It started out innocently enough, as most obsessions do. At the Mile End Deli in Brooklyn, N.Y. — voted best deli in the world by New York magazine — we encountered a bagel that knocked our socks off. It was light, chewy — perfect in every way. And it was from Montreal.
Seriously. Mile End owner Noah Bernamoff had trucked these magnificent bagels all the way from Canada to sell in his deli. We took a bag home to Boston — these were some well-traveled orbs of dough — and devoured them far too quickly. Then it hit us: If these bagels tasted that good after all those miles, imagine how they’d taste warm, right out of the oven?
And so it was that we found ourselves driving five hours, and walking around Montreal for several more hours, battling Canada-frigid weather, in search of the perfect Montreal bagel.
We checked into our hotel and parked the car, figuring we’d make our bagel pilgrimage on foot to soak up the city scene along with the calories. Our first stops would be bagel bakeries that stayed open 24/7, so no worries about beating the clock. “Oh, it’s too far to walk, but it’s an easy trip on the Metro,” the hotel’s desk clerk chirped, handing us a subway map and circling our destination.
The Metro was easy enough, but when we disembarked, it was dark, and we didn’t know where to go next. The GPS was no help — it thought we were driving and kept us walking around in circles to navigate the one-way streets.
The pastry gods were with us, though, and we eventually reached the Mile End district. Now a hotbed of indie music and cultural diversity, the neighborhood is also bagel central, thanks to a community of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who brought their bagel-baking traditions with them when they arrived before and after World War II. Two of those original shops are still going strong, Fairmount and St-Viateur.
Even though Fairmount Bagel (74 Fairmount St. West, 514-272-0667, www.fairmountbagel.com) is a hole-in-the-wall, it’s a prime space for watching bagel-making. While you wait for your order, you can watch as they pound a giant slab of dough into submission, slice off strips, hand-roll them into circles, and then proof (boil) them in honey-enhanced water. Then the bagels are baked in a wood-fired oven, pulled out on a wooden paddle, and tossed into a giant bin. Of course, you won’t have time to take this all in; the bin-to-bag process takes just a couple of minutes.
There’s only counter service, so most people get an order to go, but few can resist pulling out a crusty chunk to nibble while it’s still warm. We got a sesame bagel with cream cheese, and it was as delicious as we’d anticipated: slightly sweet, light but eggy, and with a bigger hole than its New York counterparts. (New York bagels, for the record, are boiled in water minus the honey, and baked in an electric oven, not cooked over hardwood.)
Fairmount’s claims to fame: “Montreal’s first bagel bakery,” opened in in 1919, and in 1949 at this location, and “the first bagel in space.” “These are the best bagels in Montreal. Absolutely positively,” a woman in line said — but she was still kind enough to give us directions to St-Viateur, the next stop on our tour de bagel. After dropping about $3.40 at the Fairmount (bagels are a cheap obsession), we walked the few blocks to La Maison du Bagel (a.k.a. St-Viateur Bagel, 263 St-Viateur West, 514-276-8044, www.stviateurbagel.com).
“First time?” the young woman at the counter inquired, as we studied the list of bagel options. “Just try this,” she said, thrusting a sesame bagel toward us. “We’re famous for our sesame bagels.” We soon learned that, while Montreal’s bagel shops offer many flavors, including chocolate and “all dressed” (everything), there’s only one variety that counts: sesame. (Poppy seed is a close second.) To order anything else is to brand one’s self a clueless rube. St-Viateur Bagel, open since 1957, has counter service only (too bad, because we’d walked more than an hour), but we were on a mission, so we gobbled a couple more toasty, straight-from-the-brick-oven bagels — one sesame and one all dressed. The sesame one was wonderful, but the all-dressed version was kind of blah. They don’t put salt on these the way they do at home, and we missed it — all that onion and garlic is super strong-tasting without a hit of salt. No salt is used in making Montreal bagels, in fact.
Bageled out for the moment, we trudged back to the Metro. Of course, the post-clubbing Saturday night crowds hadn’t shown up yet; it was still pre-midnight. A bagel shop is a popular last stop after a night of revelry here — one dough ringlet soaks up a lot of alcohol.
Come Sunday morning, we couldn’t wait to hit the bagel trail. Schwartz’s Deli seemed like a classic option, but then we heard they had new owners, including Céline Dion. We gave it a pass.
Outside, we encountered something that should’ve come as no surprise: a freezing winter day. Locals were bundled in no-nonsense Sorel boots and puffer coats, with hats, hoods, and scarves pulled up to their eyeballs. Those Canada Goose-brand jackets, supposedly the warmest winter coats in the world, and very pricey, were out in force. We ran back inside and put on virtually every piece of clothing we had with us, including long johns. No biggie, though: Google maps said our entire bagel-lined route would take 40 minutes.
Indeed. An hour later we were still searching for Faubourg Bagel Place in weather that included crunchy pellets of snow. We eventually made it to 1616 rue St-Catherine West and . . . what a disappointment. The shop was set inside an indoor food court with a cement floor, with a sign that was missing letters (_a_el_uFaubourg.) There was no line. We ordered a bagel, and it was OK, but if you want the total bagel experience, this is not the place.
We had high hopes for Beautys Luncheonette (93 avenue du Mont-Royal, 514-849-8883, www.beautys.ca) in a neighborhood that was once the heart of the city’s Jewish garment district. Walking into the biting wind, we were starting to question our sanity when we reached the circa 1942 diner, where long lines were spilling outside the door. Owner Hymie Sckolnick came out to survey the line and usher lucky folks inside, just as he’s been doing for 71 years.
We eagerly agreed to a table at the counter and it turned out to be a good move: It was the perfect vantage point to watch cooks turn out the famous Beautys Special — the one we came for — a sesame bagel from St-Viateur, with cream cheese, smoked salmon, tomato, and red onion ($10). Maybe it was the lively vibe, maybe it was the long walk, or maybe it was the fact that we found a bagel place with actual seats, but we adored Beautys. “Come again! You’re welcome!” Sckolnick said as we left.
Wearing our fat pants, we headed back to Boston the next day, satisfied that we’d sampled at least a few of Montreal’s best bagels. Of course, we had to make one more stop: at St-Viateur’s sit-down cafe at 1127 Mont-Royal East. Call it research, call it carb overloading, but we couldn’t leave without a bag of bagels for the road.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.