Lawrence Montreal restaurant

Photos by Rachel Cheng

Lawrence is at its best now, 12 years later

“Chef Marc Cohen’s voice and style have been concretized and the result is a restaurant that feels new while simultaneously commanding the respect and embodying the polished professionalism of a fully-fledged institution — and in my opinion, it’s the best.”

Over the last 12 years, Lawrence has been different restaurants.

In the beginning, it followed a traditional three-course format with a menu heavily influenced by London institution St. John, serving sizeable, decadent portions that frequently featured offal. In 2018, Lawrence got a massive facelift, and along with a new design came hand-thrown ceramic dishes, bound menus and wine lists, and smaller, more composed dishes — the small plates era. Now in its third distinctive iteration, Lawrence is something new altogether. Having switched locations with its sister restaurant Larrys, Lawrence is a much different restaurant than it was in 2011 — and since the recent departure of longtime chef-de-cuisine Endi Qendro, chef-owner Marc Cohen now runs the kitchen solo. 

I arrived to eat on a Friday afternoon for the third daytime service since adding lunches three weeks prior. Lunch is by far my favourite meal and Lawrence in its heyday served one of the very best in town. Lunch at Lawrence is different than it used to be, however. The iconic burger and cheese sandwich are no longer on the menu (though you can get them at Larrys next door). Instead, you’re presented with an option of two fixed menus:  three courses or four. Since I had come to research, it seemed only common sense to take the four-course menu. 

The wine list, curated by Keaton Ritchie, features more than 200 references, but there is also a robust selection of craft beers, ciders and a small cocktail menu. While a wine list this large might seem intimidating, it’s divided by colour and subsequently subdivided into categories of flavour profiles, making it easy to navigate. For my part, I selected a bottle of Vouvray from Michel Autran. It’s a wine that can comfortably accompany fatty fish, poultry, blanched veg and even red meat — provided that it’s got some spice to it. It’s an excellent wine and one that can go the distance. 

The first course was a revisited take on a Cohen classic: Dripping toast with bone marrow and peas. Served in a small bowl, a crustless square of sourdough, spread with beef drippings (delicious rendered beef fat), is crisped up and topped with sweet green peas, a round of beautifully roasted marrow and a dollop of horseradish cream. An alluring little pile, the lot is set in a hearty broth. It’s absolutely delicious. The crispness of the bread stays entirely intact while somehow also absorbing the broth surrounding it. The peas burst on the palate with the sweetness of spring and balance the richness of marrow helping to join the dish together. I love this kind of cooking. It’s deceptively simple and yet very hard to do well. Combining different textures and temperatures requires great timing. Done wrong and the peas overcook or the bread will sit in the broth too long and become soggy. It’s also a dish reminiscent of the old Lawrence — just slightly more refined. 

Next up: pasta. Specifically, a double-ravioli of chicken hearts and livers. A single portion includes three ravioli, each containing two fillings. The liver, in the form of a light-pink mousse, is vibrant in flavour and deliciously smooth, whereas the hearts, which have been ground and browned, are unctuous and deep. Served in a sultry sauce (likely a bit of reduced stock mounted with a generous helping of butter) and garnished with plump morels, it’s an instant classic. This dish defines Cohen’s cooking in so many ways. Nobody else is making pasta like this. It’s entirely untraditional and somewhat esoteric — I mean a little packet of hearts and liver doesn’t scream home run — but it’s balanced, it’s perfectly cooked and it’s a dish that feels whole.

The third course: lamb with dandelion greens and anchovy. I feel the need to insert a small disclaimer. I worked as a cook at Lawrence for a year back in 2015 and as the sous chef at Larrys for a few years after that. This is a version of a dish I used to make back then — only now, it’s even better than I remember. Braised lamb breast (belly) gets roasted for crispness and is then served in a chilli-flecked lamb broth and topped with gently wilted dandelion greens and a spoonful of anchoïade. Cohen has always been particularly adept at combining bits of land and sea but this dish is one of the best examples. The lamb is meltingly tender yet the roasted exterior provides a textural contrast that is as delightful as it is essential. The dandelion greens work a bit like chard or rapini — offering a touch of bitterness that works exceptionally well with the vibrant anchoïade (a provençal condiment that’s essentially anchovy aioli), which brings depth to the dish while counterbalancing the spice and also adding acidity. Another hit. 

The final course, of course, is dessert. I’ve always loved dessert at Lawrence — it’s one of the few restaurants I can think of that employs an entirely separate pastry department. Always indulgent but never overly complicated, a Lawrence dessert never tries too hard to reinvent the wheel (a fatal flaw so many restaurants are guilty of). Here, you get a slice of a beautiful tart, a pot de crème or an excellent piece of cake. In this instance, dessert was a frozen lemon custard topped with the season’s first strawberries and a spoonful of gin. The custard is texturally perfect and the strawberries are both tart and sweet. A few leaves of lemon balm and prickly ash pepper add a savoury touch and the gin gives the dish a bit of backbone. It’s refreshing, light, and a perfect complement to a near-flawless meal. 

Lawrence, for nearly as long as it’s been open, has been a major influence in my life. Much of my opinions on food were formed during the time I worked there and the way I cook remains deeply influenced by Cohen’s style of food. Today, I see Lawrence and Cohen in a new light. There’s a confidence and maturity to the food that feels different. In the early days, it felt like a young chef cooking someone else’s food — Fergus Henderson’s food. Lawrence of 2023? It’s all Cohen. After 12 years, his voice and style have been concretized and the result is a restaurant that feels new while simultaneously commanding the respect and embodying the polished professionalism of a fully-fledged institution — and in my opinion, it’s the best the restaurant has ever been. ■

For more on Lawrence, please visit their website.

This article was originally published in the July 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.