MONTREAL -- With its lighted hamburger signs, many cargo ships, and heavy street traffic, Montreal easily could be the supersized metropolis of the movie "The Triplets of Belleville" (which was partially made in animation studios here). It wouldn't be surprising to find one of French writer/director Sylvain Chomet's characters seated in a corner booth at Le Paris, slurping wine and puffing a cigarette.
"The Paris" looks like a caricature of a French restaurant. A red-and-white striped awning announces the restaurant's name in serif font. Inside, a smiling older woman in 3-inch heels leads diners to deep red vinyl banquettes. Old French movie posters decorate the walls, purposefully hung askew. The only difference between this place and a movie set is the absence of mustachioed French waiters. Here, aunties in cardigan sweaters take customers' orders.
Le Paris is anything but a concept restaurant. The staff is all family, and the diners seem to be devoted regulars. At three tables, solitary diners munch and sip wine alone, testifying to the restaurant's solid, dependable appeal.
Maurice Poucant opened the restaurant in 1956, says Marie-Claude Poucant, his daughter-in-law. Her late husband, Guy, took over from his father after "working here since he was a little one, peeling potatoes and washing dishes," Marie-Claude Poucant says. Now, she runs the restaurant with her son, Terry. In almost half a century, the restaurant has employed just three chefs to run its kitchen.
The atmosphere on the streets around Le Paris is one of burger joints, strip clubs, and exotic restaurants where dinner menus converge from all corners of the globe, often borrowing from one another along the way. At the Nonya Supperclub, a chic French-Asian fusion restaurant nearby, the Indonesian cook learned Thai cooking at a restaurant in Switzerland and cut his haute cuisine chops at culinary school in Vancouver.
In this mix, Le Paris maintains a classic, inviolable style. Americans who have made their way through Julia Child's cookbooks will find this cuisine endearingly familiar. A salad of crisp endive is dressed in a creamy vinaigrette. It tastes fresh, tart, and bitter. A simple vegetable soup offers morsels of carrot and turnip in pureed potato. It's perfectly seasoned, and the vegetables taste of themselves.
There is no concept here, only perfect execution. Duck confit has crackling crisp skin that yields to rich, luxurious meat. The duck leg curves around a pile of potatoes sauteed in the fat from the confit and a neat bundle of perfectly toothsome, slender haricots verts. It's not hard to imagine oneself seated for Sunday dinner in a middle-class Parisian neighborhood.
Indeed, Le Paris seems to have arrived in one piece directly from the city it's named for. It has a kind of faded, storied elegance. Like an aunt who lives in a distant city, it's comfortable and familiar, and yet just a little bit exotic. Le Paris, 1812 Ste-Catherine Ouest, Montreal; 514-937-4898. Hours are Monday-Thursday, noon-3 p.m. and 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon-3 and 5:30-11 p.m.; Sunday 5:30-10:30 p.m. Entrees are $17 to $27.50.