It’s a pleasure to wake up in Montreal, the northern sunlight spilling across the white oak closets of my high-ceilinged room at the Hotel Gault. With the constant talk of war back home, the endless arguments and pontification about Saddam and Dubya, there is some pleasure in even the tiniest respite from our republic (not that Canadian newspapers have much else to talk about either). I’ve studiously avoided CNN during my stay, which is why I’ve slept so beautifully.
My photographer John and I ended last night at the Boris Bistro, a restaurant best known for its immense summer patio. But winter is a nice time to savor one of the lightest, most sophisticated bries (the brie triple crème) that I have ever tasted. After one bite of this Quebecois gift to cheese making, one can never face another oozing, sputtering brie back home. And while sitting by the window at the Boris Bistro, watching fresh batches of snow coat the muscular 19th-century buildings of Old Montreal, as packs of snow sweepers (some large models, other adorable “baby sweeps”) rumble across the urban landscape, I invite the reader to dig into a duck and caribou pie. The caribou, especially, makes a nice showing of it, a tender beast with great culinary potential and a good working relationship with its compatriot the duck and the flaky pie crust that surrounds both animals.
Before I get out of bed to tackle another day in the footsteps of one of my favorite writers, the Montreal legend Mordecai Richler, let me say a few things about the Hotel Gault. One of the many boutique hotels mushrooming across Old Montreal (partly to absorb the influx of American movie crews attracted to the city by the favorable exchange rate), the Gault is a gem of a hotel. The design combines such elements as heat-tempered steel, concrete, and the aforementioned white oak to create an utterly surprising aura of warmth and familiarity. The lobby, with its bright yellow latex couch and lamps designed by Israel’s Ayala S. Serfaty to resemble sea cucumbers and oysters, quickly starts to feel more like one’s own living room than part of a hotel (a cozy library and well-stocked bar are on hand to lull you into taking off your shoes). Inside the enticingly spare rooms, a long curtain separates the bed area from the bathroom, creating the illusion of space squared or quintupled. The furniture is retro and whimsical, including sweet, goofy-looking office chairs used by the Quebec provincial government in the ‘60s in colors such as bright green or paprika. It’s as if the not-too-distant past has collided with the not-too-distant future. The building itself is a French Second Empire stunner built for the one-time cotton king of Canada (Mr. Gault himself) in 1871.
With architecture in mind, we start the day by visiting one of the most impressive 20th-century buildings in North America, the residential complex Habitat ‘67, built by architect Moshe Safdie for the 1967 Montreal Expo. The complex is comprised of a series of cubes stacked to create a unique geometric pattern, a kind of cubic beehive or a modern Tower of Babel. This is cosmopolitan design at its most sophisticated, a celebration of apartment living that can make a New Yorker both delighted and envious. According to our guide, Alain Kissel, the cubes are about 625 square feet in dimension, and a decent-sized apartment contains two cubes, priced at around $750,000 Canadian dollars ($500,000), which is really quite a bargain. Most of the cubes come with either a terrace or a small glassed-in greenhouse. The lucky few who live in Habitat ‘67 have great views of downtown and Old Montreal as well. It’s enough to make me sick.
Next, we head for the neighborhoods of the Plateau and Mile End, where Mordecai Richler’s family made their home in the 1930s and ‘40s, and which provide the setting for many of his novels, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and St. Urbain’s Horseman.The streets of Mile End are now crowded with Portuguese immigrants and droves of Hasids in black coats and nest-shaped shapkas,not to mention the many hipsters and professionals who have made this part of Montreal an equivalent of New York’s Williamsburg. I look around for young men who would have fit Duddy Kravitz’s description, “The thin crafty face, the quick black eyes and the restlessness.” But it seems the Kravitz type is no longer in evidence, completely replaced by self-satisfied urbanites toting messenger bags and old Portuguese ladies chatting among themselves.
After spending a few months in his apartment in London, Richler supposedly made a straight line from Montreal’s airport to La Maison du Bagel (also known as the St. Viateur bagel shop). From the moment I enter the place, I am overwhelmed by the thick honey-scented aroma. I leaned against the stacks of herring and sable, chewing on a sesame-seed specimen. Montreal bagels are about half the size of New York’s, and unlike our bagels, these are boiled in honey water and thrown into a wood-burning stove. The result is a sweet, chewy chunk of nirvana reminding me of the delicious Russian bublik I have known and loved. The place was once owned by a Polish Jew, but as with many businesses in the area, it is now owned by a newer immigrant, in this case Marco Sbalado, an amiable man of Portuguese heritage. Sbalado, soft and doughy like one of his bagels, mentions the natural ingredients he uses with the proud, proprietary smile of a man who knows he has an unbeatable product (he has opened four branches of his store and two bagel cafes). As I leave, laden with a dozen bagels bound for New York, two young lesbian women in leather jackets and buzz cuts tote an enormous bag of bagels out of the store, shouting happily to one another, “We’ve got the treasure!”
We walk through Mordecai Richler’s neighborhood, the small alleys where Jewish boys played hockey and fought endless battles with other ethnic groups, past the gables of turn-of-the-century Victorians, three of them painted different shades of blue, as if to protest Montreal’s cruel winter. Alain, our guide, explains that these are likely owned by Portuguese immigrants, who have bought up much of the decrepit real estate in Richler’s old neighborhood and have remodeled it with a bright Iberian flair.
We stop by Richler’s old high school, the Baron Byng on St. Urbain Street, now a charity youth center, its halls painted with murals of a distant, supposedly better rural life. With its cavernous, dismal interior, the place reminds me of the high school I attended in Manhattan (both were built in the early 20th century), a typical school-as-jail design. There is not a trace of Richler’s past here, just stacks of donated clothes, trophies celebrating impoverished local athletes, and a sleek Canadian government computer console that lists available jobs. In Russia and Eastern Europe, there is a trend of memorializing every aspect of a famous writer’s life with incessant plaques (“Here, before this very mirror, the Great Man once trimmed his beard”). In North America, one treads the footsteps of one’s literary heroes quietly and alone.
“You are not to go to Schwartz’s to eat smoked meat and fries every night,” the wife of the rapscallion Barney Panofsky tells him in Richler’s last novel, Barney’s Version. Richler himself had no such qualms. According to Frank Silva, the owner of the famous Schwartz’s deli on Boulevard St-Laurent, the author and his son Jake would sweep in on a regular basis to load up on two fat brisket sandwiches each (the lean and medium-fat briskets are the slightly saner choices as far as the ventricle is concerned), plus pickles and club sodas. Silva is an amiable young man who seems to be waging a perpetual battle with the Montreal winter that threatens to intrude on his small establishment, shouting in English and French, “Keep the door closed! Fermez la porte!”
The joint was opened in 1927 by a Rumanian-Jewish immigrant named Rubin Schwartz. The Schwartz secret, according to Silva, is that there are no freezers in the shop; fresh Alberta beef is marinated for seven or eight days and then smoked on the premises. A brilliant array of dried spices turns the beef into a work of art. A poster on the wall refers to Schwartz’s competition with Katz’s Deli in New York, alluding to the War of 1812. I am not a traitor at heart, but I do believe Schwartz’s is the winner here. Tender and peppery, slathered with mustard and served on rye with a giant pickle on the side (half-sours are available too), this is the apogee of the meat-smoker’s art. (Note to future patrons: A Cott black cherry soda will soften the taste a little.) The young waiters are a hoot too. One says proudly to another: “Look at me! I’ve revolutionized the art of bus-boying!” As I master the fat-grade brisket, which is more fat than meat, a fellow diner from Toronto notices the expression on my face. “It’s good, eh?” she says.
Barney Panofsky, this smoked meat is for you.