There are so many great restaurants to choose from in Montreal that it can be difficult to decide upon where to eat. For the indecisive, the quandry is exacerbated by the fact that making reservations on short notice -- at even the best restaurants -- is a cinch. This is a far cry from New York City, where selecting a restaurant is often a process of elimination dictated by the reservation desk.
The experience of our trip the previous year, plus some online research in advance, helped guide us to some memorable meals. Particularly useful was a June article by Dana Bowen in the New York Times travel section rounding up a number of notable Montreal restaurants led by pioneering young chefs.
It was an easy decision to make a reservation for dinner at L’Express (3927 Saint Denis, 514.845.5333) in the Plateau district, a return engagement from our first trip to Montreal. While the restaurant seems to be written up in every tourist guide to Montreal restaurants, it remains understated -- no sign is visible outside except for the L-E-X-P-R-E-S-S spelled out in tile on the ground in front of the restaurant. With its red walls, mirrors, handwritten menus, and serious wait staff, L’Express evokes the fantasy French bistro, right down to the jar of cornichons plopped down in front of you for snacking on just after you are seated.
Roasted marrow bones were on the menu, and I thought to myself, if I was ever going to try them, this would be the place to do so. I had been curious about this dish ever since reading article after article about how acclaimed chef Fergus Henderson serves roasted veal marrow bones with parsley salad at his London restaurant, St. John. At L’Express, each of the steaming marrow bones arrived with small rounds of cabbage leaves on top, along with thin slices of toasted bread and a small bowl of gros sel, coarse gray sea salt. You assemble the dish yourself, scooping the marrow from the bone and spreading it on the toast, followed by a sprinkling of the sea salt and then the cabbage. It was delicious. Even Danielle, who was squeamish about the whole enterprise, tasted the marrow and became an immediate convert. We each followed the appetizer with steak-frites -- charred, juicy hangar steaks served with a pile of crunchy fries and aioli.
Dana Bowen’s article tipped us off to Au Pied de Cochon (536 rue Duluth Est, 514.281.1114), a boisterous brasserie, also located in the Plateau and just a short distance away from L’Express. The restaurant's chef, Martin Picard, is acclaimed for his way with hearty roasted meat dishes and foie gras. In fact, there are four foie gras dishes on the menu, from foie gras flan to foie gras poutine, a reinvention of Montreal’s signature french fry/gravy/cheese curd concoction. While we were primed to tear into some of Mr. Picard’s red-blooded offerings, we were distracted by the beautiful fruit de mer platters that were constantly being dispatched from the open kitchen (the plateaus seemed to be a weekend special). We watched as waiters, negotiating the narrow spaces between the tables, hoisted the massive platters piled high with crushed ice and shellfish -- lobsters, oysters, mussels, clams, crabs, and other indiscernible crustaceans. In the background, you could hear the occasional thud of one of the cooks beating lobster meat from its shell.
We shared a medium-sized platter, which was excellent. The cool, crisp seafood was the perfect antidote to the hot August evening, but the carnivore in me felt a little cheated that I failed to taste the pork for which the restaurant is named. So we returned a second night for dinner. For an appetizer, we shared a plate of grilled calamari, tiny whole squid -- maybe two inches long -- that were coated with balsamic vinegar, browned on a griddle and served with garlicky potatoes and caramelized shallots.
The menu has two entries for its pork chops -- the “Happy Pig Chop” and the “Pied de Cochon Cut.” “What’s the difference between the two,” I asked our server? She explained that The Pied de Cochon cut weighed in at a whopping .5 kilograms (1.1 pounds). Grinning, and with a slightly manic delivery, she noted, “You will cry when you see it!” Enticed and interested, but somewhat daunted by the big cut's size, I ultimately went with the smaller, but still Flinstonesque, Happy Pig Chop. Delicious and incredibly juicy, the chop was roasted and served atop a mustardy mess of sauerkraut and mushrooms. Danielle had a dozen plump Cape Breton oysters filled with meat and thirst-quenching brine.
Opened in May 2003 by chefs Michel Ross and Zach Suhl, Brunoise offers a prix fixe menu, including choice of appetizer, entrée, and dessert (ranging from $32 to $42 depending upon the selection of the main course). Standouts of our meal were a bourride of mussels (a stew of mussels served with a saffron aioli), roasted halibut with a purée of artichoke, and rich and tender braised veal cheeks. Wines are available by the bottle, but not by the glass (though a small selection may ordered by the carafe -- a 250 ml serving equal to a third of a bottle). Upon the recommendation of our server, we shared a carafe of 2001 Paolo Masi “Erta e China,” an excellent rich and full-bodied blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon from Tuscany.
The desserts were amazing. I had a shortbread cookie topped with rhubarb, strawberries, crème patisserie, and caramel ice cream flavored with Minus 8 vinegar (a vinegar made from ice wine). The show-stopper was Danielle's panna cotta -- the best I have ever tasted. The incredibly creamy panna cotta, flavored with vanilla, was served in a ramekin brimming with a refreshing layer of deep green basil coulis punctuated by tart passion fruit seeds.
Restaurants of Note
We only stopped in for some beer and fries this time, but the last time we were in Montreal, we gorged ourselves on mussels at Bières & Compagnie (www.bieresetcompagnie.com, 4350, Saint-Denis, 514.844.0394; 3547 Saint Laurent, 514.288.0210), which serves over 100 different beers and 30 varieties of mussels. Restaurant Chez L’Epicier (www.chezlepicier.com, 311 Saint Paul Est, 514.878.2232) in Vieux Montreal, contains a small shop selling products like house-made maple vinegar and presents a menu blending French cuisine with Asian accents. Also in Vieux Montreal, the outdoor terrace at Boris Bistro (www.borisbistro.com, 465 rue McGill, 514.848.9575) is a wonderful place to dine al fresco on a warm summer day. Montrealophiles Val and Merry, who just returned from a trip to Montreal and the surrounding countryside, recommend La Colombe (554 Duluth Est, 514.849.8844), specializing in “Cuisine du Marché,” and Le P’tit Plateau (330 Marie Anne Est, 514.282.6342), an apportez votre vin (BYOB) restaurant.