Exploring the Montreal-New York Food Connection
A dozen years ago, Montreals most famous chef, Normand Laprise, arrived here to launch a restaurant in the Flatiron District. Cena didnt 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 Yorks culinary debtand see what else may be in store for us.
Currently, poutine is Montreals 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 LW12a 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, Shopsinsthe list goes on and on. Weve even had a restaurant devoted to it, the Lower East Sides 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?
Poutine was supposedly invented in 1957, and this explains why theres 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 thats mainly flour and brown-sugar syrup. Fèves-au-lard (baked beans with pork fat) is La Bineries 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 Schwartzs in Montreal with its American cousin, pastrami, as stuck between two slices of rye at Katzs. Both briskets had a similar ruby color and unctuous density, but I found Schwartzs richer and more flavor-filled. After a visit to Snowdon Deli in the western Montreal neighborhood of Côte-des-Neigeswhere the hand-sliced product is pinker, fattier, and less smokyI realized that on its home turf, smoked meat shows much more variation than pastrami.
New Yorkers didnt 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 Schwartzs. The deli also produces its own unique poutineheaped 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 Wilenskys 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. Its scrumptious.
Deposited on a squished onion roll instead, Mile Ends 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, theres a competing bakery called Fairmount, and both are open 24 hours. Montrealers line up to fight over which is best.
No piece on New Yorks 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 Montreals 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 APDCconsisting 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 porkthat 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.
Located in a neighborhood that gives Monteals Mile End a run for its money in grimness, our own M. Wells reproduces that same pickled pig tongue, and a couple more adapted APDC recipes. But the menu is really a thing unto itself, showing the handiwork of a very creative chef. Included are brilliant embroideries on things like the American breakfast sandwich, sliders delivered in Chinese bao, and various hashes, one made with boudinthe French blood sausage found on nearly every Montreal menu. And M. Wells other partner, Sarah Obraitis, made a splash not long ago selling tourtières by mail order.
More Montreal is in the offing. The new chef at Gabe Stulmans revamped Fedora is Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly. Like Dufour, he sous chef-ed at APDC. He also cooked at Toque, Normand Laprises flagship restaurant on Rue St. Denis. I had a chance to visit Laprises newest place in Montreal, Brasserie T, which lists all sorts of rich pork products on the menu, in a stylish room that snuggles up to the Musée dArt Contemporain, just east of downtown. A meal included loamy blood sausage; winter-squash soup light as a French velouté; loaf-shaped chicken liver mousse rimmed with rich jelly; and coquille St. Jacquesmashed potatoes and béchamel engulfing diced scallops cradled in a shell. Brasserie T has a menu more thoughtful and interesting than that of DBGB and Bar Daniel, our own Franco-American charcuteries, paired with a low-markup wine list that would make Francophiles weep. And it made me wonderwhat would happen if Laprise chose this moment for his reappearance in New York?
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