On its own, the Montreal-style bagel isn’t a particularly jaw-dropping creation: made with egg and malt, and lacking salt, it’s boiled in a honey solution and baked in a wood-fired oven. It’s more fine-boned than its bloated New York-style counterpart, and sweeter and denser; it also has a bigger hole. And until February, it was more or less unseen in these parts.
Mile End gave French Canadian expats and Brooklyn-based carbophiles a new lease on life in February, when it started a Montreal bagel delivery service. Baked at Montreal’s famed St.-Viateur and spirited across the border by some buddies of the restaurant’s owner, the bagels soon made their way onto the deli’s menu in the form of the Beauty. Served closed or open-faced, it featured one of St.-Viateur’s sesame seed-encrusted specimens smeared with cream cheese, draped with tomato slices and house-cured salmon, and garnished with slivered purple onions and a spray of capers.
The Beauty was one of the city’s more attractive sandwiches, and certainly the first to give the Montreal bagel such loving and aesthetically pleasing treatment. But then, earlier this month, news spread of a midtown Montreal bagel infiltration. This one came courtesy of Marketa, a cheese and retail shop newly opened by the owner of the nearby Estiatorio Milos, which has another location in Montreal. Marketa also carried St.-Viateur bagels, and was also serving them with lox and cream cheese. So obviously a Battle of the Dishes was in order.
First up was Marketa’s bagel and lox. Pretty much everything at Marketa is expensive, and the sandwich is no exception: forking over $12.50, we mused that the same sandwich, albeit on a New York bagel, would cost about $4 less at Russ & Daughters. As it turned out, Marketa uses Russ’s Irish organic salmon, which in part explains the price hike. The bagels themselves come in poppy seed or sesame seed. We chose poppy, and stood back and watched while it was shellacked with a healthy amount of cream cheese, and then piled high with the salmon.
Although the price fostered a certain amount of skepticism, the sandwich was fantastic. The bagel itself was fine — sweet, soft, and a little bland — but the lox was the real reason to keep eating. Silky, plush, and mild but just salty enough, it would have been worth devouring even if it had come on a stale slice of Wonder Bread. It was lox to get lost in, and more or less rendered the bagel irrelevant, though the pleasant tang of the cream cheese proved a worthy accompaniment.
As previously mentioned, Mile End’s the Beauty more than lives up to its name. Not only is it easy on the eyes, it’s also easier on the wallet than Marketa’s sandwich: $11 gets you an abundant amount of salmon, along with the aforementioned tomato, onions, and capers. The lox is cured in-house, and the tomatoes, judging from those displayed on the counter, are heirloom, making it an even better deal.
But while the sum of the sandwich’s parts was certainly stunning, some of those parts proved once again that beauty is skin-deep. While the tomatoes were wonderfully ripe, they would have benefited from some salt; without it, their flavor got a bit lost amid the other ingredients. The cream cheese lacked tang, and the lox, while almost as lush and silky as Marketa’s, needed more bite, something to add dimension to its completely agreeable but relatively demure flavor.
The capers and onions, though, were an excellent touch — the onions sliced paper-thin so that they didn’t overwhelm the other ingredients, the capers providing welcome bursts of salinity. And the bagel itself was, like Marketa’s, fine, if slightly spongy. In both cases, one of the prime virtues of the bagel was its size: because it’s so much smaller than its American counterparts, it complemented, rather than overwhelmed, the ingredients it bore.
If this battle were only about looks and value, Mile End would win it easily. But since what matters here is the bagel and lox, victory goes to Marketa. Still, it’s reassuring to know that should you crave a Montreal bagel in either Manhattan or Brooklyn, you really can’t go wrong, a privilege that was six months ago unimaginable.
135 West 56th Street
Mile End Delicatessen
97A Hoyt Street, Brooklyn