Bar St-Denis

The cuisine, the wine, the experience at Bar St-Denis is damn near perfection

“It’s cooking that is non-derivative, playful and altogether smart. It’s executed with confidence but without grandeur. It’s seriously good cooking with a hefty dose of nonchalance.”

A few weeks ago, I was visiting with some friends of mine at Paradiso — their recently opened pasta counter in Westmount — and they mentioned they had a delivery to make at Bar St-Denis and invited me to come along. The plan was that we’d drop off the pasta and stay for a drink and a small bite. 

Bar St-Denis was a spot that had been on my radar for a while, having opened back in 2018, but not somewhere I was overly keen to visit. I heard the wine list was decent and I’d seen pictures of the impressive art-deco ceiling and bubblegum pink bathrooms designed by Appareil Architecture but I figured it was just another small plates and natural wine bar. I was wrong. Bar St-Denis — perhaps for the fact that it bears that name — is in my opinion, one of the most underappreciated restaurants in Montreal. If you read no further than this — just go and eat there and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

The restaurant’s claim to fame undoubtedly rests on the pedigree of principals Emily Homsy and David Gauthier. Homsy spent more than a decade as the chef de cuisine of Au Pied de Cochon, where she met Gauthier, who eventually ended up moving on to the PDC Sugar Shack. However, aside from the quality of cooking and attention paid to the quality of product used, there is little evidence of PDC’s famously indulgent and abundant cooking. Gauthier, who runs the kitchen, cooks with generosity — but of flavour rather than portion. Homsy, for her part, works the room, greets guests and generally oversees the operation. Her influence on the menu, however, doesn’t go unnoticed as the use of the many Middle Eastern flavours and condiments can be easily traced back to her Egyptian roots. After my initial introduction to the restaurant, I decided to return with my wife and do a deeper dive into the menu.

Bar St-Denis, as you might have guessed, is located right on St-Denis and just around the corner from the Jean-Talon Market. The name is left over from the former dive bar on which the current restaurant was remodelled. I bring this up because I think, in part, the name belies the exceptional cooking going on in the kitchen. The name suggests that this is a bar first and foremost — a place to get a drink where some food can be had to stave off drunkenness. I think that does this place a disservice. The pints are cold, the cocktails look good and the wine list is full of good references at reasonable prices — but they aren’t anything special. The food, on the other hand, is worth writing about. 

Take, for example, the flatbread — simple enough, right? Gauthier’s version comes out warm with a picture-perfect char on the exterior that’s brushed with green-flecked ramp butter. The bread is beautifully soft and delicate like a tollhouse roll meets a tandoori naan. It’s served with a hefty bowl of crème fraiche bathed in a bright green pool of verdant ramp oil. We enjoyed ours as an accompaniment to two other phenomenal dishes: razor clams, and whelks.

The razor clams were truly a sight to behold. Two colossal razor clams had been removed from their shells, portioned and tossed with a tabouleh made with samphire (sea asparagus). The vibrant, citrus-driven salad is then put back in its shell and served in a vintage pressed-pattern glass bowl filled with a mound of crushed ice. It’s delicious, beautifully presented and feels far more nuanced than what I would generally consider bar food.

The whelks, commonly referred to as sea snails, were cut into bite-sized morsels and enveloped in pale green-hued tzatziki (my guess is that ramps were used as the garlic for the condiment) and topped with rounds of cucumber and crostini chips. The fresh, clean flavours of cucumber and whelk gain richness and depth from the tzatziki, and while some bread and dip might well constitute a bar snack, you’d be hard-pressed to call this that

Before moving on to mains, we opted for a pasta course (it would be rude not to) of Bucatini — made by Paradiso — with sea urchin. Let me state this outright: I am not generally an admirer of sea urchins. I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying some very high-quality urchins in Japan, but here in Quebec, I find the prized sweetness to be masked by a murky and somewhat bitter flavour. Which is to say, I was expecting to be underwhelmed. Again, not the case. A spiralled nest of bucatini was topped with a plump egg yolk and dotted with bright orange and perfectly handled pieces of urchin. The dish was, unsurprisingly, rich, as the egg yolk mixed with the pasta and created a luscious and silken coating. The urchin retained its characteristic sweetness and imparted a brininess that broke up the richness. The pasta, for its part, had an extraordinary texture and was cooked perfectly and made its signature whistling noise with every slurp. Top class and a perfect match for our wine.

Bar St-Denis wine

The well-stocked wine list boasts over 100 references and is very diverse. Wines from many notable and well-loved producers are interspersed with wines from local producers — like Frelighsburg’s Joy Hill and Saint-Armand’s Pigeon Hill — as well as from producers further abroad in Turkey and even Japan. For our Mediterranean and seafood-driven meal, we selected a reasonably priced bottle of El Clar by Catalan producer Finca Parera, a vibrant, saline and aromatic white with just enough maceration to give it structure. 

Alongside the pasta was a plate of “all dressed” grilled sucrine (baby gem lettuce) dressed with a duo of pickles (cucumber and banana pepper) and served on a caper-forward relish. A few summers back, I went to a casse-croûte out in the townships that served a guédille — essentially an all-dressed hot dog, hold the hot dog — this dish tasted a bit like what I imagine that would be like. Except, you know, much more delicious. It was the strangest of the dishes on the night but, overall, still very good.

The last two courses of the evening were dedicated to two of the most prized ingredients of the season: lobster and morels. The lobster dish was a particularly simple preparation of a half-lobster (claw and half-tail) served in a pool of coral-tinted beurre blanc with poached Tokyo turnips and  a healthy scattering of tarragon. This is one of those tried and true dishes that doesn’t need any additional innovation. The lobster was tender and had been perfectly cooked and the beurre blanc beurre rose really — was beautifully emulsified and added both richness and acidity to the dish. Well done.

The other dish, however, was a masterpiece. An exquisitely prepared ballotine of pintade (guinea fowl) came served on a nest of gently wilted spinach and covered in a heap of succulent morels, the whole lot soaking up the silky, chestnut-brown sauce Madère (Madeira). The characteristic dimples of the morels act as a conduit for the sauce and the fowl, whose flavour is somewhere between chicken and turkey — this is the very embodiment of good food. This is the most PDC-influenced dish of the night and certainly the most substantial, but if it’s on the menu when you go, I insist you order it. 

We wrapped the meal, our bellies nearly bursting, with a light and airy strawberry trifle beautifully presented in what looked to be a proper single-serving pedestaled dish. Layers of fresh strawberries mingle with layers of vanilla-specked custard, delicate spongecake, a sort of strawberry gel and dollops of chantilly. The lot is dusted in a bit of gold flake. Lovely.

For some time now, I’ve asked myself the question, “What is bar food?” and while I don’t know that I’ve found the answer, I don’t think it’s this. I can’t put my finger on precisely why — there is plenty of considered, well-executed bar food — but the feeling at Bar St-Denis is different. I recently came back from a trip to Paris and the meal I just described would have eclipsed a few of the meals I ate at some very reputed restaurants over there. For those who have been, I’d liken it to the l’Avant Comptoir — exceptionally good and decidedly unfussed. However, l’Avant Comptoir and Bar St-Denis are distinct.

The place that the meal most reminded me of was Hotel Herman, one of my all-time favourite restaurants. This is a compliment I don’t dish out lightly. It’s cooking that is non-derivative, playful and altogether smart. It’s executed with confidence but without grandeur. It’s seriously good cooking with a hefty dose of nonchalance. More importantly, it’s exactly what I like to eat. Bar, restaurant, resto-bar — call it whatever you like, 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 on Bar St-Denis, please visit the restaurant’s website.

For more on the Montreal restaurant scene, please visit the Food & Drink section.