When Carnegie Deli closed at the end of 2016, after eight decades of serving up pastrami on rye, many saw it as the final death rattle of the American Jewish deli. And while the American Jewish deli might be crawling its way to the graveyard, the North American Jewish deli is alive and well – in Canada.
There are still dozens of Jewish restaurants in the New York area, but in the city’s iconic Jewish neighborhood – the Lower East Side – only one deli remains.
In Montreal, however, delis are thriving (despite the fact that Montreal has less than 100,000 Jews and New York has more than 1 million), partially in thanks to Celine Dion, who showed the Power of Love when she saved Montreal’s most famous deli, Schwartz’s, All By Herself, stepping in to partner up with the owners in late 2016.
It was some combination of gentrification, the uptick in trendy restaurants everywhere, and an urban population that gradually become more conscious about what they're eating that ultimately led to the downfall of a cuisine whose unofficial motto is "the fattier, the better." But even while Montreal's Mile End – Montreal’s epicenter of Jewish food, along with bordering Le Plateau – became an epicenter for gentrification and the capital of hipsterdom (it’s basically the Williamsburg of Montreal), the Jewish culinary scene is still thriving.
And it’s not just delicatessens. Montreal has its own brand of Jewish cuisine from smoked meat sandwiches to its iconic bagels to steakhouses and pop-up diners that serve everything from old-school fare straight from the Old Country to borderline haute cuisine.
Perhaps the biggest point of contention between New York and Montreal is the bagels. While most Americans know New York as the bagel mecca, the people of Montreal will invariably argue that their version are far superior.
They're bagel purists in Montreal. They’ve been doing it the same way since Fairmount Bagel opened in 1949 and rival St-Viateur opened in 1957: boiled in honey water and thrown into a wood-fired oven, then served piping hot with either sesame or poppy seeds (or sometimes no seeds at all). They’re thinner, smaller, with a bigger hole, and they're light and doughy and chewy.
In Montreal, you won’t find much of the newfangled bagel shops with blueberry and rainbow bagels and 31 flavors of cream cheese, and you will definitely have no problem finishing one bagel, and won't even feel guilty about eating a second. Which bagel you like better really has to do with how you eat your bagels: if just want to tuck into a baked good, Montreal is where it’s at. If, for you, a bagel is a vehicle for for the toppings, New York is your spot.
When it comes to Montreal deli, the smoked meat sandwich towers above all else. Literally and figuratively. Smoked meat is basically the pastrami of Montreal, and the smoked meat-versus-pastrami debate is a lot less relevant than bagel war. Let’s be honest: Unless you have an incredibly discerning palate, which of the two you prefer probably has a lot less to do with actual taste and a lot more to do with either nostalgia, arbitrary allegiance, or whatever experience you happen to be having while eating.
Nobody really knows the origins of either, but it’s likely similar to any basic immigrant story. The Jews brought over their traditions of curing meat from Romania, and then, thanks to cross-cultural exchange with a bunch of other Jewish immigrants living in close proximity, that original meat, called pastramă, morphed into what we now know as pastrami and smoked meat.
Yes, there are some subtle differences – mostly to do with what goes in the rub, the amount of time the meat is cured and smoked, and exactly where on the cow the meat comes from (navel versus brisket). But by the time you’ve got the meat on inch-thick rye and have it covered in mustard, the only real noticeable difference is that smoked meat is slightly leaner than full-fat pastrami. Regardless, it’s absolutely delicious, and places like Schwartz’s, Lester’s, and Snowdon Deli have been doing it the same way for decades, so it’s like taking a bite of tradition.
Decades of tradition
What really sets Montreal’s Jewish cuisine apart is the sheer variety, like Moishes, a nearly 80-year-old steakhouse that serves up sides like potato latkes and karnatzlach, along with a wide array of meats. Beauty’s, a 75-year-old family-run institution is basically Montreal’s original brunch spot. The mostly unchanged establishment is best known for two things: the Beauty’s Special – a St-Viateur bagel with lox, cream cheese, tomato, and onion – and the Mish-Mash, an omelette with hot dogs, salami, green pepper and fried onion.
Then there’s Wilensky’s Light Lunch, a throwback to the days when people were still strolling up to lunch counters for an egg cream and a sandwich. Luckily, you can relive that golden age, as Wilensky’s is gloriously unchanged, right down to the mint green walls, barstools, and the classic that has made this spot famous for 85 years: a pressed sandwich of all-beef salami and all-beef bologna topped with mustard on a kaiser roll.
While decades-old institutions still dominate the Jewish food landscape in Montreal, the city has modernized the cuisine. Newcomer to the scene Hof Kelsten – a bakery that supplies restaurants like Le Club Chasse et Pêche, Le Filet and Joe Beef – is a crossroads of old-school tradition and modern fare. Think gravlax, borscht and brisket sharing a menu with foie gras and a VLT (a veal-bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich).
Arthurs Nosh Bar, opened by Joe Beef alums, is more reminiscent of Russ & Daughters in New York than Schwartz’s. In other words, it's heavy on the lox and other Eastern European and Jewish classics like perogies, as well as challah grilled cheese. But it’s also got a touch of modernity, like the No Budget Brit's Schnitzel served with whipped honey, French dressing, capers and hot sauce, plus kale and mango salads. Even the design is old-world-meets-new-world.
The latest entry into the Jewish Food scene is Espace Culinaire Fletchers, a café and cultural food space that just opened in the new Musée du Montréal Juif (Museum of Jewish Montreal), started by Jewish food historian and co-founder of The Wandering Chew pop-up dinners, Kat Romanow.
The space is open as a cafe on weekends that pays homage to both Ashkenazi and Sephardic culinary traditions with menu items like homemade salmon gravlax on bagels (both Fairmount and St-Viateur), served both Moroccan-style (berber spice and arak gravlax) or Ashkenazi-style (beet-dill gravlax and toasted caraway cream cheese). Sambusak, gefilte fish and amba are also all on the menu. During the week, the space hosts workshops, pop-up dinners and other food events.