The first thing you might want to try as soon as you land in Montreal is the poutine. And there’s certainly a lot of it to go around. After all, the city is the most populous municipality in Quebec, where poutine was invented. But I would argue that Montreal’s must-eat food is not fries and gravy, but rather smoked-meat sandwiches and bagels—the two most delicious reminders of the town’s Jewish history. Though the Jewish population is no longer concentrated in the city’s Historic Jewish Quarter, the deli sandwiches and bagels here rival New York’s.
Ask anyone where the best deli is, and they’ll tell you the same thing as the guidebooks: Schwartz’s (3895 Saint-Laurent Blvd., 514-842-4813; www.schwartzsdeli.com), where the towering smoked-meat sandwich is as majestic as Notre-Dame Basilica’s soaring architecture. To witness it in front of you is a religious experience. Before your Schwartz’s pilgrimage, be prepared with clothing appropriate for the weather forecast. It’s probably wise to dress in layers, as the wait outside is long, and you will either roast under an intense sun, be buffeted by a frigid wind, or both. No matter when you go, the queue of regulars and tourists is a constant, even during the bleakest of Quebec winters.
When you finally get seated, it will be inside a cramped room with walls covered by framed newspaper articles and old autographed photos. Sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the same people who braved the elements with you. Each table seats six, and the goal of the staff is to make use of every available spot as though they’re packing eggs in a carton. The service, however, is as warm as it’s efficient; your waiter might put a palm on your shoulder as he asks if you want anything else after delivering your food, scarcely minutes after it’s ordered.
Get the smoked-meat sandwiches, a staple here since Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, opened the place in 1928. Though comparisons to the corned beef sandwiches of New York’s Katz’s Deli and its kin are inevitable, a sign reminds you “It’s not corned; it’s smoked.” But even hardened Manhattanites will agree: No matter what it’s called, the meat here is flavorful, just salty enough, with the slightest hint of smoke and pastrami-like spicing. More than anything, it’s the tenderness that astounds. The hand-carved slices of rust-colored meat don’t just melt in the mouth; they evaporate. You’ll feel as though you are breathing in beef brisket oxygen more than chewing it.
When you finally accept that it’s the equal of anything you can have in New York, seek out a bagel or two at the venerable St-Viateur Bagel (263 Rue Saint Viateur O, 514-276-8044) in Montreal’s Little Italy neighborhood. The preeminent bagel bakery is open 24 hours, seven days a week. It reportedly sells more than 12,000 bagels daily. No matter the time you come, the bagels here are hot, crusty, dense, soft and sweet. You won’t need to add anything to enjoy them—not butter, not cream cheese, not lox. They’re good as is, even cold, hours after they’re baked. Since honey is used in the dough as well as the boiling water, there’s a noticeable yet subtle sweetness to them. It might, in fact, be its sweetness and moist crumb that might make you think it’s closer to a cake doughnut than the usual bagel at, say, Bruegger’s.
Even more of a treat is to be in the shop in which they’re born. Look around, and you’re a witness to history. Nothing appears to have changed since it opened in 1957. Sacks of flour are stacked behind the window. In one corner, a worker wrestles with a raw mountain of dough, tearing some off by the fistful, rolling it into cylinders, then forming classic hoop shapes in one fluid motion. In another corner, the head baker tends to a deep, glowing oven, pulling out long paddles lined with bagels. After he checks for doneness with his fingers, he chucks the whole thing over the side into a wooden trough, where the bagels slide in an avalanche to the cashier’s counter.
These may not displace the Big Apple-style in the minds of those Americans who are predisposed to thinking that bagels are a New York thing—an American thing. In one episode of his show, Anthony Bourdain was very careful in the way he broached the subject. “So the great debate,” he said, “who has the better bagel, New York or Montreal? It’s a completely ridiculous apple-and-oranges discussion. . . . I’m a New Yorker, so you know where my allegiance lies. But I think it’s unfair to both quite magnificent products to try to compare them.”
But when you’re in Montreal, you need to try some—or a dozen. The poutine can wait.