I’m back in Canada again. Don’t ask, it’ll just make you sad. And strangely – instead of being in Toronto with my family, I’m in Montreal (a city I lived in for five years … five years ago) having a mini-vacation. Again, don’t ask – suffice to say, in two days I’m heading to Toronto to take care of some sad family affairs.
But for now, I’m making lemonade with lemons, visiting old friends and old eating favourites, and it’s interesting to hunt down my previous tried and true eating experiences on a cold, 5-year-old trail. This seems to have affected bar selection most, but I had a few nasty surprises when I tried to track down that old hole-in-the-wall eating place only to find it closed. Fortunately, there appear to be some institutions that continue to stand the test of time.
Any former Montrealer, when returning to the city, immediately sets his or her internal homing beacon towards one thing: BAGELS. True Montreal bagels are baked in one or two shops (although there are many imitators around the city that do relatively good versions): Fairmount or St. Viateur. While there doesn’t appear to be a war between these two bakeries – there seems to be more than enough business to go around – most people tend to prefer one over the other. I ALWAYS go to St. Viateur. … mostly because Fairmount seems to be too crowded whenever I try to expand my horizons or compare.
See how that bagel man beckons you like a creepy Japanese cat? It is truly a siren call, my friends.
Now, let me add that Montreal bagels differ from New York, or conventional, bagels in many ways. They are much smaller and chewier, they come in only two flavours (poppyseed or sesame) and they are cooked in an old-fashioned wood oven. Many a debate has been fostered over which types of bagels are superior: large numbers of New Yorkers have come to Montreal, seen the wiry, chewy tiny bagels and proudly proclaimed that these were no bagels they could recognise. However, I love Montreal bagels for several reasons: you can taste the old wood oven in the smoky nuttiness of each bagel, and furthermore, they’re the right size. Really, who needs such giant bagels? Last time I was in NYC with N, eating one bagel with cream cheese would leave me stuffed for 5 hours – and plug up the plumbing to boot! No, my friend, Montreal bagels are where it’s at.
Here are the proud workers packing up my dozen sesame bagels and setting up a new line of little dough bagels on those long planks before plunging them into the oven. When the bagels are ready, the oven-man pulls the plank out and dramatically swings it up in a vertical stroke; the bagels fly through the air before landing happily in the bagel-dock. It’s masterful.
They came to me warm from the oven, a golden, delicious and chewy gift from heaven. Thank you, St. Viateur, and thank you Montreal bagels. (I might add that the other wonderful thing about St. Viateur is that it’s open 24 hours a day. I can’t name the number of 4am missions we went on in university in order to get some fresh out of the oven.)
As I walked away from the bagel shop, I noticed a church having a bazaar. Never one to turn down randomly discovered kitsch, I wandered in only to find this menu:
It was a Ukranian Catholic Church, and it was full of people chowing down. I decided on Borscht, saving my appetite for future adventures. I ordered it with meatballs, and I was given a sweet, steaming mug of bright pink thin borscht with a couple of delicious meatballs hidden at the bottom:
It whetted my appetite for the tastes of Eastern Europe so easily found all over Canada (everyone has a grandmother who makes pierogies, or barring that, a friend’s grandmother who makes pierogies and gives you frozen Ziploc bags full of them) … and I set off down St. Laurent to search for the perfect vareniki (pierogies) … which will have to wait for another post.
Happy Birthday (to me!) and Happy Halloween!