MONTREAL – We are in the celebrated Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hebraique de Montréal, or Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, renowned for its smoked meat sandwiches. You will love this place.
The restaurant, 90 years old, is narrow and crowded, with well-worn wooden tables and walls festooned with celebrity photos, newspaper articles and posters. It has been the subject of a book, a musical and a documentary.
I am with my granddaughter, Alessia, who is 17 and a certified EMT. On top of her other qualities, this makes her an ideal travel companion.
The restaurant, a miniature version of Katz’s Delicatessen in New York, holds 60 people. Arriving late morning, we snag the last pair of seats. By the time we finish devouring our sandwiches, a long line will be forming outside. On weekends, especially, hungry patrons can wait for over an hour.
Smoked meat (or viande fumée), a Montreal tradition, is similar to pastrami, though the cuts of meat and the seasonings may differ.
At Schwartz’s, the meat is brisket. Before we eat it on rye bread with mustard, it has been marinated in a dry cure for 10 days, smoked for some eight hours, steamed for another three or four and hand sliced.
There is almost a half pound of meat in the sandwich, says general manager Frank Silva, 55, who is standing behind the counter and shoving out orders. The slices are a gorgeous red, rippled with fat – we have ordered it “medium” – with the seasoning still visible at the edges. Alessia has homemade french fries; I have coleslaw and a bright green half-sour pickle.
It makes for a sensational start to a three-day visit to this city whose Jewish population, despite a decline in recent decades, still numbers more than 90,000. Schwartz’s is one of many restaurants and bakeries with a Jewish vibe; indeed, Montreal has a bagel mania. We got to several of these eateries, plus two excellent restaurants that stretched our horizons, the upscale La Sirène de la Mer, or Mermaid of the Sea (Lebanese), and Romados rotisserie chicken (Portuguese).
We also watched the Rogers Cup women’s tennis and toured the home arena of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team.
Let’s start, though, with Schwartz’s, where singer Celine Dion is a 25-percent owner and where Frank Silva is the maestro. Any restaurant faces challenges, but I wondered if it’s a special burden to preside over a national treasure, an international destination.
“Well, being the best and staying the best, can be difficult at times,” said Silva. “We’ve been doing it for many, many years. Myself, I’ve been here 37 years. I’ve been the G.M. for the last 20 years, and every year we get better, and every year we get busier. The only big stress may be staffing, finding good help… We’re approximately 60 employees right now in this little joint…Otherwise, suppliers are not an issue; money’s not a factor. We pride ourselves on top-quality products.”
Schwartz’s is on St-Laurent, the boulevard, informally called The Main, that separates east Montreal from west. It’s open past midnight. Silva says the restaurant and its takeout department next door serve at least 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of smoked meat a day.
Though Schwartz’s can be tough if you’re trying to stay healthy, Silva says there are a couple of customers who come at least twice a week. Like anyone else, he says, they have to wait in line, so there’s no special treatment that way. On the other hand, once they’re inside, he might already know what they eat, and they don’t have to order.
Suppose I am one of those regulars, and I always have a smoked meat sandwich, and I walk in and, without asking me, Silva serves up a smoked meat sandwich. And suppose it just so happens on this day I want turkey.
“It could happen,” Silva concedes, but the spurned smoked meat sandwich won’t be sitting around for long. He chuckles, “I guarantee you we’re going to pass that sandwich very quickly to another person!”
Some other memories from this Montreal trip:
• We were poised to bite into the smoked meat at Lester’s deli in the Outremont neighborhood. Owner Billy Berenholc was kvelling about his product, telling us that smoked meat originated with Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and declaring it has become so universal that only 10 percent of his customers are Jewish.
Meanwhile, a staffer brought him a plate of cherries, cantaloupe and a peach to graze on. WHAT??!! “This is all made from smoked meat,” Berenholc deadpanned. “I know it doesn’t look like it. We’re experimenting.”
• They may not patronize Lester’s, which is only Kosher-style, but the many Hasidic Jews who live nearby have several places they can identify with. They include Cheskie Heimishe Bakery, owned by a Hasidic couple. Think about this: The high-quality apricot rugelach was only the third best thing we bought. Better was the sumptuous layered Russian cinnamon babka. And utterly sublime was an item called a cheese oval. At a glance, it looks like a small ice cream sandwich. Instead it is sweet cheese filling coated with a thin chocolate shell on top and bottom.
• Montreal has two legendary 24-hour bagel shops: St-Viateur and Fairmount, a few blocks apart in the Mile End neighborhood. The bagels are hand-rolled, boiled in honey water and baked in wood-fired ovens. Sesame is the most traditional flavor, but some folks say you should just go with whatever is coming out of the oven when you arrive. This is bagel nirvana. At St-Viateur we saw hundreds of bagels in bins. I got so caught up in the mystique I bought two colorful souvenir shopping bags and a key ring.
At Fairmount a baker took bagels from the oven, then fed in more firewood. We bought bagels at each shop and, with packets of cream cheese in hand, repaired to a nearby café. I ordered a cappuccino and sampled our haul. Hands down best choice: St-Viateur’s poppy – which happened to be the freshest from the oven when we were there.
A postscript from our last morning. In a church across the street from our hotel, the Queen Elizabeth, a funeral that would draw VIPs and media was about to be held for a man who’d been an influential Quebec political figure. The hotel lobby was swarming with security. And now, look at this: Emerging from an elevator, putting on his jacket, hurrying along – security in front of him and behind him – was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. No glad-handing, no autographs, he was moving. But I did manage to get a nice photo of him with my iPhone.
IF YOU GO: “Shalom Montreal,” a special exhibit at the McCord Museum, 690 Sherbrooke West, through Nov. 11, offers a good introduction to the history of Montreal’s Jews and their contributions to the life of the city.
M. CHARLES BAKST is a former Providence Journal political columnist.