Montreal bagels are better. There I said it!
I have a confession that will not win me any friends in New York. A statement so controversial that it should come with a warning sticker. Here it goes: Montreal bagels are better than New York.
Hear me now.
I know bagels are a serious matter for New Yorkers. I spent a few good years in the city researching, believe me. I stuffed my face on Absolute and Ess-a-Bagel; I cured hangovers at Murray’s and Russ & Daughters. I searched for bagels cooked and baked to perfection and did not even leave my neighborhood bodegas unattended.
Every time I swallowed the happy carby slices stacked high with lox or smeared with good old cream cheese, I was left with no doubt that New York bagels were immovable.
That was until I went to Montreal.
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It was a Saturday morning and a queue had already formed in St-Viateur, the longest-running bagel shop in Montreal. The store was founded by Polish Holocaust survivor Myer Lewkowicz and has been grinding some legendary dough in the cool Plateau district since 1957.
I was skeptical – I had been let down before in other cities that claimed bagel goodness (LA, Miami). But one bite, two bites, three of their classic sesame, and I almost sang About Canada.
Why did I love them? Let me count the ways. At St-Viateur you can see the bagel-making process unfold before your eyes: they are hand-shaped, so like a snowflake, each one is unique.
St-Viateur Bagel & Café
Next: the water. Many New York bagel purists say that the secret behind a large bagel is to boil it in New York’s A + water. (I agree that NYC water is delicious right from the tap.) But Montréal goes a step further. They simmer their dough in honey water, giving it a slight sweetness.
The real magic, though, is that Montreal bagels are baked in a wood-fired oven. Seeing a plank carry bagels into the oven is fascinating, yes, but it’s the taste that drives it home. Wood burning gives the crust a golden crispiness and a rich taste, especially with the original sesame.
The result is a crispy-on-the-outside, pillow-like-on-the-inside hunk of heaven. It’s a much lighter bagel than the voluminous New York variant, which you have to admit is pretty dense. Montréals is just easier to put your teeth into. No jaws were injured during the making of this article. No excessive chewing.
Montréal bagels taste great straight out of the brown bag without anything to cover their taste – that wood-fired honey and sesame are all you need – but a blob of cream cheese puts it over the edge.
And let’s not rule out the cool factor that the Montreal bagel has traveled to space. You read that right. Montreal-born astronaut Gregory Chamitoff brought Fairmount bagels to the International Space Station in 2008, making these bagels officially out of this world.
What’s most impressive to me, though, is that I felt like I could still eat a meal later in the day.
Alison Slattery – Two Food Photographers – Montreal Tourism;Eva Blue – Montreal Tourism;Alison Slattery – Two Food Photographers – Tourisme Montréal
To be fair, comparing New York bagels to Montreal bagels is not quite an apple-to-apples (dough-to-dough?) Competition. The techniques are not the same; the taste profiles are completely different; and well, it all comes down to preference (and I suppose the city’s loyalty). I still love you, New York. But I tasted something that day in Montreal I can not taste.
Do not you believe me? Try for yourself. The two best places to bite into a Montreal bagel are St-Viateur and Fairmount, two iconic institutions that have each garnered loyal followers. (Really loyal. Like, lifelong-fidelity, I-can-not-be-friends-with-you-if-you-do-not-agree-with-me-loyalty.) Get your own bagel war between the two big, tasters to determine which side you are on and eventually you will know why each one draws lines of people who think they are the best since sliced bread.
You might not agree with me on bagels, and that’s okay. You do not need bagels to fall in love with Montreal food. Its international food scene is legendary thanks to the city’s mosaic of cultures. Go for Portuguese chicken at Ma Poule Mouillée or for excellent African food at Le Virunga. Have a cannoli and coffee at Café Olimpico. They take you around the world and back.
Do not leave without embracing the unique food of Quebecois by trying fresh fruit and cheeses at the Marché Jean-Talon, sipping a draft beer at one of the city’s many microbreweries, such as Mellön (try My Heart Will Gose On), or scarf some of Canada’s national dish, poutine, the indulgent combination of fritters topped with curd and gravy.
With several restaurants per. per capita than New York – 65 per square mile – it’s no wonder locals claim the food scene is better than New York’s.
But I have not admitted on that front yet. I’ll have to go back for more … research.