Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Noshing Around Montreal

I must have visited Montreal about twenty times since 1985. I try to go for a few days every year. It's a relatively easy trip from New York to another world-class city, and the music festivals are a draw for me. I usually go up for the jazz festival, but this time I caught Les Francofolies, the international Francophone music festival. The train ride on Amtrak's Adirondack, which I usually do in one direction, is one of the most scenically spectacular in North America, if not the world. And, of course, food is always on the agenda. This time I resolved to try a couple of Montreal's Jewish legends that I had somehow always managed to miss, as well as several other ethnic eateries and an esteemed sandwich place.

St. Viateur Bagels is Montreal's most famous bagelry, indeed probably Canada's. The Montreal bagel differs from the New York bagel most noticeably in its malty sweetness. Montreal vs. New York bagel debates can reach the intensity of New Haven vs. New York pizza debates. For some reason I wasn't even aware of the Montreal bagel tradition until 3 or 4 years ago, and had never managed to get over to a St. Viateur location until this trip. The flagship branch, opened in 1957, is on St. Viateur, but I decided to go to their sit-down cafe on Mont Royal East. Though I'd tried several Montreal bagels before, St. Viateur's did have a certain extra je ne sais quoi. It really is a different animal from a New York bagel, though one might argue that there are no longer many places that make a classic New York bagel. The gargantuan grotesqueries that one encounters about town have little to do with the chewy little gems of my youth. One of the few places that does turn out a classic New York bagel, happily, is the Bagel Hole, right in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Though St. Viateur was founded by two fellows with blue-chip bagelmaker monikers (Hyman Selikman and Meyer Lewkowicz), the current owner, who came up through the ranks, is Joe Morena. You don't have to be Jewish.

Schwartz's is the mecca for smoked meat sandwiches, Montreal's answer to corned beef and pastrami. Made from brisket, smoked and spiced, it is a kissing cousin of both. Schwartz's is a major tourist destination, and therefore there's always a line out the door, which is why I had never eaten there before. This time I was determined to try Schwartz's, so I went at a relatively quiet time (Monday at 5 PM). There was a line out the door waiting for take-out, but I saw that there were a couple of open stools at the counter and I was in.

Schwartz's is on Rue St. Laurent, which was traditionally the heart of immigrant Montreal. Now home to trendy bars and restaurants and cheap ethnic eateries, a number of the old Eastern- and Central-European businesses are still standing, including a Hungarian charcuterie with absolutely addictive garlic sausages. Schwartz's has been at the same location since it opened in 1928.

Until I got to Schwartz's I thought I didn't like Montreal smoked meat. I had first tried it at Ben's, which had a reputation nearly as lofty as Schwartz's. By the time I got to Ben's, however, it was apparently a shadow of its former self (it has since closed), and the sandwich was decidedly mediocre. But Schwartz's smoked meat sandwich is as good as anything in a New York deli (of course, a good New York deli is about as hard to find as a good New York bagel these days). Hearty, moist and flavorful, Schwartz's sandwich is also an incredible bargain at $4.95.

I had another memorable sandwich in Montreal this time around. I lunched at Olive + Gourmando, a gourmet bakery-cafe in Old Montreal, which is open only during the day, Tuesday through Saturday. They have a stellar reputation, and I was lured by the promise of their Cuban panino, having an interest in any bold variation on the Cuban sandwich. Well, it was heavenly. O+G's Cuban is made from braised pork, ham and gruyere (brilliant!), pressed on their homemade bread with a mayo flavored with chipotles, pickles, lime and coriander. The spicy smokiness of the chipotle mayo, and its marriage with the meat and cheese, was a thing of beauty. The bread was damn good too.

That night I dined at a place I'd been to once before, Restaurant Uyghur, in Chinatown. Serving the food of Xinxiang province (if you're the Chinese government) or East Turkestan (if you're Uighur), it's far superior to Brooklyn's Uighur restaurant, Cafe Kashkar. I really wanted to try the famous Uighur dish, da pan ji (literally "big plate chicken"), spicy chicken and potatoes, served with noodles on the side. However, the dish, true to its name, cannot be ordered in a portion reasonable for a single diner, so I went instead with the lamb lagman, which was made with wonderfully chewy hand-pulled noodles. I also had a samsa and a hoshang, similar little buns stuffed with chopped meat and onions. The difference was that the fluffy samsa was steamed and baked (unlike Uzbek samsas, which are crisper and flakier), and the fluffy hoshang was steamed and fried. The next time I'm in Montreal with friends I intend to try the da pan ji.

Another place that had been on my Montreal wish list was Le Petit Alep, near the Jean Talon market. It's a casual Syrian-Armenian place (I assume run by Armenians from Syria), annexed to a more formal restaurant. I had an excellent Armenian sausage sandwich. The spicy sausage was similar to merguez, but made from beef instead of lamb. It was garnished with mouhamara, a red pepper, pomegranate and walnut dip. The desserts all sounded tempting; I went for the mamounie (or maamuneeya), a warm semolina paste topped with ricotta, pistachios, and cinnamon that's a specialty of Aleppo. It's a popular item at Le Petit Alep, but I was a bit disappointed, as it was just too sweet and buttery for me. In Syria maamuneeya is also eaten as a breakfast cereal.

I also did some ogling at the Jean Talon market while I was out that way.

Schwartz's World Famous Smoked Meat on Urbanspoon


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