With a stable to match Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group (in sheer amount of properties operated, at least), Simon Oren's Tour De France group is a true local restaurant empire. All together, the group operates nine restaurants throughout the city, two of which are open 24 hours, and all of which offer variations on the brasserie/bistro theme. And as if that weren't enough, Oren is also involved in Theater District-favorites 5 Napkin Burger and Nizza. His places are an asset to the city's dining landscape—bringing us nothing particularly novel, but churning out reasonably priced, reliably competent Francophilic fare to neighborhood residents and tourists alike.
Opened in 1996, L'Express is the mama bear of the bunch; a blueprint for Oren's subsequent ventures. Its appeal is seemingly universal. The sprawling corner bouchon—hugging the intersection of Park Avenue South and 20th Street—attracts everyone from breakfasting Gramercy folk and business lunchers during the day to boisterous revelers who stop by the neighborhood's many watering holes at night.
At nearly 3:00 am, the space was more than halfway filled and drowning in the kind of soft light that lets you know you're out past most peoples' bedtimes. We took a seat in the middle of the room, across from the long, backlit bar, and were handed their graveyard menu, which is mostly the same save for an increase in prices and decrease in available dishes.
The menu initially skewed more traditional Lyonnaise with items like pig's trotters and blood sausage. Much of that offal has disappeared, though a crispy tripe appetizer remains on the dinner menu.
We started with a very pretty frisee aux lardons ($8.95), whose components mostly hit their marks (the poached egg especially) despite a lackluster dressing. That scourge of salad-kind—the watery dressing mess at the bottom of the plate—also made an appearance.
Steak frites ($18.25) came delivered to the table at the requested temperature but exhibited little to no char. With few tender pieces, the meat begged for extra seasoning or a sauce of some kind. The frites—hand-cut, skin-on fries cooked airy and crisp—helped quite a bit.
France's original sandwich gangster, the croque monsieur ($10.25), arrived as a mound of melted emmental and ham, topped off with a beautifully browned but overpowering mornay sauce. The accompanying fries were a bit limp, nothing like the batch that came with the steak.
Creme Brulee ($6.95) comes in many forms, but it's not often that you see apricot counted among them. The fresh chunks of fruit imbued the dessert with a floral sweetness, which made up for slightly curdled custard.
Brasserie, bistro, or bouchon—whatever you call it—L'Express is a solid option for twilight dining on the main island. It offers atmosphere above all else; a little piece of Lyon on Park Avenue. As we were leaving, a waitress whose shift was ending stood by the bar, saying farewell to a coworker. "Some guy paid me a dollar to go to the bathroom. You can have it." With a shrug, she took it.