Mile End could be the poster child for three recent trends in the city’s restaurant industry. The first is the increasing popularity of facsimile restaurants—places that go to great pains to pretend they’re anywhere but New York. As with Choptank (Baltimore), Hill Country (Lockhart, Texas), Pies-‘N’-Thighs (Podunk, North Carolina), and Keste (Naples, Italy), Mile End wants to make you feel like you’re in Montreal. Specifically, it drops you in a neighborhood north of the Plateau notorious for its indie rock, hipster boutiques, and historic Jewish quarter, known as Mile End. In fact, our imitation Montreal deli imports its bagels directly from St.-Viateur, the neighborhood’s venerable bagel bakery. But more about those later.
Second, in common with restaurants like Egg (eggs), Meatball Shop (meatballs), Porchetta (Italian pork sandwiches), Saltie (weird English sandwiches), and Bark (hot dogs), Mile End focuses on a single commodity, a Montreal specialty known as “smoked meat.” This deeply scarlet, slow-smoked beef brisket is a close cousin of our own pastrami. While the Canadian product is dark, oily, and deploys an emphatic spice rub, our own pastrami is lighter colored, a little smokier, and sports a milder and simpler spice rub—at least that’s my theory. Conflicting views abound, since neither Katz’s (our foremost pastrami place) nor Schwartz’s (Montreal’s smoked meat leader) will reveal their exact curing process.
With briskets provided by Williamsburg’s Meat Hook—which the restaurant cures for 11 days, then smokes for eight hours—Mile End’s meat initially fell somewhere between pastrami and smoked meat in flavor. Lately, it has become more like Montreal smoked meat, but remains an animal unto itself. The brisket’s best usage is in a simple sandwich on modest-size slices of rye, pointedly smaller than the absurdly large ones common in New York delis, where the overstuffed style has been making people fat for more than a century. Like the sandwich found at Schwartz’s (a self-described “Charcuterie Hebräique”), it’s the perfect size for one person. At $8, it’s also a steal, and I could eat one of these excellent offerings every day. Or maybe two.
The succulent and fatty meat scraps left over from hand carving find their way into a poutine ($11 with meat/$8 without), a specialty of the working-class French part of Montreal. My Québécois colleague, Chantal Martineau, wrinkled up her nose at the restaurant’s version of poutine when we tried it soon after Mile End’s opening: The gravy was too lumpy and the curds not squeaky enough, though she thought the fatty smoked meat dumped on top wasn’t bad. I partly agree about the deli’s newfangled poutine—despite the fact that upscale restaurants in Montreal have been fiddling with the recipe for decades, drowning the french fries in duck demi-glace and substituting aggressive cheeses. Nevertheless, you won’t find a bigger or more satisfying heap of grease, salt, protein, and starch anywhere in Boerum Hill.
The rest of Mile End’s menu is almost comically brief. There are two other sandwiches—a somewhat dry assemblage of smoked turkey on rye called the Grandpa, and a frankly weird pressed panini of beef salami on an elongated onion roll, named the Ruth Wilensky, after a famous deli that was featured in the film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Indeed, it’s nearly identical to one served at Wilensky’s Light Lunch, only without the bologna. In imitation of the Montreal establishment, Mile End facetiously prohibits ordering the sandwich without mustard—unless you pay a 10 cent fine.
There are few forgettable extras on the menu, including a matzoh ball soup as dull as the product found in New York delis, and a borscht that’s pallid in everything but its purplishness. A breakfast menu available until noon includes two notable selections: an agreeable hash of eggs, salami, and verts du jour called mish-mash ($8), and a truly spectacular sandwich of lox, capers, onions, and whipped cream cheese on a St.-Viateur bagel christened the Beauty. Montreal bagels are more compact than their New York counterparts, boiled in a honey solution before being baked, and dipped in sesame seeds as they cool off.
The third local restaurant trend exhibited by Mile End is size. With only three picnic tables, a few counter stools, and a kitchen in the same room, the place belongs among the city’s new crop of micro-eateries. Succumbing to real estate pressures that have spiraled during the Bloomberg era, in which franchise fast-food restaurants gobble up many of the best storefronts, good start-ups like Mile End are forced to seek out cramped, inferior spaces. In an earlier era, it might have been another Katz’s.