Bagels In The Real Mile End
Montreal — When Noah Bernamoff and Rae Cohen, the husband-and-wife team from Montreal, opened the Mile End Deli earlier this year in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, the Jewish food scene smelled an imposter. What’s “smoked meat, anyway,” the foodies said, referring to one of the deli’s specialties. “And what’s a ‘Montreal bagel’ doing in the land of H&H?”
So on a recent visit to this sophisticated island city with an infectious Quebec joie de vivre, we decided to make a pilgrimage to the original Mile End, a trendy neighborhood that was home to many Yiddish-speaking immigrants in the 1920s. (Between the two World Wars, Montreal’s three principal languages were French, English and Yiddish.)
There we sampled the city’s beloved bagels — so beloved that the Montreal transplants who run Brooklyn’s Mile End actually have them trucked in daily. (An imposter no more, Mile End was voted best deli this year by New York magazine.)
Two of Montreal’s bagel bakeries, St-Viateur Bagel, at 263 St-Viateur West, and Fairmount Bagel, at 74 Fairmount West, are no-frills establishments in the Mile End district, which now boasts a sprinkling of hasidim.
No matter when you get a craving for a Montreal bagel, you can drop by any time because both shops are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Adding to the color of the neighborhood is Wilensky’s lunch counter, which figured in the movie, “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” based on Mordecai Richler’s popular novel set in Montreal.
At St-Viateur, where people were lining up for fresh bagels straight out of the wood-burning oven, one of the bakers summed up the difference between Montreal and New York bagels, saying: “These are made with love.” (“Ouch,” you can hear the H&H folks saying.) Besides the love, the wood-burning oven, and the fact that Montreal bagels are boiled in honey water before being baked, help explain the fact that the north-of-the-border bagels tend to be crunchier and less puffy than their New York cousins.
As a matter of fact, the “love” has been around since 1919, when Isidore Schlafman, an immigrant bagel-maker from Russia, arrived in the city. “My grandfather opened up the first bagel bakery in Montreal,” said owner Irwin Schlafman.
Schlafman described his grandfather’s experience as the classic immigrant’s story, operating in “makeshift” quarters on St. Laurent Street for 30 years, eventually moving to a house on Fairmount, “where he moved in upstairs with my grandmother and a daughter, knocked down the back wall of the living room and built a bagel oven into the backyard.”
“He baked bagels from five in the morning to five at night,” said Schlafman.
While automation has caught up with bagel-making in other places, bagels in Montreal are still made the old-fashioned way: they’re hand-rolled, boiled in honey water, and then baked in a wood-burning oven to yield that wonderful, crusty exterior and soft, chewy center.
Schlafman trains the workers to roll bagels. “Out of every 10 that I train,” he said, “one or two will stay and the other eight go because they just can’t do it properly.”
Whether you like them plain, with sesame seeds, or with any of the other myriad toppings, they are simply divine, just the right combination of crunchy and doughy.
Obviously, making bagels requires “a lot of hard work,” said Joe Morena, the owner of St-Viateur Bagel, who jokingly described himself as a “good Italian boy that speaks Yiddish.”
On our recent visit to St-Viateur, the crowded little place was filled with customers placing orders at the counter, near bags of flour stacked high against the front window.
Meanwhile, in a large building on Victoria Ave. in the Côte-des-Neiges district, Montreal Kosher bakes bagels plus 100 other products like cakes and mouth-watering potato knishes under the watchful eye of Yaacov Bineth, who is originally from Hungary.
Every time we shop at Montreal Kosher, stocking up on tasty products to take home on the plane, the counter is crowded with customers, workers are pushing tall carts of freshly baked goods, and the aromas are wonderful.
Of the secret to making Montreal bagels, Bineth, who has operated Montreal Kosher for 55 years, perhaps summed it up best when he said: “You have to understand how to make them.”