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Thursday, March 15, 2012

The True and Only Bagel

The web-hype for a Montreal-based restaurant chain called Cora led me to expect something shiny and welcoming. Breakfast is a touchy meal for my family, with both wife and daughter seeking a repast that’s generally egg-, pancake-, waffle-, sausage-, potato- and toast-free. Cora’s site sports an impressive fruit plate featuring sliced apples sculpted into towers among other feel-good choices.

What we found, not far from downtown’s Berri-UQAM Metro station, was a fading eatery with the feel of a tired Denny’s. But I may be letting a quickly achieved prejudice get in my way. What I found, on my plate of eggs and sausage and potatoes, was a terrible bagel.

In Montreal, that’s unacceptable. The Montreal bagel is a phenomenon as rich in passion and partisanship as the New York bagel, both of which arrived in their respective countries with immigrant Polish Jews. But each stage of the northern-style treat is differs: the dough is honey-sweetened, the poaching is done in honey-infused water, and the baking takes place in a wood-fired oven.

Two bagel bakeries dominate the city, both centered in the Mile End district. Neither Fairmount Bagel nor St-Viateur Bagel has a sit-down area, as we discovered upon taking a complicated route of Metro, bus and shank’s mare to find the neighborhood. But St-Viateur has sit-down satellite branches, and we visited one nearby on Avenue du Mont-Royal.

It proved to be my ideal coffeehouse, welcoming and not too expensive, with a number of glowing computer screens to offer a sense of home. Because purist loyalties divide between poppy-seed and sesame-seed bagels, I ordered one of each. I needn’t have worried about going hungry: even though the bagels are small compared my New York favorites, St-Viateur presents five quarter-sections when you order a single.

The flavor lives up to the hype. Although the honey’s sweetness turns out to be nicely restrained, it balances the crisp wood-smoke character of the thin crust. The bagel appeared denser than it was, yielding a just enough chewiness to prolong the comfort of the cream cheese I applied to it.

When I met my first good Manhattan bagels, it was a revelation. Even though I quickly became a partisan of Absolute Bagel, at West 107th St., I could appreciate the majesty of an H&H. But the Montreal bagel has thrown me into a tizzy. I adore the sweetness. I feel like I’m betraying my own DNA.

We had time to visit another highly recommended source, the Bagel Place at a mid-block mall called Le Faubourg Sainte-Catherine, near Concordia University. But the web raves I read must have been blindsided by loyalty: the mall was moribund, many of its storefronts shuttered. Bagel Place was strictly to-go, and I ate the bagel on the sidewalk. Even without any ambiance or coffee, I loved the thing.

You can order online from St-Viateur (it's expensive). And, as with so many other exotic necessities, you can find Montreal-style bagels in Brooklyn. I’m amazed they haven’t spread further. I won’t be surprised when they do.

For a look at another Montreal specialty, see my Metroland article on smoked meat.

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