Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Travels in Taste - Schwartz's Deli, Montreal

I've just finished reading Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour, which is basically the story of a celebrity chef's voyages to various parts of the world looking for "the perfect meal". I guess you could call it a Hollywood-ish example of foodie tourism (although I'm pretty sure some of the experiences and locales he visits in the book are unattainable for the average non-bazillionaire).

Over the course of reading it, I've come to realize that I too need to start travelling the world looking for some of the best food it has to offer. At least I've already got Prague under my belt, so no need to go back in search of more deep-fried cheese sandwiches, bread dumplings and bramborak.

Luckily, a recent trip to Montreal gave me a pretty decent (and unexpected) starting point. It was a Wednesday morning, I was staying at my brother's place in Montreal, looking forward to dinner with a local friend at a recently-opened BBQ place. But alas, plans had to be cancelled. This left me with a few hours to kill in the afternoon before the Mastodon concert (which was the whole point of being in Montreal in the first place). So, after confirming with my bro that Schwartz's Deli is indeed the place to go for smoked meat, I set upon an excursion up the length of St. Laurent Blvd. to find this promised land of brisket.

After a bit of confusion, I finally was able to amble my way into the place. I was greeted by an enthusiastic and easy-going gentleman dressed in cook's whites who asked "to go?", to which I responded "Actually, one for here if you have room" (the place was packed, which I can guess is normal). He indicated a table of four with three people still sitting, so I sidled into a seat beside a bunch of strangers. I was in love with this place!

Inside Schwartz's Deli - A beautifully low-key environment for such a wonderful culinary experience!

As I sat and took in the surroundings (and snapped a pic or two), the other three folks finished and left, leaving me on my own at the table for a bit. Looking over the menu, I decided I'd go for the standard smoked meat on rye, fries, coleslaw and pickle. Within minutes, the "server" returned and I gave my order and asked if they served beer. Turns out they don't! But he suggested I get the traditional Cott's cherry soda with the order instead. With a "Sure, why not?", my fate was sealed! He also assured me that "medium" fattiness was the way to go. Sure, I could have gone for lean, but what would have been the point of that?

It didn't very long for my order to arrive, nor for a few more guests to join my table. What I really enjoyed about the laissez-faire ambience of the place was the hodge-podge of clientele: Japanese tourists with professional grade cameras, businessmen in from New York, locals on their break or day off, not to mention the two guys from Norway who sat next to me.

But, ambiance be damned, I was here for the food!

Smoked Meat on Rye, Fries, Slaw and a Dill Pickle - What else does a man need?

Now, before I tell you just how damn good this sandwich was, let me give you some background on the significance of smoked meat in my lifetime. Back when I was a little guy in the 80s, there was a place called Kardish's Deli in Ottawa's Hintonburg neighbourhood (wayyyy before it was trendy). Once a month or so after going to Mass (that's what Catholics call "going to church"), my dad would trundle all the kids into the van and we'd have lunch at Kardish's, being served by their legendary waitress Nancy who knew all seven kids by name and would always give us extra fries and pickles. It was probably the best thing from my childhood.

I'd still go into Kardish's in my later years, but in 2000 they closed down. For years I went around Ottawa hoping to find comparable smoked meat, to no avail. I also had been to some of the better delis in Montreal (like Ben's) and definitely enjoyed the smoked meat, but it still didn't quite measure up to Kardish's. I feared that nothing ever would.

Then, more than 11 years after my last bite of Kardish's came my first bite of Schwartz's smoked meat.

Angels sang!

Taste buds exploded into flavourgasms!

I exclaimed "Oh my God!" quite audibly while gripping the table.

This was like NOTHING I'd ever tasted. Kardish's be damned, this was the promised land! The meat didn't need to be chewed, it just dissolved in a smokey moment of bliss and spice.

I was in Heaven...

If you've never had smoked meat before, you might hear folks say that it's basically the same thing as pastrami or corned beef. Whoever told you that deserves a beating. While all three are basically cured and smoked beef (smoked meat is always brisket, other cuts are known to be used with the other two), pastrami and corned beef are usually sweeter and less peppery. You know that "Montreal Steak Spice" they sell at the supermarket? Imagine if Yahweh Himself whipped together a batch of that (in reality, it was invented by a Schwartz's employee in the '40s), rubbed it all over premium beef brisket, cured that mofo for 10 days, and then smoked it in a smokehouse dating back to the '20s. Starting to see the difference?

Montreal smoked meat is one of those "must try before you die" foods, and it must be tried at Schwartz's. Don't worry about the crowds, you'll find a seat next to a nice couple from Belgium or a bunch of techies on lunch break. Why would you have it any other way?

Oh, and the cherry soda? I wound up drinking two... Even with that, the bill was less than 20 bucks. What's not to love about the deli life?


Update - March 3 2012

After much pleading, I finally took Kari today. She really enjoyed the pickle:

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done. I am a Schwartz's fan too. Though I am not too sure I can do it every time I venture to Montreal. It is pretty sinful. Thank you for the memories of Kardish's Deli. I had totally forgotten about that place.