WARMTH ON THE ICE PLANET: AN INQUIRY INTO MONTRÉAL DINING

When winter decides to have done with the lovably “brisk” or “chilly” spirit with which it arrived and turns more to the “hateful,” “oppressive” end of the spectrum, it seems a worthwhile effort to look into some ways that these very gnarly months can be enjoyed, or at least survived. One possible route through the icy hellscape is demonstrated by our friends to the north. Montréal, Québec—where the winters are longer and harsher and the food and beer heavier in equal measure—has a lot to teach. What follows, then, is a brief inquiry into what to eat in that very distinguished city, though, to be clear, we’re not talking gastro-pubs or tasting menus; no, our allegiance is to the hole in the wall, the lunch pail, the real deal.

The primary means by which generations of Québécois have battled the debilitating effects of long northeast winters is by simply ratcheting up the heartiness quotient of a given dish until it attains a thickness and viscosity that, one can only assume, corresponds with some primordial comfort response located deep in the eater’s genetic encoding. “Hot mush,” in other words, is the order of the day— savory, delicious mush, but mush all the same. The honoring of this ancestral impulse is evidenced in countless Québec favorites—more often than not, modified European recipes, adjusted for maximum wintertime satisfaction—like RACLETTE

a fondue-like dish that amounts to a large pile of molten cheese, and some bread with which to gratefully sop it. There’s also the Montréal baked beans equivalent (brazenly called FÈVES AU LARD

, in case you were curious about the fat content), and a wide sampling of meat pies—among them TOURTIÈRE

, a holiday ground pork/beef/veal deal offset with cinnamon and cloves, and a pretty straightforward analogue to shepherd’s pie which, for some reason lost to history, is known in Québec as PÂTÉ CHINOIS

or “chinese pie.”

Wholly distinct from this stew-prone branch of the Canadian culinary realm is the storied and labyrinthine world of smoked meat

and, by extension, the Montréal deli tradition from which it springs. The thickly-sliced brisket sandwiches of Montréal—which developed, over the course of the 20th century, a North American kosher culture parallel to but distinguished from that of New York—is best experienced by a New Yorker as a pleasant alternate universe variant on a familiar recipe (this goes doubly for bagels, on which more momentarily). Of the famous (and thus tourist-swarmed) smoked meat spots, Bens and Schwartz’s, only the latter is still standing—though the former was, in the 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen, visited and rhapsodized over by the man himself in reliably elaborate metaphor. Schwartz’s is good, sure, but if long lines aren’t your thing, there’s a real deal deli counter experience of the rapidly-vanishing variety available just a few blocks north at Wilensky’s, a thankfully untouched, no-bullshit lunch zone and jewel of the Mile End neighborhood, where you can grab a “special” for $3.75 (bologna and salami on a roll with cheese and mustard, natch), any number of 50-cent dried sausages from a cup that’s been parked on the bar-top since opening, and a soda made in-house from their inexhaustible inventory of homemade syrups (up to and including chocolate flavor).

But the most celebrated—and most contentious—entry in any Montréal Jewish Cooking lexicon would surely go to the bagel

whose Canadian version is tucked as closely to the Montréaler identity as its American cousin is to that of NYC. There is little use in declaring a preference, and frankly we’d rather avoid the “which bagel is better” controversy, after the arguments and altercations that have broken out, the friend- and relationships torn asunder, the administrations that have been brought down over that selfsame question. But for the unfamiliar reader, a little background on the northern variant may still be in order. Montréal bagels are sweet, with a nutty, unpolished vibe; they come on an unspoken “sesame seeds or nothing” basis, meaning if you don’t want to seem like a psycho, that’s how you’ll order them; they’re simultaneously larger (in diameter), smaller (in actual edible volume) and crunchier than the doughy American version. In the Montréal bagel conversation, the only names that bear mentioning are Fairmount Bagels and St-Viateur Bagels, products of a long-ago acrimonious split that have unsurprisingly remained bitter rivals. There is plenty of scuttlebutt to be seized on in the battle between the two institutions (rumor even has it that Fairmount recently started bleaching their flour, though let me underline that this infraction is merely “alleged” at this point), but the truth of the matter is they both serve superlative bagels, and are necessary destinations, if for no other reason then at least for the spectacle—that unquantifiably emotional experience of hustling through fogged-out glass doors to be greeted by an endlessly-replenishing mountain of steaming bagels being corralled into a giant bagging trough by a dejected Sisyphean employee armed with a massive wooden paddle.

Both stores serve cream cheese as well.

Last on the agenda is the monolithic unspoken presence that lurks behind every discussion of food in Montréal, the dark center of the town’s culinary black hole: poutine,

the french fry / cheese curd / gravy agglomerate that—though it’s now begun to enjoy a bit of international notoriety and even something of a foodie cachet—simply cannot be explained, except maybe as the fundamental product of that venerable school of thought that says “it’s cold; make a hot greasy pile of food and we’ll all feel a bit better;” and be sure to ignore the voices of prattling gourmands who would have you believe that poutine is about anything else. All that being said, it is pretty damn good. As with any cheap staple food, the places not to go for poutine are many: chain joints like La Belle Province, St. Hubert and Frites Alors (whose name, basically “[Let’s get] fries, then,” perfectly sums up the combination of enthusiasm and resignation that is a necessary precursor to a trip to a poutinerie) are to be avoided at all costs. But poutine is not a fancy food, and walking the mid-range line would be the right move: for this there’s La Banquise, a 24-hour poutine mill with 30 varieties of the dish, the latest in Quebecer jams on the radio, and no end to the health concerns generated therein.

So over the next couple of months, as we turn back to our troubled, frostbitten lives, maybe we can take a little comfort from the means by which our Canadian brethren have managed to light an alimentary path through winter’s darkness: namely, by piling on thicker and thicker accumulations of hot, primevally-ordained comfort. They’ve led the way; all we need do is follow.

written by Mark Iosifescu