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Montreal smoked meat gives New York pastrami run for its money


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Nine months ago, when a young Montrealer with a passion for smoked meat opened a deli in Brooklyn, eyebrows were raised. “The old-timers said, ‘No, this isn’t how it’s done in New York. The knishes have to look like this. What the hell’s smoked meat? This is a pastrami town,’ ” said David Sax, author of Save the Deli, a history of Jewish delicatessens.


But the skeptics have been proven wrong with news this month that the influential Zagat guide has selected Mile End, which calls itself a “Montreal Jewish delicatessen in Brooklyn,” the best deli in New York City. This follows its inclusion on New York magazine’s “best of New York” list last March. In less than a year, the Canadian newcomer has overtaken such Manhattan stalwarts as Katz’s, Carnegie and Barney Greengrass.


Noah Bernamoff, 28, sounds more like a deli missionary than a businessman when he talks about Mile End, which he opened with his wife, Rae Cohen, in January.


Legendary eateries like Schwartz’s and Wilensky’s feature prominently in memories of his Montreal childhood. But as he looked at the aging clientele of New York delis and sampled their fare, he felt they had lost their way.


“There should be delis everywhere, and people should be eating deli and loving it,” Mr. Bernamoff said by phone from New York yesterday. “It’s the reverse. Delis are closing on a regular basis. I said to myself, delis are closing because they haven’t had a new customer in 20 years. Let’s create a climate that induces young people like myself to walk into a deli and say, ‘This is the food I want to eat.’ ”


His solution was to offer food that is bought locally and prepared in house, from the smoked meat and whitefish on down to the homemade mustard. Only Mile End’s bagels are imported – trucked in daily from Montreal to what many consider the world bagel capital. In a nod to his culinary ancestors, one of the sandwiches featured on the Mile End menu is the Ruth Wilensky. And just as Wilensky’s used to do on its signature salami sandwich, there’s an additional charge if you want it without mustard.


Robert Sietsema, restaurant critic for the Village Voice, said Mile End’s success is part of a Quebec gastronomic invasion that has recently hit New York. Poutine has taken off, he said, with seven or eight restaurants offering variations on the Quebec-created blend of french fries, cheese curd and gravy. (Mile End serves a smoked-meat poutine.) A chef from Montreal’s Pied de Cochon restaurant has attracted a lot of buzz with his opening last summer of a Quebec-inspired diner in Queens called M. Wells, which offers foie gras tamales and spaghetti with heritage-pork meatballs. “Montreal is certainly one of the greatest food cities in the world, and its greatness is often unsung,” Mr. Sietsema said.


News of Mr. Bernamoff’s stateside success did not overly impress Montreal deli operators contacted yesterday. Sharon Wilensky, daughter of Ruth, who is honoured on the Mile End menu, said it was flattering to have the Wilensky name featured in New York. But the young Brooklyn hipsters shouldn’t be fooled into thinking they’re eating a true Wilensky special, she said. “For that, you’ve got to come here.”


Johnny Goncalves, a smoked meat carver who has been working at Schwartz’s for 36 years, said he has seen plenty of imitators come and go. Come talk to him when Japanese tourists are showing up at Mile End and ordering a smoked meat sandwich by pointing at a photo in a guidebook. “It must be good if people want to copy,” he said.


Mr. Bernamoff has sensed some resentment among traditionalists in New York. He has heard people call his fare “bourgeois” because he is so careful about where he buys his ingredients and insists on preparing the food in-house. “What do you mean it’s for the bourgeois? It’s high quality products in a very handmade, artisanal, slow way,” he said.


“If I don’t cater to the young audience and just cater to those who as it stands go to delis, what happens when those people die, and they are dying?”


Mr. Sax, who says he has eaten in more than 200 Jewish delis around the world, is encouraged by what he sees at Mile End. “The clientele are not elderly Jews in their 60s and 70s and 80s. You get those people in there, but it’s also young people in their 20s and their 30s, people coming from out of town. It’s brought a new vibrancy,” he said.


New York magazine said the food at Mile End “is enough to make even the proudest New Yorker swallow his pride.” As they say, if you can smoke brisket there, you can smoke it anywhere.


(Courtesy of the National Post)



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