Friday, September 08, 2006

Schwartz's - A Smoked Meat Tradition

Being the son of an American mother and a Canadian father meant a multitude of childhood trips to their respective geographical origins. These trips included a full agenda of family time, family fun and, of course, copious amounts of family food. Since my mother hails from Brooklyn, trips to her parent’s house meant heaping cones of Nathan’s Fries, steaming hot raisin bagels and towering plates of cream cheese and lox; all classic staples of Brooklyn food. Trips to my father’s home in Canada were a different story. My dad’s mother lives about half an hour outside of Montreal, Qubebec in a small suburb called Chomedy, known for its malls and shopping centers and not so much for its culinary prowess. This was something I never noticed because until recently the only food I ate in Canada came from my grandmother’s kitchen.

Born in Hungary, my grandmother sailed from Europe shortly after the end of World War Two, bringing with her an expansive mental encyclopedia of old world recipes, techniques and flavors. Although she cooked hundreds of dishes for us over the years, my favorite meal with the one she would have waiting for us when we arrived. The first course was a cauliflower soup, laden with large chunks of chicken, carrots and fresh bits of parsley. The soup was an aromatic bouquet of salt, slow cooked meat and fresh cut vegetables. Next up were breaded chicken and veal, fried in a skillet and dripping with grease and flavor. This was accompanied by a tart, yet surprisingly sweet, pickled cucumber salad. The meal was finished off with a triple layered, chocolate and coffee blackout cake and a cool glass of milk. Now with a meal like that, why would anyone want to eat out.

Despite my grandmother’s culinary skills, as the years passed my father would take my brother and me out for eating tours of Montreal. Being both a Montreal native and an alumnus of McGill University, my dad knew all the old culinary hotspots that would impress his teenage sons. He initiated us to the “Big Orange”, home of the infamous Orange Julep, which is a sweet, creamy, frothy drink that is piped out from the top of the three-story structure into varying sizes of styrofoam cups. He introduced us to the Montreal Bagel, a salt-free, honey-sweetened, sesame-sprinkled piece of round heaven, best eaten just after it is dumped into a pile straight out of the flame-fired oven. He introduced us to Coffee Crisps, Cherry Blossoms, real maple syrup and chocolate cakes from the European kosher and Greek bakeries. However, the most impressive gastronomic gem our father ever shared with us was a hole-in-the-wall deli known as Schwartz’s.

For those who have never heard of Canada’s oldest deli, Schwartz’s is to Montreal as Katz’s is to New York. Known as the “Montreal Tradition Since 1928”, this Jewish-style Deli has been located in the same spot since its doors opened on the Main, namely St. Lawrence St. which separates traditional Montreal into East (mainly French roots) and West (mainly English roots). Unless you arrive when the doors open at 9 a.m., there is a good chance you will have to wait in a sometimes slow-moving, long line outdoors, which can be numbing in the depth of a Montreal winter. There are two lines, one for take-out service (to the right if facing the store) and one for seating (to the left). For those willing to endure the take-out line, they will be treated to a behind the scenes show of meat slicing, mustard spreading and sausage plating. For those waiting in the seating line, the only solace is knowing that in 20 minutes to an hour, you will be enjoying one of the best smoked-meat sandwiches in the world

Being in Montreal for Labor Day Weekend (and Grandma’s 80th), my brother and I decided to make our father proud and venture out on our first solo mission to Schwartz’s. With the acrid taste of late night indulgence still lingering in our mouths, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed and into line by an impressive (at least by our standards) noon. Although the line appeared daunting at first, we only had a 20-minute wait and were graciously seated next to an elderly, Quebequois couple. The interior is a single white-tiled room, containing several rows of long narrow tables, with people packed “cheek by jowl” as my father lovingly puts it.

Whether it was the residue of the previous night’s revelry or some unfortunate and ill-timed sobering of my normal comestible cravings, my appetite was not up to its usual standards. My brother and I decided on two smoked meat sandwiches, one plate of fries, two pickles and a quarter pound of dried karnatzle (a spicy, boiled sausage). We gave our waiter our orders and got ready to feast.

There are three ways to order smoked meat: fatty, medium and lean. For the hot sandwich I recommend the medium cut which adds a nice amount of flavor with the rendered fat. The meat is first marinated in a blend of secret spices for a week, then smoked for six hours and finished off in the oven for another four. The resulting product is so tender that it splinters off into tiny, succulent morsels, with even the slightest pull.

Like Katz’s, all of the meat slicing is done in the open in the middle of the restaurant. There is a constant flow of steaming meat being cut to order and heaped in mountainous piles on top of fresh rye bread. After a relatively short wait, my brother and I were presented with two over stuffed, hot smoked meat sandwiches and all of our sides. The sandwiches, which were served on rye with a thin spread of yellow mustard, were flawless. The meat reminded me of a perfectly cooked Texas-styled brisket, with strong pepper and salt overtones and a hint of sweet smoke. The mustard’s light vinaigrette flavor rounded off the taste. The karnatzle had a taunt outer skin that encased a fatty meat inside, creamy in texture and spicy in taste. The fries were a crispy golden brown and the pickle was sour enough to make one’s lips pucker. With the bill totaling a mere twenty-four dollars Canadian, we left with both full stomachs and full wallets.

Later that day my brother and I traveled out to my grandmother’s house to meet up with the family. Over a plate of fried chicken and cucumber salad, we relayed our dining experience to our father. Although Schwartz’s could never replace the tradition of eating at Grandma’s, it’s always nice to know when our family has a new tradition to share.

Schwartz's is located at 3895 Saint-Laurent Blvd in Montreal.

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