It may not have built a brand as big as Schwartz’s, but Bens Delicatessen looms large in the history of Jewish Montreal — and in the city’s cultural lore. Once a working-class hangout, Bens grew to serve smoked meat and soups to celebs from Michael Jackson to Leonard Cohen to Catherine Deneuve in its ‘60s-‘70s heyday.
Now, Montreal’s McCord Museum is paying tribute to the delicatessen – which closed in 2006 – with Bens, the Legendary Deli, a compact but fascinating exhibition about the eatery, founder Ben Kravitz, and a bright, shining moment in Montreal history.
“Bens itself was a great portrait of Montreal,” Celine Widmer, the exhibition’s curator, told the Forward. “An institution that endured the time of a human life span, Bens was always much more than just a restaurant. It died out after 98 years of existence, but remains an integral part of our collective memory. It became iconic. It was one of those very special places that a city experiences quite rarely.”
The exhibition showcases more than 100 objects, including posters, architectural plans, photos, counter stools, dishes, utensils, menus, and original recipes donated by Kravitz descendants, who had contacted the museum in 2007 about staging a show. A fascinating video tribute to Bens comes in the form of a two-minute spiel by superfan (and Montreal native) Leonard Cohen pulled from 1965 docu Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr. Leonard Cohen.
Like any great deli, the attraction of Bens wasn’t just food, which even regulars would admit was so-so. Because the restaurant was the rare non-drinking establishments open late in Montreal, its cachet as a slightly louche, latenight hangout snowballed – think a smaller Katz’s. By 1960, Bens’ staff of 80 was serving 8,000 customers a day.
“When nightlife was centered downtown, back in Montreal’s Sin City days, American entertainers would stop in there to sober up or start their day,” said Bill Brownstein, the Montreal Gazette columnist whose 2006 book on Schwartz’s became an acclaimed stage musical. Ben’s ascent also mirrored Montreal’s, Brownstein said. “The period when Bens at its prime was an era when we were the financial and cultural hub of the country,” before political unrest shifted the center of gravity to Toronto, Brownstein explained.
Montreal and New York bagels have long been in a standoff. Will Black Seed, a new bagelry that plans to combine the two recipes end the feud? Photos courtesy of Mile End and Flickr
When Mile End opened in Brooklyn four years ago, the Montreal-inspired deli made a name for itself by trucking bagels weekly direct from the mothership — the hallowed St. Viateur Bagel in the eatery’s namesake neighborhood.
Now, Mile End founder Noah Bernamoff will source his bagels a little closer to home. He’s teaming up with restaurateur Matt Kliegman of hip Nolita café/general store The Smile to open Black Seed, a defiantly old-school bagel shop at Elizabeth and Spring Streets in Manhattan.
Black Seed’s opening is part of a wave of sit-down bagel and appetizing shops coming to Manhattan and Brooklyn this spring. Lower East Side mainstay Russ & Daughters is expected to open a full-service café shortly, and seating at a new location of Brooklyn smoked-fish emporium Shelsky’s is slated to debut after Passover.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Bernamoff told the Forward. “It’s been reinvented a few too many times in the wrong direction. We’re trying to take it in reverse, to a more essential place. It’s not about introducing new and groundbreaking concepts into the canon of bagel-making. It’s just about trying to bake an amazing bagel.”
Black Seed’s bagels may surprise fans of Mile End, which has built a rabid following by rebooting Montreal classics like smoked-meat sandwiches and poutine. While boiling bagels in honey and baking them in a wood-burning oven a la Montreal, Black Seed will unveil a hybrid that draws on both Montreal and New York bagels.
Some people will go to amazing lengths to enjoy Montreal smoke meat, a sort of cross between pastrami and corned beef.
Alexei (Lex) Gopnik-Lewinski used to smuggle vacuum-packed smoke meat (also known as smoked meat) across the border every time he would come home to Berkeley, California after visiting family in Montreal. Then, one time two years ago, he was busted by customs as he tried to cross the border with 15 pounds of the stuff.
“They confiscated $150 worth of smoke meat!” Gopnik-Lewisnki exclaimed. “That was it. It was at that moment that I decided I had to learn how to make it myself.”
A musician and broadcaster by profession, Gopnik-Lewinski, 35, faced a steep culinary learning curve. However, by the way his Augie’s Montreal Smoke Meat (named for his young son) has been tickling people’s taste buds, it would seem that he is a quick study.
Blake Joffe and Amy Remsen invited Gopnik-Lewinski to do seven smoke meat pop- ups in August and September at their Beauty’s Bagel Shop (they do Montreal-style bagels) in Oakland. Customers were lined up out the door and down the block, buying a total of 1,000 pounds of the newly-minted deli man’s smoke meat. Customers had the choice of enjoying it either in a sandwich on Wise Sons Deli rye bread, or crumbled over traditional poutine. Poutine, a favorite of Quebecers, is French fries topped with a special gravy and cheese curds (and in this case, also some smoke meat).
Montreal’s St-Viateur Bagel has come a long way since Buchenwald survivor Myer Lewkowicz opened his humble storefront bakery in a rundown immigrant neighborhood in 1957.
Under the Morena family, its owners since 1994, St-Viateur has ballooned to six retail outlets, a thriving wholesale operation, and a fast-growing delivery business to rabid bagel fans in the United States.
Now, St-Viateur’s taking its wares on the road – literally. The iconic bakery has launched its first food truck, and the only rolling kitchen in Montreal’s nascent food-truck scene dedicated to bagels. The sleek yellow van, emblazoned with the bakery’s familiar dancing-bagel logo, made its debut this summer, and this week unveiled a full schedule for Montreal’s downtown business district.
On the menu: A simple bagel & butter ($2.25CDN); classic bagel and cream cheese ($3.75); “The Traditional”, a bagel with smoked salmon, cream cheese, onion, tomatoes, capers, and lemon ($9) ; and perhaps the ultimate Montreal mash-up, a bagel with smoked meat and mustard ($9). An egg-bagel sandwich with bacon and cheddar cheese – definitely not an item from Myer Lewkowicz’s day – comes with filtered coffee for $7. Smoothies, coffee drinks, and fresh-squeezed orange juice round out the menu.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of St-Viateur in Montreal’s culinary and cultural landscape. Hand-rolled, boiled in honey-flavored water, and wood-fired, St-Viateur’s chewy old-fashioned bagels have become a staple for locals, and a huge draw for tourists; a rivalry between St-Viateur and neighbor Fairmount Bagel even got play on the BBC as “Montreal’s bagel war”. When Brooklyn uber-deli Mile End began importing Montreal bagels, owner Noah Bernamoff – a former Montrealer- chose St-Viateur, as the Forward has reported.
Dear New York City bagel-lovers,
As a Montreal export to New York, I take offense at your treatment of our version of the mouthwatering goodness that is the Montreal bagel.
Granted, I’m aware that I’m in the minority on this issue. Any five-second conversation with my colleagues at the Forward combining the word “Montreal” and “bagel” usually ends with me having to raise my voice an octave or two as I desperately try to explain why they are in fact superior — which they are.
There are two main outposts of bagel legitimacy in Montreal: Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel. And as any Montrealer will tell you, debates about which one of those two is better can get pretty heated — but that’s a whole other type of schmear.
For those of you too caught up behind the massive girth of the New York bagel to know any better, here are a couple of differences between the two:
Montreal bagels are smaller. Hand-rolled and baked in wood ovens, they have crispier crusts and are less bread-y than their equivalents south of the border.
Montreal bagels are sweeter. But just a touch so. The recipe is slightly different (and some say, more authentic and true to what you would have gotten back in the Old Country), in that they are made using malt flour and boiled in water flavored with honey.
Montreal bagels are simpler. Begone travesty items — Yes, I mean you, cinnamon raisin frauds! The Montreal bagel only comes in two flavors: sesame or poppy seed. When toasted, the crispy seeds take on a smoky flavor. That, combined with a thick dollop of cream cheese and a piece of smoked lox, is what it’s all about.
Much has been written about our differences. Sometimes, it’s done with a veil of objectivity, as in 2009, when the Times’ City Room blog listed the pros and cons extensively, going as far as dragging a batch back to New York to let their newsroom decide (big surprise, they chose their city).
And sometimes, as in the case of food writer Mimi Sheraton, our bagels are quite literally abused. In 2011, Sheraton violently discarded Montreal’s baked treasures: “I have never eaten anything worse called a bagel,” she told the New York Times. But even she admits New York bagels aren’t what they used to be. In the wake of H&H closing its doors, she declared the state of the bagel as “deplorable.” I guess nostalgia dies hard.
I will concede that try as I might to resist it, the “everything” bagel has made its way into my heart. But one glance at the dozens of home-bought comforts packed into my freezer over several visits from friends and families is enough to make me forget the smell of garlic, salt and onion wafting down from Absolute Bagels, only a couple of blocks upwind. It’s not for nothing that Noah Bernamoff, creator of Mile End Deli, decided to cart in truckloads of St-Viateur golden goodies through the night to serve to his customers for nearly two years before baking his own Montreal-style bagels in New York.
They’re just that good.
Maybe it’s a matter of what you grew up with. After all, what is a bagel if not a reminder of where you come from, a taste of home that you crave when you’re away?
(But really, it’s not. Ours are better, sorry.)
Disgruntled Montreal Expat.
Heading north to Montreal this summer? If you’re not, you should be.
Aside from being the three months out of the year when the city doesn’t look like a snow globe, summertime is festival time in Montreal. From June until mid-September, the newly laid-out Place des Festivals is aglow with lights, sounds, crowds, music and film.
The more well-known events, like Francofolies, a two-week tribute to French culture in Canada and abroad, and the Montreal Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 34th anniversary this year and has hosted the likes of Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King and Aretha Franklin, have just ended, but that’s no reason to cancel.
All that partying tends to give one hunger pangs, and Montreal is happy to help relieve them. You’ve probably heard of poutine, the heart-attack inducing combination of fries, gravy and cheese curds, but what of Montreal’s Jewish food scene? Like the city itself, its Jewish fare is defined by the blend of English-speaking Ashkenazi heritage complete with a French-speaking Sephardic twist.
From juicy smoked meat to melt-in-your-mouth North African sweets, there’s something for everyone. If you’re new to the city, check out the map below to plan your post-festival food crawl.
Late Night Smoked Meat: Schwartz’s Deli
No Montreal night out is complete without a trip to Schwartz’s. Even at 3 a.m. (closing time for bars in the city), you will find a line snaking out the front door and onto the street, while tourists and locals alike wait to fill their bellies with smoked meat (the Canadian answer to pastrami).
Founded in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, the “charcuterie hebraique” (Hebrew Delicatessen) is the oldest deli in the city, and has occupied a prime spot on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, a.k.a. “The Main,” for more than 80 years.
Each smoked meat establishment jealously guards its recipe, complete with a secret blend of herbs and spices. The good news? If you can’t get enough of the juicy blend, it’s now available in travel-friendly packaging in certain supermarkets around Canada.
Disclosure: Though the white-tiled interior and narrow tables stay true to the deli’s origins, the business is no longer under Jewish ownership. In 2012, Rene Angélil, Celine Dion’s husband and a lifelong smoked meat fan, bought the deli from businessman Hy Diamond.
Must Try: Smoked meat sandwich (when asked if you want it lean, the answer is most decidedly no).
3895 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal, Quebec, H2W 1X9.
The humble bagel is a staple of Western Jewish culture, but what most of us know about it amounts to little more than a shmear. After all, bagels are generally something we buy, not bake.
This makes the bagel ideal for a hands-on workshop, especially at a restaurant-bakery called Spread Bagelry, one of the few United States outposts for what many people would call the food at its very best: the Montreal-style bagel. It’s never made by machine, boiled in honey water, and always baked in a wood-fired brick oven that’s hotter than yours.
And so last night, about 40 people drifted into Spread in downtown Philadelphia, pumped by the promise of watching the bagel-making process and even attempting to roll their own.
“We’re going to discuss them, we’re going to show you how to roll them, we’re going to show you how we boil them and then bake them. We’re not going to show you the recipe,” Larry Rosenblum told the eager onlookers as his business partner, Mark Cosgrove, stood ready to take the rings of imperfect doughy circles they’d be rolling through the process.
Walking inside from the cold wintery streets of Montréal, where the smell of onions and carrots fill the two-story shul, one can hear Friday night prayers ring out from a boisterous crowd of 20-somethings, excited university students and local community members welcoming the Shabbat Queen. The smells come from the Shabbat dinner last week, which consists of a warm chicken soup with kosher organic grain-fed chicken from a farm located in the Eastern Townships of Québec, a locally-grown bean puree and, “Spectacular Salsa” with local tomatoes, onions, and garlic, a cabbage salad with carrots and beets, and a frittata with mushrooms, onions, and eggs. And that’s just the first course.
Thanks to the Shefa Project, a student-run organization aimed at engaging Jewish people with sustainable solutions to environmental problems, members of the Ghetto Shul in Montréal, Québec enjoy weekly Shabbat dinners that are local, sustainably-grown and kosher. The initiative called Sustainable Shabbat began in 2010, when second year Agriculture student Aryeh Canter started holding educational programs at the Hillel at McGill University. Canter was interested in promoting sustainable practices within the Jewish student community at McGill. The programs became more practical when Canter’s friend Jordan Bibla found organic kosher chicken raised in Québec and they applied for grants from Gen J, a Jewish community grant organization, and the Student Society at McGill University.
It may be hard to believe that for some bagel lovers, New York bagels are not the be all and end all. Not everyone may know it, but Montreal is a big bagel town, too. And now some U.S. cities — New York, included — are serving Montreal bagels on their turf.
“My folks are from Montreal, so I always grew up with a sense of bagel superiority,” David Sax, Jewish food connoisseur and author of “Save the Deli,” told the Jew and the Carrot. He thinks a niche market for Montreal bagel has formed since word got out around the U.S. about them from ex-Montrealers and others who visited the French-speaking city, tasted the bagels there, and loved them.
During the wee hours of a recent morning I was doing quite the opposite of what I was taught to do as a child: moseying through the alleys of downtown Montreal picking things, particularly food items, out of the garbage. I wandered deliberately, winding my way in and out of the alleys behind Rue St. Dominique, the narrow, badly-lit road that backs on Rue St. Laurent, the area’s main drag of shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. In my defense, at least I wasn’t alone.
As recently as six months ago, I had the same aversion to dumpster diving as you are likely having right now. The idea of a fuzzy piece of fruit ― and I’m not talking peaches ― or a half-mushy sweet potato, from the garbage no less, evoked free association with “ick!” and “filth” and “Get that out of my kitchen!” But as I learn more about our food system and revisit some of the Jewish agricultural laws, I’m growing more and more convinced that cutting away the rotten parts of foods that grocery stores discard and using the rest is a great way to get my groceries.
When Torontonian Zane Caplansky was 16 years old, his then-girlfriend, who was from Montreal, introduced him to the smoked meat of the famed Schwartz’s Delicatessen. Caplansky broke up with that girlfriend many years ago, but his devotion to good deli has been abiding. “My love affair with smoked meat has been long lasting,” he declared.
Now 42, Caplansky, who opened his eponymous Caplansky’s Delicatessen in downtown Toronto a year and a half ago, has wedded his name and reputation to his own version of cured and smoked beef brisket. Not to be confused with corned beef (the pickled and boiled brisket for which Toronto is traditionally known), Montreal smoked meat is more like pastrami — the main difference being that the former is made from brisket and the latter from the tougher navel cut.
When I grew up in Toronto in the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of my classmates in day school were the children of recent transplants from Montreal, and they brought with them nostalgia for the Jewish foods of their home city like Montreal bagels and smoked meat. But I longed for a Montreal food of a different kind — a Montreal smoked turkey at Passover. Heavily spiced and delicious cold, we ordered them from Montreal and they were the centerpieces of our seders. It was a special treat, not in the least because smoked turkey wasn’t the kind of the thing you could make at home (at least not easily).
The tradition started with my paternal grandfather who was in the shoe business. He started receiving smoked turkeys every year from a customer who gifted hams to his other clients but knew my grandfather kept a kosher home (one year, he sent us a ham by accident). It became an integral part of our Passover dinner table and we continued the tradition for many years.
For Sarah Karnasiewicz of the LA Times, borscht is “my family’s edible valentine,” she shares her ode to the dish and several recipes for varieties including spiced mushroom borscht and a white borscht.
Gearing up for Passover, Epicurious wants to know, is “Matzoh, Better Plain or Dressed Up?”
In Florida noted chef Michael Baum is remaking himself and the knish with his gourmet interpretations of the classic Jewish snack, writes the Miami Herald.
Hosting a group of young adults for Shabbat dinner, Rabbi Yisroel Bernath and his wife, Sara, noticed something odd: salads and kugels were disappearing quickly, but the chicken went largely untouched.
When a little post-dinner sleuthing revealed many of their guests were vegetarian, it was all the incentive the Chabad rabbi needed to take his storefront center vegan.
For the 28-year-old Chicago native, whose friends at yeshiva called him “alfalfa sprouts” and ribbed the health-conscious bocher for his blender-buzzed vitamin shakes, the idea of a vegan/organic Chabad house was hardly a stretch.