The Underdog: A Montreal Deli Takes on NYC

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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."

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Chantal Martineau covers food, wine, and spirits for such titles as Saveur, Imbibe, and The Village Voice. More

Chantal Martineau is a Montreal native now based in New York who writes about food, wine, and spirits for such titles as Saveur, Imbibe, and The Village Voice.

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