It’s 6 p.m. on a Saturday night and Larry Lighter is describing the gradual evolution of the menu at Moishe’s, the Montreal steakhouse that his father, Moishe Lighter, founded in 1938.
Lighter calls my attention to the framed menus that hang above the overstuffed leather banquettes in the coat-check area. Back in the 1940s, Moishe’s offered five kinds of herring, along with ecra, which is carp roe. It was all catnip to the Eastern European Jews who once packed this stretch of the city along St. Laurent Boulevard (aka “The Main”), and the surrounding neighborhood known as the Plateau. As late as the 1950s, you could get a nice piece of gefilte fish or pickled halibut with your order of rib steak or cow’s udder, and the varenikas — stuffed noodle dumplings, similar to varnishkes or kreplach — were made with real schmaltz.
Today, you can still sample Moishe’s latkes or pickled salmon, or the chopped liver with fried onions. But there’s only one variety of herring, and the schmaltz is long gone — a victim of shifting demographics and healthier eating habits. “Remember,” Lighter said of the rendered chicken fat, “that stuff will kill you.”
Schmaltz or no schmaltz, the food at Moishe’s is still to die for: The sour pickles are the best in the city, the fried varenikas are perfect little half-moons of crispy dough folded around piping-hot potato purée and the house-baked rye bread with caraway seeds is an ideal platform for the earthy chopped liver. My rib-eye steak — a massive slab of charred beef with a garnet-red interior — almost keeps me from eating off my neighbors’ plates. It’s the perfect end to a Jewish-themed culinary extravaganza that began Wednesday, when I flew into town with my wife, Ingrid, and our son, Lazar, to celebrate Thanksgiving with my Canadian family and American in-laws.
The festivities commenced with homemade rye sandwiches containing cold cuts and chopped liver from the Snowdon Deli, my favorite purveyor of smoked meat. (Smoked meat is Montreal’s answer to pastrami. Both were brought to North America by Romanian Jewish immigrants, but the Montreal product is generally spicier, and often fattier, than its American cousin.) We then joined friends for dinner at El Morocco, one of the few kosher Sephardic restaurants in downtown Montreal.
Thanks to its Francophone heritage, Montreal boasts a large North African Jewish population. And with its tiled floor, glass tea service and pearly couscous, El Morocco reminded me of a Tunisian restaurant in Marseilles where Ingrid and I had once dined. So, too, did the olives with chili peppers, the homemade pickled turnips and my poulet aux olives, a fragrant chicken dish that had been slow cooked in a clay pot, and that I spiked with the restaurant’s blood-red hot sauce.
The next day, I set off on a Jewish-food tour of the Plateau with my father-in-law, Julian, and my brother Tim. We began at Beauty’s, the diner that Hymie and Frieda Sckolnick opened in 1942. Hymie is still hard at work, and he’s now joined by his son, Larry, and his granddaughter Elana — a baker extraordinaire who also happens to be married to my brother Brian. As I picked over my Mish Mash omelet, a toothsome combination of eggs, onions, green peppers, kosher salami and hot dogs, Larry and I discussed the day’s itinerary. Inevitably, the talk turned to bagel bakeries and delis — most notably Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen. “Schwartz’s,” Larry mused, “is hardcore. It’s the Peter Luger’s of smoked meat.”
Before visiting that particular temple to cholesterol, we headed out for some cleansing bagels. A proper Montreal bagel bears little resemblance to an American one: Rolled by hand, boiled in honey water and baked in a wood-fired oven, Montreal bagels are smaller, lighter and infinitely more subtle than the vast, tasteless dough-rings consumed down South. The mild smokiness of their slightly charred exteriors is balanced by the faint sweetness of their soft, chewy innards.
We began at the St-Viateur Bagel Shop (est. 1957), where 30-year veteran employee Andy Gryn dispensed dozens of oven-fresh bagels while describing how the Plateau has changed since the 1960s. The signs of gentrification are everywhere, from the hip bars and funky clothing stores to the skyrocketing real estate prices. “This is the only place that’s stayed the same,” Gryn said.
Well, not quite. The Fairmount Bagel Factory, just a few blocks away, is still ensconced in the two-story home that Isadore Shlafman converted into a bagel emporium in 1949, and the business is still family run. Fairmount bagels are denser and moister than St-Viateur’s, and they come in more varieties, from blueberry to spelt. But both brands of bagel taste like a slice of old Montreal.
Still chewing on a bagel, I led my gluttonous crew down the street to Wilensky’s, where you could see the family history behind the counter. Sharon Wilensky, her brother, Asher, and their mother, Ruth, were all on duty, serving up Wilensky’s Specials. A Special is really nothing of the sort: salami, bologna, yellow mustard and optional cheese are layered onto a bun and squashed flat in a sandwich press. Wilensky’s looks just as it did when it served as a location for the 1974 film “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” just a bit seedier; the stools resemble wooden lozenges, and the Formica countertop has seen better days. My companions were not impressed by the food or the atmosphere, but for me, a Special makes the perfect appetizer for a Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwich.
Schwartz’s seats its customers wherever there’s space: Our table included a pair of Arabic speakers and a McGill University student named Alex Pinto. Like many Montrealers, native or adopted, Alex is a fanatic devotee of the house-smoked, hand-sliced brisket that Schwartz’s has served since 1928. He ordered a medium-fat hot smoked meat sandwich, french fries, coleslaw, pickles and a Cott black cherry soda — the sign of a true initiate. (Lean smoked meat is for the elderly and the infirm, while fat is for people who are looking for a quick trip to the cardiac wing of the Jewish General Hospital.)
I dug into precisely the same combination at the Snowdon Deli the very next day, with my cousin Zachary Levine, MD. Any sense of security fostered by the presence of a medical professional vanished as soon as the good doctor ordered his second medium-fat sandwich, its smoothly textured slices of glistening meat offering a stark contrast to the thicker, more fibrous slabs of brisket I had consumed at Schwartz’s the day before. “The medium is tastier, but the lean is healthier,” Zach said. “That’s the doctor in you talking,” I replied. “I don’t let the doctor order,” he mumbled through a mouthful of meat.
My next stop was Adar, a kosher Sephardic bakery. Renowned for its braided challahs and savory bourekas, Adar also offers a broad selection of pareve French pastries that are somehow produced without butter or cream. “We get a lot of non-Jewish customers who are lactose intolerant,” employee Eva Cohen said. Pareve, lactose free, whatever. I’m interested in taste. And there was nothing wrong with the light, flaky spinach boureka that I wolfed down, nor with the crusty challah that I purchased for Friday night dinner. Nor, for that matter, did I object when Ingrid used Snowdon Deli smoked meat instead of ham to make the stuffing for the evening’s turkey.
Now that’s a Montreal Thanksgiving.
Alexander Gelfand is a writer living in New York City.