MONTREAL — For a certain kind of traveler, no visit to a new city is complete without a bellyful of local culinary delights.
And though the Internet has made it easier to zero in on regional specialties, it also has amplified local food rivalries that can make it harder for travelers to know just where, for example, to find the best poutine in Montreal. Ideally, we could try all the top contenders and decide for ourselves, but schedules, pocketbooks and top pants buttons get in our way.
We braved those challenges during a recent trip to Montreal in an effort to guide future travelers to the best local food specialties the French Canadian city has to offer. These include poutine, smoked meat, Portuguese chicken, Montreal-style bagels, deep-fried foie gras, excellent coffee and, in season, farmers markets.
So here goes our quick, clean, decidedly subjective Montreal food smackdown (all prices are Canadian, but the exchange rate is virtually the same):
A bit like New York versions but cooked in a wood-fired oven, Montreal bagels are boiled in honeyed water and made with egg and an unsalted dough. They also sport a bigger hole, smaller size and a less shiny exterior.
The contenders: St-Viateur Bagel (263 Ave. St-Viateur West) and Fairmount Bagel (74 Ave. Fairmount West).
Armed with recommendations from locals, we hoofed it up to the Mile End neighborhood from our Chinatown hotel one morning to settle the bagel question. But when we finally got our teeth into a couple of 80-cent sesame seed bagels at Fairmount, we were disappointed. While pleasingly fresh and warm, the bagels were light and sweet in a way that didn't appeal.
The 70-cent bagels at St-Viateur were hot and nicely dense — we watched them being pulled from the wood-fire ovens — but tasted pretty much just like their sweet-ish, nonchewy rivals at Fairmount. We decided that maybe this style of bagel wasn't our cup of soup.
The verdict: Between the two bagels, we like St-Viateur a little more (though the place we finally learned to love the Viateur sesame bagels was at a little place called Cafe Neve (more later), which sandwiches lox, lettuce, tomato, onion and cream cheese into the bagel, allowing the savory fillings to counter the sweetness.
Brined, spiced beef brisket that's hot-smoked and steamed, yielding something similar but much more delicious than corned beef or pastrami. Eastern European Jews brought it to Montreal nearly a century ago.
The contenders: Schwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen (3895 Blvd. St-Laurent) and The Main (3864 Blvd. St-Laurent).
When we took our first bite from a stack of warm smoked meat, smeared with yellow mustard and sandwiched between slices of ultrafresh seedless rye ($6.10) at The Main one morning, we couldn't believe our taste buds. Think of the most flavorful, tender corned beef sandwich you've ever eaten and increase the enjoyment by 10 times and you have an inkling of what you're in for. Oh, and throw in the best matzo ball soup ever. And chase it with a cold draft beer.
Could 80-year-old Schwartz's top this experience? It seemed unlikely given the high bar, but the line outside the door (something The Main lacks, thankfully) promised otherwise. Turns out their smoked meat sandwich ($6.30, cash only) is almost exactly as good as The Main's, especially when you request the fatty meat.
The verdict: We love both, but one of us thinks Main is a tiny bit better and the other says it's Schwartz's. But it's like deciding between sublime and sublimer. If there is even a one-person difference in the wait at either one, we'd suggest going to the other. They're that close.
A melange of hot fries topped with cold cheese curds and warm gravy that was invented in Quebec about 50 years ago and has spread across the country, even to Canadian McDonald's.
The contenders: Patati Patata (4177 Blvd. St-Laurent) and La Banquise (994 Rue Rachel East).
Everyone in this city seems to have a favorite spot for poutine, but these two joints always seemed to rise toward the top of any list for the great fries and top-notch gravies. And though some places, including La Banquise, serve elaborate variations on the basic theme, we decided to go for the classic.