is L'Express. Robert Frost called poetry "a momentary stay against the confusion of the world," seeing in the rhythms and rules of language a balance -- even an answer -- to the chaos of a world that often disregards both. These staff portraits perform a photographic equivalent, framing moments of stillness that almost seem out of place in the buzzing dining room; the static bodies behind glass seem to be impossible avatars of the zigging and zagging servers circling through the room. The photos, however, anchor the space with their august sense of continuity, welcoming you into a conversation, a celebration, a meal that's already in progress. Even though this was our first time here, we felt like a part of the family, and that we may in fact be on the cusp of a meal worthy of framing. Spoiler alert: we were.
L'Express has a legendary wine cellar, with over 11,000 bottles. Take some time with the wine list, dawdle over the jar of cornichons brought to every table. Consider a plate of bone marrow, its unctuousness sprinkled with sea salt, while you choose your own culinary adventure.
We had other appetizers, too. The steak frites, served with shallot butter, was cooked to order, with a mouth-watering char. The steak tartar, on the other hand, more than satisfied those at the table who prefer their beef a little more rare.
We ordered a range of entrees and found no fault with any of them. My croque monsieur was crispy and buttery, with gooey warm cheese enveloping ham. The liver with mashed potatoes, ham and cheese quiche, and chicken breast in sage and lemon sauce were devoured with gusto. Service was spot-on, too, with our every need anticipated and met unobtrusively.
Not one of us had any room left for dessert, but the ile flottante (floating island) with caramel insisted upon itself. How can one resist? The delicate outer shell of caramel protects the meringue that floats upon the creme anglaise. And let's throw in some house-made granola while we're at it. This is a classic French recipe, known also as "oeufs a la neige" (eggs in snow); all you need to know is this: if you see it on the menu under either name, order it. Every time. Regardless of how full you think you are. As it turns out, the medical profession has yet to identify the magical, inexplicable expansion of the stomach that always, under all circumstances, will make room for ile flottante. Consider it your contribution to science. I'd say pat yourself on the back for it, but you won't be able to stretch that far.
We finished our meal feeling both exuberance and exhaustion (and, of course, expansion). Like the frames around the staff portraits, this meal structured our day, our very experience of Montreal itself. It encapsulated the welcome, the indulgence, the celebration of life that characterizes Montreal for me.
Montreal is a gustatory destination in its own right. We spent a long weekend there in which we never ate a bad meal (I'm generously including my Grand Prix poutine at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve). In a city full of gems, L'Express stands as the gold standard: confident, unassuming, and -- in the words of our server after a mysterious round of applause swept through the restaurant -- "always a party." Perhaps the best part, though, is leaving with the knowledge that one is always invited to that party. It continues apace, and the next time you're on Rue St. Denis, those doors will swing open for you once again, as if you'd only stepped out for a moment to look at the stars.
3927 Rue Saint-Denis
Montreal, Quebec H2W 2M4