In 2013, a Jewish deli named Tock’s opened up in Shanghai. The city has a remarkable Jewish history of its own, but this place has nothing to do with that. Tock’s is a Montreal-style deli founded by Montrealer Richard Tock. He teamed up with his nephew Brian and partner Mira, who oversaw operations in Shanghai. They smoked their brisket in house and supposedly sourced proper cheese curds. In addition to welcoming homesick North Americans, the smoked meat sandwiches were a surprise hit with the Chinese. The restaurant won many local foodie awards, and our smiling Prime Minister even went there last year to do his feel-good poster boy selfie-and-smile routine.
But then all hell broke loose.
CLOSED IN DECEMBER 2016
There’s a second-wave Jewish deli thing going on in Montreal these days.
The original wave dates from the first half of the twentieth century. With the mass migration of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, Yiddish became Montreal’s third language This period gave us two iconic Montreal dishes. First, the local take on the bagel: sweeter, chewier, eggier, and tastier than the New York version available in most of North America. The second dish is smoked meat brisket, a local take on pastrami, but less sweet, with more pepper, also better. Some institutions survive from that period, namely Fairmount Bagel; Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen; Wilensky’s; and a slew of others. Some have disappeared, like the iconic Bens, which, even if I miss it more than any other restaurant in this city, had lots more going in terms of atmosphere than quality of food. Many Jews left the city in the second half of the twentieth century, and Toronto became Canada’s Jewish capital.
The deli seemed on the way out, but has since experienced a nostalgic revival of sorts with the rise of hipster-foodie culture. The opening of New York’s Mile End deli in 2010 put Montreal Jewish cuisine in the international spotlight. Since then, a new generation of Montreal Jews has been redefining the old classics at great places like Hof Kelsten bakery, Fletchers’ Café, and the annoyingly popular Arthurs Nosh Bar with its New-York-City-style line-ups (to which I say “Fuck this, I’m going elsewhere”).
New York is a city with a strong deli tradition. It is therefore quite surprising that Zagat’s highest rated New York deli is a Montreal-themed place named Mile End. I suppose there’s no arguing when comparing a chewy Montreal bagel with its bulky and stiff New York counterpart. Throw in a Wilensky special, smoked meat sandwiches and matzo ball soup and you can’t go wrong. But that’s not what drew me to this restaurant. I wanted to see if the high Zagat rating translated to a perfect poutine.
Right off Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, Mile End differs from your average Jewish deli. Don’t expect the retro fittings, crammed shelves and noisy service of Schwartz’s or Ben’s (or Katz’s). Instead, you get a cozy-yet-welcoming minimalist Scandinavian atmosphere, white walls and varnished blond wood. A few jars of artfully displayed pickled vegetables in the window provide a nod to more traditional delis.