One of the first things we research before we take a trip is where we’re going to eat. As we geared up for a visit to Montreal, we couldn’t ignore the serious grudge match between The City of Saints and The City That Never Sleeps. The debate was simple: which city has better bagels?
Now, there have been occasions when the comparison was so ludicrous that we simply declared No Contest (*cough* Chicago pizza). But when it came to bagels, we felt we owed it to ourselves to dig deep. The answer and its scope, as we soon discovered, is a little more nuanced. It has a lot to do with culture, methodology, and, quite simply, taste. Benevolent bagel fans that we are, we thought we’d share everything we know and love about New York bagels, and everything we learned about Montreal bagels. We’ll highlight their similarities and differences. And, of course, if you are so inclined, we’ll offer suggestions as to where to find the best examples of each in both cities.
What do they have in common?
Let’s start off on the right foot, shall we? Before getting into the differences, we’ll talk about the similarities between the bagels in these two incredible North American metropolises. First and foremost, both bagels are the product of immigrants. Specifically, immigrants from the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, who brought with them centuries-old recipes from their homeland. The process of both styles traditionally involves mixing, hand-rolling the bagels, and shaping them, before boiling, adding toppings (such as sesame seeds, the choice of purists) and finally baking them. And both bagels have holes in the center, presumably to bake more evenly and efficiently, and to effortlessly transport them, as they did originally on strings or dowels.
That’s about where the similarities end, though.
What’s the difference between New York and Montreal Bagels?
There are distinct differences between New York and Montreal bagels, and these differences can’t be ignored. This extends to both ingredients and baking methods, as well as the cultural approach and the respective regional palates.
Some scientists may scoff, but the first thing that’s often credited when talking about a New York bagel is the water it’s made with. Bakers and patrons alike will espouse the virtues of the minerals, elements, and components in New York City’s water, which makes everything from pizza dough to bagels more delicious. The majority of New York City’s water comes from the Catskill and Delaware watersheds. Some bagel shops around the country ship water from New York City or buy expensive filtration systems to mirror its characteristics. Referred to as the “champagne of drinking water”, the elixir is clean, delicious, and takes breads to the next level.
A New York bagel–excluding, obviously, each bakery’s proprietary ingredients–includes high-gluten flour, yeast, salt, water, and malt. A Montreal bagel–again, excluding each bakery’s proprietary ingredients–includes high-gluten flour, yeast (typically sourdough), eggs, water, and honey. There’s a noted absence of salt in Montreal’s bagels, and they are also not vegan-friendly. Some places may offer a vegan option, but it’s not the norm.
New York bagels are refrigerated to delay fermentation, some for as long as two whole days. According to chef Richard Coppedge from The Culinary Institute of America, “this longer, slower fermentation gives the microbes more time to generate tasty flavor compounds.” The dough is then boiled in water with such additives as barley malt syrup, lye or baking soda prior to being baked in various forms of conventional ovens. (If you’re thinking, “Isn’t lye what they use to dissolve dead bodies in movies?”, you’re absolutely right. But food-grade lye is commonly used to cure a variety of food and is regulated by the FDA.) The ingredients and the method result in a balanced, savory bread product with a small hole in the center, a shiny caramel crust, a pleasant chew, and a puffier, more substantive interior.
Montreal bagels, on the other hand, are boiled in honey-sweetened water prior to being baked in–and this is important–wood-fired ovens. The bagels come out of the oven via the famous “bagel toss” using a long wooden plank, and are then left to cool. The result is a smaller, thinner, denser bread product with a large hole in the center, a mild sweetness, and a faint smokiness to its crisp, minimally charred exterior. For comparison, think of the Turkish Simit or the Greek Koulouri, but a little sweeter and denser.
How You Eat It
The final difference relates to culture and palate. New York City is a melting pot, and the way New Yorkers eat their bagels is a direct reflection of that. Bagel and lox, which involves adding cream cheese and thin slices of smoked salmon to a bagel, is quite simply a marriage of many cultures. The popularization of cream cheese was influenced by the British, while smoked salmon was favored by the Scandinavians. In her research, journalist Heather Smith discovered that in the 1950s “bagels and lox” had become an insult —a disparaging term used by Jewish immigrants to describe their counterparts who had become too American.
Bagel and lox sandwiches often feature lettuce, tomato, capers and onions, but endless riffs on the bagel sandwich exist. Breakfast sandwiches feature egg and cheese on a bagel, while schmears include such wild varieties as Honey Bacon Sriracha-flavored cream cheese. Your favorite sandwich could be thanks to the perfect bagel, the perfect schmear, the perfect lox, or the perfect ratio of all three.
Montreal, on the other hand, is a North American city with a decidedly European flair. The cultural approach to bagels falls in line with our early experiences traveling through France and Italy. The bread itself is the centerpiece here. When venturing into one of the classic bagel bakeries, you’ll find tubs of spread (even Philadelphia Cream Cheese) and packaged smoked salmon in a glass case, but you have to purchase them separately and construct that sandwich yourself. The approach to Montreal bagels is that of the purist: you eat the bread–warm, crisp, freshly baked–right then and there, for the sake of the bread alone.
Point in fact, when Montreal-style restaurant Mile End Deli first opened in Brooklyn, the owner used to import bagels directly from Montreal. (He later went on to open Black Seed Bagels, which now makes Montreal-style bagels right in New York City.) The argument in favor of the Montreal bagel’s authenticity is that it had never became popular, which left the recipe mostly untouched from the European original.
Where to find the best New York bagels
When we offer “bests” of anything, there are two relevant caveats that must be considered: 1.) We rarely, if ever, cover every conceivable option available, so it’s never all-inclusive or exhaustive. And 2.) We recommend only our favorites, which simply reflects our preferences. We acknowledge taste is subjective, and you may disagree or feel aggrieved that an establishment was omitted. That being said, two solid choices that should be in anyone’s New York style bagels conversation are the venerable H&H Bagels and Russ & Daughters.
H&H Bagels, where, instead of asking for their bagels toasted, patrons are known for asking “What’s hot?” from the oven, has been around in various forms for more than 40 years. (And speaking of toasted bagels, until only recently, it was considered sacrilegious to toast a bagel unless you were reviving a stale or frozen bagel.) H&H and its bagels are so well known that they have appeared or been referenced to in countless movies and TV shows. It was immortalized on Seinfeld, establishing it as a New York City icon. It was also patronized by President Obama during his Columbia University years.
The two H&H locations on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side are under new ownership and are officially named H&H Bagels Midtown East (due to legal reasons). But the only thing that matters is that the bagels still resemble those of the original, so you’ll get a taste of an authentic New York bagel here.
Russ & Daughters
Russ & Daughters, on the other hand, is a little more subdued. Why? Because they’ve been around for so long, and do what they do so well, they don’t need buzz. Family owned since 1914, Russ & Daughters’ “appetizer shop” has been in the same Lower East Side location since 1920, and it’s still our favorite location to visit. Year after year, locals wait patiently until their number is called so that they can grab a selection of their favorite bagels and bialys, spreads, salads, caviar and smoked fish (their sturgeon is a well-known favorite). Russ & Daughters has a small menu of bagel sandwiches–though they are happy to make anything to order–and the quality of their spreads and smoked fish is so superior that it guarantees a delicious sandwich no matter what you choose.
The Russ & Daughters empire has since expanded to include a cafe around the corner on Orchard Street, a restaurant at the Jewish Museum (which serves kosher fare), and most recently, a bakery and shop at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Now that they have their own bakery, all their bagels are made in-house. (They previously outsourced it to a specific bakery that made the bagels to their specifications.)
Where to find the best Montreal bagels
There are two names that dominate when you research Montreal bagels: Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel. But here’s the interesting thing about both those bagel shops: their histories can be traced back to a group of three men. There is a minor skirmish over who can be credited with introducing bagels to Montreal, but records show that these three men, Hyman Seligman, Jacob Drapkin and Isadore Shlafman were behind the Montreal Bagel Bakery, which opened in 1919. Isadore Shlafman split off from Montreal Bagel Bakery to start Fairmount Bagel with his son in the 1940s. Hyman Seligman, Jacob Drapkin and a new partner, Myer Lewkowicz, continued to run Montreal Bagel Bakery until it closed in 1956. Seligman and Lewkowicz partnered with Shlafman’s son to open another Fairmount Bagel location on nearby St-Viateur St, but the partnership dissolved and Seligman and Lewkowicz established St-Viateur Bagel.
Fairmount Bagel is still run by founder Isadore Shlafman’s grandchildren, and the bagels are still hand-rolled and then baked in a wood-fire oven. Its location on Fairmount Street is the same one that Shlafman opened when he split from Montreal Bagel Bakery, and is a mainstay of the famous Mile End neighborhood.
As noted previously, New Yorkers who are accustomed to perusing large cases filled with a variety of spreads, salads and smoked fish might be in for a surprise. Fairmount Bagel only offers a tiny selection of spreads and packaged smoked salmon, which you can purchase along with your bagel. For someone visiting from out of town, purchasing an entire tub of Philadelphia Cream Cheese might not be practical, so be prepared to enjoy your bagels naked unless you have enough friends to share your spread with. But even if you’re missing your schmear or lox, we contend that this is the better way to indulge in the Montreal bagel, as you get to pick up on the subtle differences in texture and flavor.
Fairmount Bagels are such a mainstay, they can also be found in many Montreal grocery stores and restaurants. If you’re still interested in enjoying a Fairmount bagel with the fixings, consider paying Bagel Etc. a visit. The old-fashioned diner was a favorite stop of Leonard Cohen’s, and you can order a number of dishes with a Montreal bagel as your bread of choice.
St-Viateur Bagel is now owned by Joe Morena, who started working at the bagel shop’s flagship location at the tender age of fifteen. He became Lewkowicz’s partner in 1974 and continued working with him until Lewkowicz passed away in 1994.
St-Viateur Bagel has multiple locations, and while its many bakeries are set up in a self-service model similar to Fairmount Bagel’s, St-Viateur Bagel also has numerous cafes. The cafes offer a full-service option, where you can order a variety of sandwiches built with their popular bagels. We visited the Mont Royal location, where we found a Traditional Bagel Sandwich on the menu that bears a striking resemblance to a Bagel and Lox sandwich you might pick up in New York City. But there were also distinctly Canadian options like the Smoked Meat Bagel Sandwich. The sandwiches come with interesting side salad options, and we can heartily recommend the delicious Artichoke Salad.
Pro Tip: St-Viateur Bagel Cafe in Mont Royal is cash only.
Diversity of styles is neither good nor bad, just different. The bagel dispute between New York City and Montreal epitomizes this concept. Sure, familiarity breeds comfort, but at the same time, variety is the spice of life. When we spoke to locals who were making a case as to why Montreal bagels were better, they mentioned that only Montreal bagels (Fairmount Bagels, to be exact) have made it to outer space. We don’t recommend that you select a bagel by how far its traveled, but that’s the only recommendation we’ll make. We hope there’s enough information here to help you decide for yourself.
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