Exploring the Montreal-New York Food Connection

A trip up over the border to the great French north

A dozen years ago, Montreal’s most famous chef, Normand Laprise, arrived here to launch a restaurant in the Flatiron District. Cena didn’t last long, but it garnered three stars from Ruth Reichl in the Times. Since then, what was once a drip has turned into a flood, as influences and chefs have migrated in increasing numbers from our frosty French-Canadian counterpart 329 miles to the north. Recently, I visited the city to analyze New York’s culinary debt—and see what else may be in store for us.

Currently, poutine is Montreal’s greatest gustatory contribution to NYC, a tangled mass of French fries, brown gravy, and semi-molten cheese curds. This quintessential working-class tuck-in debuted a few years ago in upscale form at The Inn LW12—a gastropub that, through lavish application of maple syrup, tried to be the Canadian Spotted Pig. It failed. Now, poutine is readily available in many Brooklyn and Manhattan neighborhoods, at boîtes as diverse as Sheep Station, Hotel Griffou, Dive Bar, Pommes Frites, Corner Burger, Shopsin’s—the list goes on and on. We’ve even had a restaurant devoted to it, the Lower East Side’s now-defunct T Poutine, which filled its menu with off-the-wall variations such as “treehugger” (mushrooms, vegetarian gravy, and curds).

As I trudged the streets of Montreal in a flurry of snow, I spotted all sorts of proletarian places serving creative variations, though none quite as wild as the ones found in NYC: Green Spot Diner near the Atwater Market floods an Italian version with marinara and mozzarella, while at Royal Sous-Marins in the semi-hardscrabble Mile End neighborhood, I encountered pogo poutine, which has a pair of “pogos,” or corn dogs, dumped on top. Could anything be greasier or more satisfying?

Montreal's Wilensky Light Lunch
Daniel Roy
Montreal's Wilensky Light Lunch
Deli matriarch Ruth Wilensky (right)
Deli matriarch Ruth Wilensky (right)

Poutine was supposedly invented in 1957, and this explains why there’s none at La Binerie (“The Beanery”) in the area known as the Plateau, with a menu virtually unchanged since 1938, its founding date. This rickety hash house offers a laundry list of working-class Québécois specialties, including tourtière (an oniony ground-pork pie), blancmange (vanilla cornstarch pudding), and poudin chôumere (“unemployed pudding”), a dessert dating to the Great Depression that’s mainly flour and brown-sugar syrup. Fèves-au-lard (baked beans with pork fat) is La Binerie’s signature, a concoction long since embraced by Yanks in canned form.

Almost two years ago on the Gourmet website, I compared the Jewish-Québécois specialty “smoked meat” as served at Schwartz’s in Montreal with its American cousin, pastrami, as stuck between two slices of rye at Katz’s. Both briskets had a similar ruby color and unctuous density, but I found Schwartz’s richer and more flavor-filled. After a visit to Snowdon Deli in the western Montreal neighborhood of Côte-des-Neiges—where the hand-sliced product is pinker, fattier, and less smoky—I realized that on its home turf, smoked meat shows much more variation than pastrami.

New Yorkers didn’t have to wait long to make their own comparison, because Mile End opened soon thereafter in Boerum Hill. Name-checking the Montreal neighborhood, this thimble-size eatery not only captured the north-of-the-border vibe, it offered a smoked meat sandwich that came pretty damn close to Schwartz’s. The deli also produces its own unique poutine—heaped with more of that excellent smoked meat.

Another sandwich at Mile End is the Ruth Wilensky, adulating the 91-year-old matriarch of an ancient Montreal deli called Wilensky Light Lunch. When I ventured into the charmingly decrepit premises (dating to 1931) on my trip, I found the whole Wilensky clan lined up behind a counter with eight wooden stools, in an empty room piled with used periodicals for sale. Their “Wilensky’s Special” is served on a round pletzel roll filled with two kinds of beef salami and one bologna, flattened in a sandwich press and served hot with mustard. It’s scrumptious.

Deposited on a squished onion roll instead, Mile End’s “Ruth Wilensky” is similar, though the bologna has gone missing. According to a Montreal friend, “Ruth was livid that someone imitated her sandwich.” Mile End also serves sesame bagels imported from St.-Viateur Bagel, which, like Wilensky Light Lunch, is located in Mile End. The bagels are smaller and fluffier than our own, and invariably crusted with sesame or poppy seeds. Blocks away, there’s a competing bakery called Fairmount, and both are open 24 hours. Montrealers line up to fight over which is best.

No piece on New York’s debt to Montreal would be complete without mentioning M. Wells, the plucky new Long Island City diner. One partner, Hugue Dufour, was a sous chef at Au Pied de Cochon (“APDC,” for short), a restaurant in Montreal’s Plateau that specializes in the greasiest nose-to-tail pork products imaginable; its influences have long been felt here. I realized as I ate a very rich meal at APDC—consisting of foie gras poutine, pickled pig tongue, a pair of thick blood sausages, and a green salad topped with a breaded and deep-fried puck of pork—that the menu is not some transgressional culinary fluke, but one inspired by the fat-intensive diet that farmers have historically eaten during harsh Quebec winters. Indeed, Montreal restaurants have long been on the local and sustainable bandwagon, serving mainly beets, potatoes, parsnips, and squash during the colder months.

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