Classic bistro fare, on the cheap
Montreal blessed abundance of great French restaurants also presents a challenge to the casual diner when trying to decide which to choose. For the deep-pocketed, there’s L’Express. For late-night noshers, there’s Leméac. Seafood fans who want to be seen can try Le Pois Penché. And for those seeking an intimate BYOW, there’s P’tit Plateau.
For an extra-French experience, Au Petit Extra may be just the right place. Although it’s barely over a quarter century old (and despite the fact it’s across the street from a gas station and McDonald’s), the entire place looks like it was time warped from 1930s-era Paris, from the wood-and-glass façade down to the black-and-white checkered bathroom floor tiles.
The art-deco ceiling lamps and wood wainscoting, among other décor touches, give the main dining room an Old World feel. There’s even a cabaret, the Lion D’Or, in the adjoining building next door. My dining companion and I were seated at a little square table on one of the raised platforms by the windows, which helped enhance the feeling that we were spectators viewing a performance. The black-and-white-clad staff certainly looked the part of French servers, with the exception of being far too friendly and attentive.
Most of the items on the chalkboard menu stretching across the top of the wood, brass and marble bar change from week to week. That said, Chef Nathalie Major doesn’t stray too far from old-fashioned bistro dishes like mousse de foie de volaille et confiture d’oignon and confit de canard et salade landaise.
Appetizers range from $8 to $14.75, main courses from $19.75 to $28, and desserts are $6. I opted for the table d’hôte (“la formule”): an appetizer, main dish, dessert (or cheese course), and coffee (or tea) for a mere $36.50. My companion had a more modest appetite, and ordered just a main dish.
My first choice of starter, the lobster bisque, ended up being sold out, so I decided to try the fish soup. I was expecting a bouillabaise-type dish, with clear broth and chunks of white fish. Instead, the dish I received was a velvety purée the colour and consistency of sweet potato soup. My companion had a taste and found it too fishy, but I enjoyed it, especially topped with the accompanying croutons, rouille (olive oil, breadcrumbs, roasted garlic, saffron and chilli pepper) and shredded gruyère cheese.
For our main courses, my companion ordered the bavette de boeuf (flank steak) in chimichurri — the Argentinian version of sauce vierge, consisting of minced parsley and garlic, chilli pepper and tomato in a mixture of olive oil and red wine vinegar — with a side of fries. Flank steak is a tougher cut, so any cooking temperature over medium rare will tend to be dry; the steak should also be cut in thin slices across, rather than along the grain. The meat packed a lot of beef flavour, and while it was somewhat chewy, it wasn’t tough. The slightly acidic chimichurri made for a tart, fresh tasting addition. Unfortunately, the fries were more dry than crisp — a bit of a letdown.
I had the mixed grill: a mini-rack of two lamb chops, lamb sausage and a strip of lard fumé (really thick bacon) in demi-glace gravy, with grilled vegetables, including sweet and fingerling potatoes (or were they Jerusalem artichokes?) and a skewer of grilled cherry tomatoes and garlic cloves. The chops, also grilled medium-rare, were tender and juicy, and intensely — almost too — flavourful. In contrast, the sausage was rather dry and bland, lacking any discernable herb or spice. The lard was on the chewy side and would have benefitted from being cooked until crispy, but who can say no to bacon? Paired with the sausage, each made up for the other’s shortcoming. The veggies had a sweet smokiness to them, though some, particularly the garlic cloves, were a tad underdone.
For dessert, there are a few classics like crème brûlée and fondant au chocolat, but I wanted something light, so I picked the raspberry and pistachio layer cake. The cake part was actually on the dense side, but moistened by layers of raspberry coulis and pistachio cream. It exceeded my expectations, which fairly well sums up my dining experience.