Earlier this month, Montreal’s iconic Schwartz’s deli was sold, creating alarm in certain circles that the new ownership group (which includes Rene Angelil, Celine Dion’s husband) would try to make it into a franchise.
David Sax, author of Save the Deli, made an argument in favour of leaving Schwartz’s just as it is, thank you very much. Of the change in ownership, he said this on his blog: “I think the term ‘holy shit’ is appropriate in this situation.”
One of the great things about your first visit to Schwartz’s in Montreal is that it is as fantastic as every one of your subsequent visits. You wait in a line snaking along St. Laurent Boulevard until you come face to face with a refrigerated window display of stacked briskets. A vapour cloud of steaming meat and spices greets you inside, blanketing your clothing for days. Under bright florescent lights, you’re seated at a child-sized table, likely with total strangers, as you bathe in the hodgepodge sights of the place – burly carvers under faded photographs, harried waiters shouting orders, the orange sparks of embers from the charcoal grill, a haphazard gallery of yellowed newspaper clippings and snaps of B-list celebrities lining the walls.
The incredibly satisfying food never varies: hand-cut fries, tangy coleslaw, garlicky sour pickles. The smoked meat briskets are still slow-cured in barrels over the course of two weeks in a spice rub of salt, garlic, coriander, black pepper and other secret ingredients – pretty much the same way it’s been done for 80 years. Smoked on-site, then left to steam for several hours, each brisket is dashed into slices by a few quick flicks of the carver’s wrist, then deposited onto small slices of rye bread, slicked with yellow mustard and dropped, steaming and glazed with melted fat, in front of your face.
It’s this experience – so brief, visceral and pure – that’s made Schwartz’s arguably the most famous restaurant in Canada, capturing the hearts of locals and visitors, French and English, alike. In a world of rapid innovation and vanishing neighbourhoods, Schwartz’s remains a constant comfort.
For that reason, Sax implored the new owners not to screw with success, noting the long history of delis that saw their brand diminished when the chain method and mentality was implemented.
He’s absolutely right: The only place to have a Schwartz’s sandwich is at Schwartz’s, at 3895 St. Laurent Blvd. The experience can’t be duplicated elsewhere, and it’s the whole experience that you’re eating.
Sax does make the claim that there are new joints that make smoked meat as good or even better than Schwartz’s.
The Montreal Gazette covered off that angle on Feb. 1:
If St. Laurent Blvd. remains smoked-meat central – with long-standing emporiums like Schwartz’s and the Main, among others – the old generation might be surprised at upscale reinterpretations in new-generation kitchens along the strip. When he was planning to launch Pastaga, the brasserie-style restaurant and wine bar on the edge of Little Italy that opened in December, chef and co-owner Martin Juneau says he knew he wanted to pay homage to the smoked-meat sandwich.
“One of my first memories of Montreal is going to Lester’s with my uncle as a kid,” Juneau, who grew up in St. Léonard and later in the Lanaudière region, says of the landmark deli on Bernard Ave. “And I still think that, bite for bite, a smoked meat sandwich would win over any dish out there. It’s all there: intensity of flavour, the smokiness of the meat, the balance of fat and the acidity of pickle – one bite says it all.”
Juneau describes his upscale version of the dish, elaborated on with sous-chef Frédérick Boucher, as a wink to a part of Montreal heritage. Instead of the beef brisket, Pastaga makes use of bison meat from Takwânaw, a family-run buffalo farm in the Outaouais region. The sirloin is marinated for three days in a dry rub of whole spices, smoked paprika, brown sugar and coarse salt, then hot-smoked for a couple of hours.
Some other restos to watch for:
- Le Comptoir Charcuteries et Vins, on St. Laurent Blvd
- Ettingers, on Newman Blvd. in LaSalle
Here’s a note about Le Comptoir:
Although that smoked meat sandwich (Note: described in the story – Bill D.) is no longer on the menu, a new nod to the Montreal classic will be introduced in the coming months, this one featuring smoked tongue using similar techniques.
I have to go back to Montreal! :)