By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2006 Gourmet Magazine
The ultimate babka used to be our holy grail. Our quest led us to babka that was too dry or too drippy, too chocolatey or not chocolatey enough, oversweet or underweight, excessively cakelike or nothing more than a dolled-up loaf of bread. Then we went to Cheskie Heimishe Bakery, in Montreal’s Mile End, and found what we had been looking for. We almost didn’t notice it because we were so entranced by Cheskie’s poppy-seed rugelach, which we devoured before the countergirl was able to ring up the sale and give us change. But when we saw the babka on a back shelf, even the rugelach lost its hold. Huge and heavy, it was as intricate as a mille-feuille, with countless micro thin layers of soft dough ribboned with strata of profound chocolate. We carried a half loaf a few blocks to Café Olimpico, ordered cups of first-class espresso streaked with crema, and plotzed with pleasure over our makeshift breakfast.
Cheskie’s benchmark babka was just one of the giant satisfactions we found on a tour of Montreal’s neighborhood Jewish eateries. Smoked meat was every bit as impressive. The window of Schwartz’s, a humble café opened as a steakhouse in 1928 by Romanian immigrant Reuben Schwartz, is filled with it—piles of whole brick-red briskets packed with coarse, black spice. You’ll likely have time to admire this meat, because the line waiting for a counter stool or for a chair at one of the communal tables in the 60-seat storefront almost always stretches out the door. “Is your smoked meat corned beef or pastrami?” we ask our waiter.
“Neither. It is smoked meat,” he answers, explaining that Montreal’s way with brisket is to cure it for a week or more, smoke it for several hours, then put it in a steam box packed with spice for a few hours more. The result is a pillow of beef striated with fat and fragile enough that it must be expertly hand-cut with a knife because an automatic slicer would disintegrate it. Schwartz’s countermen assemble each sandwich with meat piled so high that the bread perched precariously atop one half invariably tumbles off as you seize the other half to eat. Smoked meat retains the soft flavor of brisket, but its exact nature depends on how you order it. Schwartz’s offers lean (but warns against that as too dry), medium, and fat. Medium is juicy; fat is insanely succulent.
While nearly all of Schwartz’s business is smoked meat (beefsteak and liver steak are seldom-ordered holdovers from the early days), Snowdon Deli, off the main strip, Queen Mary, is a full-service kosher-style deli with long glass cases holding smoked whitefish, lox and carp, knishes, pickles, salads, and pastries. As we stand at one case gaping at gorgeous spheres of gefilte fish, a woman tending seafood salads asks if we’d care for a bite of karnatzel. She points behind her to a hanging curtain of long, cigar-thin beef salamis, a Montreal deli trademark, then quickly slices a four-inch length and wraps the chewy piece of karnatzel(with a squirt of mustard) in a slice of rye bread for us to nosh on.
In addition to smoked meat, Snowdon offers corned beef, of which there are two varieties: regular and old-fashioned. The latter is radiant with exotic spice. Here, too, lean smoked meat is frowned upon, medium is most people’s choice, and fat is virtually all fat, available only when the meat cutter can gather enough of it on his block while carving the other kinds. When we say we like ours pretty fatty but don’t cotton to the idea of a total fat sandwich, the woman behind the counter suggests yet another option: medium-fat. With a straight face, she explains that medium-fat is more fatty than regular medium. One thing that makes Montreal’s smoked-meat sandwiches so good is the bread. We have long complained that even the best delis in New York City have lowered their rye-bread standards. The rye at both Schwartz’s and Snowdon is the old style, with a leathery crust and muscular crumb.
Montrealers are mad for Mile End bagels, which no one would mistake for bagels from anywhere else (one local food maven did suggest that they may accurately reflect the way bagels used to be made in the Ukraine). Sold hot from neighboring 24-hour bakeries Fairmount and St. Viateur, they are modest-size hoops that are boiled and then baked in a wood-fired oven that adds a smoky note to the flavor of dough as sweet as challah bread. The differences between Fairmount’s and St. Viateur’s are subtle indeed, but each has devotees; we think Fairmount’s are chewier—a good thing—and we particularly like Fairmount’s onion bagel, the tawny skin of which is spangled with charred bits of onion that add welcome pizzazz. Neither bakery has a place to sit down and eat, but the kindly counterman at St. Viateur gives us a plastic knife to go with our half dozen and container of cream cheese, so we can stand in the street, schmear, and eat.
Unlike the city’s delis, which seem always to be boisterous, and its espresso shops, which fairly buzz with caffeinated joy, Wilensky’s Light Lunch is museum-quiet, and the staff is more curt than courteous. Opposite the nine-stool counter, where diners eat pressed bologna-and-salami sandwiches (cheese is the one option), are shelves of beat-up paperback books. “For sale?” we ask the widow Wilensky, who stands with her arms folded to express annoyance at our curiosity.
“Half the cover price,” she answers wearily.
On top of the case that holds the books is another bargain: a pair of P205/55R-16 B.F. Goodrich snow tires that look good as new. “What else do you have for sale?” we inquire.
We have pressed our luck too far. Madame turns her back and attends to business. We’ve paid, we’ve eaten, our seats at the counter have been occupied by others. Our time is up.
Cheskie Heimshe Bakery (Boulangerie Cheskie)