A few weeks ago, I was visiting with some of my friends at Paradiso – the pasta counter that just opened in Westmount – and they mentioned they had a delivery at St Denis Bar and invited me to come. The plan was to leave the pasta behind and stay for a drink and a small bite.
Bar St-Denis has been a place that has been on my radar for a while, having opened again in 2018, but not somewhere I was too keen to visit. Heard the wine list was decent and saw photos of the impressive art deco ceiling and floral flower baths designed by Appareil Architecture but thought it was just other small plates and a natural wine bar. I was wrong. Bar St-Denis – perhaps because it has that name – is in my opinion one of the most underappreciated restaurants in Montreal. If you don’t read more than this – just go and eat there and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
The restaurant’s fame undoubtedly goes back to the lineage of restaurant managers Emily Homsi and David Gautier. Homsi spent more than a decade as head chef in the kitchen at Au Pied de Cochon, where she met Gauthier, who ended up moving to PDC Sugar Shack. However, apart from the quality of cooking and concern for the quality of the product used, there is little evidence of PDC’s popular, tolerant and abundant cooking. Gauthier, who runs the kitchen, cooks generously — but with flavor, not portion. Homsi, for her part, manages the room, greets guests, and supervises the process in general. However, its influence on the menu does not go unnoticed because the use of many Middle Eastern flavors and spices can easily be traced back to its Egyptian roots. After my initial introduction to the restaurant, I decided to go back with my wife and dive deeper into the menu.
Bar St-Denis is, as you might have guessed, right in St-Denis and close to the Jean-Talon Market. The name was left from the former dive bar on which the current restaurant has been redesigned. I talk about this because I think, in part, that the name contradicts the exceptional cooking going on in the kitchen. The name implies that this is first and foremost a bar – a place for a drink where some food can be eaten to ward off drunkenness. I think this place is a disservice. The pints are cold, the cocktails look good and the wine list is full of good references at reasonable prices – but nothing special. On the other hand, the food is worth writing about.
Take flatbread for example – simple enough, right? The Gauthier version comes warm with a picture-perfect charcoal exterior brushed with a buttery green hue. The bread is beautifully soft and fluffy like the Tor House rolls with tandoori bread. It is served with a huge bowl of fresh cream dipped in a bright green puddle of green oil. We enjoyed our dishes as accompaniments to two other great dishes: oysters mousse and drops.
The shaving oyster was really a sight worth seeing. Two giant clams were removed from their shells, sliced and tossed with a tabbouleh made of samphire (sea asparagus). The vibrant, citrus-driven salad is then returned to its rind and served in an antique glass bowl filled with a pile of crushed ice. It’s delicious, beautifully presented and feels a lot more refined than what I generally consider to be bar food.
The snails, commonly referred to as sea snails, were cut into bite-size morsels and covered in pale green zatziki crumbs (I suspect the clumps were used as garlic for seasoning) and topped with circles of cucumber and crostini chips. The fresh, clean flavors of cucumber and walnut gain richness and depth from the tzatziki, and while some bread and dip might make up a bar snack, you’d be hard pressed to call this one. who – which.
Before moving on to the main dishes, we opted for a pasta course (it would be rude not to do that) of Bucatini – made by Paradiso – with sea urchin. Let me say it frankly: I’m not generally a fan of sea urchins. I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying some high-quality hedgehogs in Japan, but here in Quebec, I find the precious sweetness covered in a mysterious and somewhat bitter aftertaste. Which means I was expecting to be disappointed. Again, this is not the case. The bucatini spiral’s nest was topped with a plump egg yolk dotted with bright orange bits and expertly handled bits of hedgehog. The dish was, unsurprisingly, rich, with egg yolks mixed with the pasta creating a thin, silky layer. The hedgehog retained its characteristic sweetness and imparted a richness-breaking saltiness. For its part, the pasta had an unusual texture, was cooked to perfection and made a distinctive whistling sound with each drink. Top notch and the perfect match for our wine.
The well-stocked wine list includes more than 100 references and is very diverse. Wines from many prominent and beloved producers are interspersed with wines from local producers – such as Joy Hill in Freligsburg and Saint-Armand’s Pigeon Hill – as well as from producers abroad in Turkey and even Japan. For our meal based on the Mediterranean and seafood, we chose a reasonably priced bottle of Clear By Catalan producer Finca Parera, it’s a vibrant, salty and aromatic white with just enough soaking to give it structure.
Besides the noodles there was a plate of grilled “all clothes” saccharin (Small lettuce) covered with two pieces of pickles (cucumber and banana pepper) and served on a caper flavour. A few summers ago, I went to casse-croûte in the towns that serve roll – Basically a full-dressed hot dog, hold the sausage – this dish tasted a bit like I imagined it to be. Except, you know, more delicious. It was one of the strangest dishes of the night, but overall, still very good.
The last two courses of the evening are devoted to two of the season’s most valuable ingredients: lobsters and morels. The lobster dish was a particularly simple preparation of half lobster (claw and half tail) served in a batch of colorful coral. white butter With boiled Tokyo kale and a scattering of healthy tarragon. This is one of those tried-and-true dishes that doesn’t need any extra innovation. The lobsters were tender and were cooked well and were white butter – pink butter Really – it emulsified beautifully and added richness and acidity to the dish. I did well.
But the other dish was a masterpiece. Nicely prepared poll guinea fowl (Guinea fowl) came prepped on a nest of gently wilted spinach and covered in a mound of succulent mauerlat, the whole piece sucking up a silky chestnut-brown Madeira sauce. The characteristic dimples of the morels serve as a delivery channel for the sauce and the fowl, the flavor of which is somewhere between chicken and turkey – this is the embodiment of good food. This is the dish of the night most influenced by PDC and definitely the most important, but if it’s on the menu when you go I insist on ordering it.
We enveloped the meal, our stomachs almost exploding, with a light and airy strawberry slice beautifully presented in what seemed to be a proper one-base dish. Layers of fresh strawberries mingle with layers of vanilla custard, fluffy sponge cake, some kind of strawberry jelly and a dollop of Chantilly. The piece is dusty with a little gold flake. lovable.
For some time now, I’ve been asking myself the question, “What is bar food?” And while I don’t know I found the answer, I don’t think so this is. I can’t say exactly why – there is plenty of well thought out and prepared food – but the feel at Bar St-Denis is different. I recently got back from a trip to Paris and the meal I just described outnumbered quite a few I had at some very popular restaurants there. For those who have done it, I likened it to l’Avant Comptoir – exceptionally good and certainly not sloppy. However, l’Avant Comptoir and Bar St-Denis stand out.
The place the meal reminded me of is the Hermann Hotel, one of my all time favorite restaurants. This is a compliment I do not take lightly. It’s underivative cooking, fun and totally clever. It is executed with confidence but without bone. It’s very good cooking with a heavy dose of indifference. And most importantly, it’s exactly what I like to eat. Bar, restaurant, resto bar – call it what you want, it’s one of the best places to eat in town. ■
This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue of Cult MTL.
For more information on Bar St-Denis, please visit the restaurant’s website.
To learn more about the Montreal restaurant scene, please visit the Food and Beverage section.