The setting is familiar: a sparsely decorated luncheonette where a diverse clientele—young and old, local and visitor, Jew and Gentile—munches on sandwiches. The sandwich is familiar, too: bright pink slabs of sliced brisket that's been rubbed with salt and spices and smoked for days, barely contained by two slices of rye. But the scene isn't of one of New York City's famed delis, and the sandwich in question isn't pastrami. This is Montreal, and the sandwich is smoked meat.
Of course, nowadays, the setting could very well be New York. Noah Bernamoff, a Montreal native, has opened Mile End, the city's first Montreal-style Jewish deli, in Brooklyn. During the first few days, he sold out of the signature smoked meat by early afternoon. Two months in, the meat lasts until 4 p.m. on a good day, but dinner service is still out of the question.
Recently, Bernamoff also started a bare-bones import service, bringing in Montreal-style bagels. ("Importing" consists of a couple of his friends picking up the bagels at midnight and driving them back across the border, drug-smuggling style, to arrive by 8 a.m.) These aren't the only Montreal foods to gain a following in New York. Poutine—that mess of fries, gravy, and cheese curds best enjoyed when you're too drunk to refuse it—made a splash on Manhattan menus a few years ago and now has a restaurant dedicated to it on the Lower East Side. Not quite a cuisine, strictly speaking, Montreal food is a motley mix of dishes that makes sense only if you know the city.
When Bernamoff opened Mile End, people didn't seem to get it. The New York Post began an article about the deli with the warning "purists beware," and went on to quote a local deli owner on how the idea sounded newfangled, a quirky take on something inherently New York. But there's nothing newfangled about Montreal deli culture. The city's Jewish community is nearly as old as New York's; the first Jewish immigrants arrived around 1760. They settled in Mile End, an area just north of Montreal's Mount Royal, and the neighborhood after which Bernamoff's deli is named.
It isn't such a leap that pastrami-loving New Yorkers might also have a taste for smoked meat. The two are similar, differentiated by the type of brining process smoked meat undergoes, as well as the length of time it's smoked. The spices are different, too, and the result is a redder, smokier, more peppery meat than pastrami. Bagels, however, are another story. Every few years, some local food writer discovers Montreal bagels and pits them against New York's in a taste test. New York bagels invariably win. Those from Montreal are smaller, chewier, closer in spirit to a bialy, and, interestingly, more like the bagels early Jewish immigrants brought to North America. But New Yorkers, accustomed to increasingly fat, doughy bagels, tend to think they're just wrong.
"New York bagels used to be like Montreal bagels," Bernamoff often finds himself explaining. "But it's a laborious and expensive process to par-boil, then bake them, the way it used to be done. So, that was abandoned in New York, for convenience. Montreal bagel makers didn't deviate from the original recipe. David Sax, who you might know from his book, Save the Deli, is a friend of mine. He believes that Montreal has the most authentic deli culture because it's changed the least over time."
So, where do bowls of fries, cheese, and gravy fit in? Bernamoff calls Mile End his dichotomous homage to both the Jewish deli and Montreal: a collection of the city's "greatest hits," its soul food. Nothing embodies this more than the "smoked meat poutine," a version of the above-mentioned mess topped with fatty bits of pink meat, the debris that has fallen away from the smoked brisket. And, yes, this is a common sight in Montreal.
In 2007, poutine appeared—almost ironically—on the menu of a now-defunct establishment in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. Today, it can be found in a handful of places around the city—particularly at TPoutine, America's first poutine restaurant. Owner Thierry Pepin, a native Montrealer (and male model), turns out poutine that would please any Quebecois. The key lies in the curds: morsels of un-aged cheese, salty on the tongue and squeaky on the teeth. Unlike haute cuisine that balances acidity and salt, poutine layers saltiness on top of saltiness, and the curds should be the saltiest: the sodium crown.
Last Thanksgiving, another French-Canadian dish was introduced to Gotham. Tourtière, a meat pie traditionally served during the holiday season, is bursting with ground meat, bound by potatoes, and encased in a buttery crust. Heritage Foods USA's version, sold by mail order, was inspired by the pie at Au Pied de Cochon, an outrageously rustic meat Mecca of a restaurant in Montreal. Knowledge of the Heritage Foods tourtière quickly circulated, making it a hot-ticket item among New York foodies, who stay on top of trends as much as New York fashionistas.
Aside from the recent crop of Tim Hortons coffee shops (from English Canada, not Montreal) taking over where Dunkin' Donuts shops once stood, this is the first time New Yorkers are associating Canada with particular foods. Poutine's allure is obvious—the gutbomb has been spotted on menus from London to Seoul. But something else may be at play, an inexplicable cachet associated with Montreal. It is a fabulous place, with a certain easy chic, but also a sense of comedy about it. It's foreign even to other Canadians. And this elusive quality (a je ne sais quoi, dare we say?) might be what makes the city intriguing to a certain type of New York eater.
New Yorkers like to be in on the joke, after all. Fries smothered in gravy and cheese? A pie made of meat? A Jewish deli from Montreal? What could be funnier than that.