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Brisket Heaven

A trip to Montreal is not compete without a taste of Viande fume, the deli-style smoked-meat specialty

by B.A. Nilsson on March 15, 2012

The line on the sidewalk outside of Schwartz’s Delicatessen stretched for half a block, peopled two or three abreast. It was five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. “They line up like this even when it is 25 below,” a man named Bosko tells me.

He leads me to the front of the line, explaining, to my relief, that take-out orders could be placed in another, much shorter line by the door. This gave me a look at the chaos that is Schwartz’s seating—chaos insofar as each of the dozen-or-so tables was packed, each table was spread with meats and fries and the fries were spread with bright red ribbons of ketchup and the servers slipped deftly through the crowded aisles as conversation roared and the aroma of smoked and pickled everything pervaded all.

The competition among purveyors of Montreal-style smoked meat is dramatic enough to inspire passionate blog partisanship, but nobody seems to question Schwartz’s dominance in the field.

“It’s the best,” says Bosko. “I’ve been coming here since the ’60s. They take the time here to marinate the meat properly. Other places cut corners, and you can taste the difference.” Schwartz’s opened in 1928 and was run for its first 40 years by its unpopular founder, Reuben Schwartz. Curing time for the famous meat is 10 days.

The term itself is characteristically understated. Smoked meat. Wiseacre Americans might snicker at its lack of specificity, but our other term for corned beef is “boiled dinner.” Montrealers and the many smoked-meat fans beyond need no more information to tell them to expect thick slices of pink, tender brisket—preferably on rye bread with mustard. All you need to determine beyond that is the fat quotient, and even the term for fattier-than-lean is tactfully vague: “medium.”

A slab of beef brisket gets cured for (ideally) a week, in a pepperier recipe than corned beef typically gets. It’s then smoked, which gives it a bright pinkness, and steamed to its finish. My take-out sandwich cost $7. I consumed it on the sidewalk while strolling past the table-waiters. Mordecai Richler knew the product and paid tribute to it in his final novel, Barney’s Version, terming it “a maddening aphrodisiac, made from spices available in Schwartz’s delicatessen. I’d call it Nectar of Judea and copyright the name.” (This didn’t make it into the more-recent film version, however.)

Many places advertise smoked meat, but a taste of the Schwartz’s product will set you up for the comparative disappointment of the sandwich at Brisket Montréal, located near the city’s historic area on Côte du Beaver Hall. This is a century-old restaurant that added smoked meat to its menu a quarter-century ago, and had I tasted nothing else, I would have deemed the brisket wonderful. Across the table from me, my wife tucked into a frighteningly fatty smoked pig’s knuckle, a hunt-and-peckish affair as she burrowed beneath layers of skin for the succulent meat.

Fries came with the dinners, so we wallowed in fries. But we didn’t enjoy them in true Canadian style until we hit another smoked meat restaurant: Dunn’s Famous, which has been around since 1927 and now boasts eight locations, one of them as far west as Vancouver. Dunn’s, which features an anthropomorphic pickle on its logo, has a cheerful chain-restaurant look about it. The downtown location, which I take to be the original, seems to have had its share of facelifts, but it remains comfortable—despite our being subjected to many TV screens of wrestling, the first non-soccer broadcasts forced upon me. Where Brisket Montréal styles itself as a bar with dinner, Dunn’s puts smoked meat into more of a family-restaurant context. But the extensive menu offers much, much more.

So improbable does the Québécois hot chicken sandwich seem that my wife indulgently ordered one. And there it was: white bread with slices of chicken within, the whole assembly drenched with gravy and topped with green peas. In other words, it already looks like its leftovers. Which she proceeded to eat from the middle, thus avoiding the crusts. (Why? WHY? What does this woman think?)

She was not at all restrained about the poutine. Those are fries topped with fresh cheese curd and gravy, available in many variations, including the addition of the bits of smoked meat that fall by the wayside when slicing. We ordered a plate with additional pepper sauce.

“Medium?” asked our server when I ordered my smoked-meat sandwich. He had appraised me correctly. Medium it was, and I have to say that it compared very favorably with the serving from Schwartz’s. With my limited exposure to the stuff, I’d be hard pressed to choose between them. Perhaps it’s the wait for a table that sets you up to enjoy the Schwartz’s variety so passionately.

But is smoked meat in danger of leaving the delicatessen in favor of one-size-fits-all restaurants like Dunn’s? Bens De Luxe predated Schwartz’s by 20 years and was considered to be Schwartz’s only real competition, until it closed in 2006. Schwartz’s, which had changed hands three times in the past 40 years, was sold again last week, this time to Celine Dion’s husband, René Angélil, and chain restaurateur Paul Nakis. “I don’t know,” says Bosko, shaking his head. “We hope for the best. They say they won’t change it. We’ll see.”

If I can’t pick a clear winner—I really need to spend more time “researching” this—I can at least assert that the experience has ruined St. Patrick’s Day for me. While everyone around me will be enjoying their holiday corned beef, I’m going to be longing for the far tastier version up north.