Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Montreal: Shwartz's Deli

The Smoked Meat, Medium.

Smoked Meat, Medium.

That's all I was told to say at Schwartz's Deli here in Montreal. I was actually chastized for not knowing about this place. Smoked meat. Medium. Maybe some fries.

Up on Saint Laurent is the (presumably) famous Schwartz's Deli and I was there. As far as delis go, it's pretty typical. Kinda small, kinda packed and the service is a bit abrupt and a bit brusque. Go figure. At least there was a line to get in - and being a single, solo diner, I didn't have to wait. Just walk in and have a seat at the counter. Nice.

Like I said, Schwartz's is a deli. You've been to one, you've been to them all. It's just simple, white walls, jam-packed formica tables and busy. It's got about as much character as Woody Allen. Flat and undistinguished (and I know I'll now get hate mail from Woody Allen fans the world over).

That said, you don't come to Schwartz's for the decor or the service. Yahweh knows you don't come here for the comfort. You come here because someone told you that you must order the Smoked Meat. Medium. And that's exactly what I ordered: Smoked Meat, Medium.

But what does that mean: "medium"? Is there a large and a small? Should I fear the large because it might come out as a Carnegie Deli sized Broadway Danny Rose??? And why the Smoked Meat? Heck, I grew up in a Jewish community and I never heard of a cut called "smoked meat."

Salad and a pickle.

Turns out, "medium" is between "lean" and "fatty" on the amount of fat that gets cut into your sandwich. It has nothing to do with size and everything to do with fat. I'll have the smoked meat, medium with fries and a coke.

Within moments, a small plate of what looks to be a vinegar based cole slaw and large deli pickle lands on the counter in front of me. A second later comes the smoked meat sandwich on rye. A few more moments and the fries land, then the coke. All in all, my food has arrived no later than six minutes after ordering it. Cool.


But just what is this "smoked meat"? It looks like brisket. It looks like it's been corned and then smoked. It's soft, tender and delightfully textured. According to Wikipedia, it's a combination of both. Actually, they don't state that explicitly but when you read how it's made, it seems obvious to me. Either way, it's pretty darn tasty.

This is supposed to be a "medium" cut of meat but I'm finding it pretty lean by my standards. I can't imagine what "lean" must taste like but am increasingly curious as to how the "fat" serving tastes. I imagine the thin slices of cross-grain cut meat interlaced with glistening ribbons of juicy fat and I'm transported to a comfortable place where birds sign gleefully and fair maidens dance in song.

The Whole Kit and Caboodle.

As I chew through the sandwich, I find myself wishing that I had ordered the fat version. This is a bit lean and slightly dry because of it. It's still tender and succulent, just slightly dry - if that makes any sense. A liberal application of mustard helps but I'm wishing for more.

The fries are rudimentary. They're cut and fried in-house but served on the limp side. Perhaps they need to try frying them just a little longer to crisp. They're not bad, they're just not stellar. They're not on par with the meat. And, of course, a Coke is a Coke. Just that proper phosphate zing to cleanse the palate between bites.

Things are hoppin' at Schwartz's and I'm outta there within a half hour. Fourteen dollars later (including tip) I'm back on the streets of Montreal and heading south for Vermont.

Schwartz's Deli
3895 Saint Laurent Boulevard
Montreal, QC

Montreal: CBC

The emcee cheat sheet and the watchful eye of World Barista Champion Stephen Morrissey.

My cover story for heading to Montreal was to judge the Canadian Barista Championship. However, since I do have a company to run, I wasn't able to attend the judges workshop on Sunday. Instead, I took an enjoyable drive up the East Coast yesterday and now have been pressed into service as a co-emcee with Leon from Cafe de la Presse here in Montreal.

I realise that it may seem odd and surprising for me to say this, but I really hate doing the emcee thing. It's excruciatingly painful and feels unnatural - especially when you have to read cold from a script and don't know anything about anyone. For me, it feels painful and contrived. I'd rather hide backstage. I'd prefer to leave it to other people whose egos really need the attention and adulation.

Plus, giving me the microphone can lead to risque banter that is unfit for a "G-Rated" audience.

All is well and good when the audience is limited to the forty-five people sitting in front of you. It's a whole different world when it's being broadcast live on the Internet to a worldwide audience. Somewhere, out there, I'm sure there's a secret group of Catholics meeting to decide if they should have an outcry because of my joke about a Muslim God crushing an ungrateful Catholic. It's a funny joke - if you get it. Next time I'll have to tell the one about the Filipino guy and the coconut.

The competition itself went well. Some of Canada's finest barista competitors battling it out for the spot to go to that most exotic of cities: Atlanta. Boring.

That's just the worst: bust your butt all year long to prepare for a competition that will, hopefully, land you a spot in the world championships and then you find out you're going to Atlanta. What a buzzkill. Atlanta is such a lame city that I don't even care about winning the USBC because winning means that you're going nowhere - just to Atlanta, which is pretty much nowhere.

Now, now, now, I know there's a lot of Atlanta supporters out there. Yes, Coca-Cola is from Atlanta and I do love me some Coke. But I just don't vibe with the city. I've been there twice: in 1987 and 2004 - and really, that's enough. And within four years, the SCAA holds their conference twice there? Talk about a lame organization.

The competition on a roll.

Anyway, enough about Atlanta. See, it just gets me so riled up. The Canadian Barista Championship went well. Lots of great competitors with some good ideas. Lots of good talent up there.

To be honest, I barely saw any of the competition. As emcee, I'm trying to read up on the notes they gave me and check on things backstage. There's really no time to watch. Plus, watching barista competitions is still quite excruciating for me. Maybe I'm just stuck in 2004 but as a spectator sport, it's really quite droll. How many competitors can you hear say: "I'm really excited to be here." Then, how come you don't look or act excited, buddy?

But maybe it's not that bad. This time, I only heard one competitor state that he/she was going to dose from the grinder. Back in 2004, everyone and their mother took us step-by-step as they did every little thing. THAT was excruciating.

Most of the competitors seem calm, smooth, relaxed. I like it here. In fact, I'm enjoying barista competitions outside of the United States where politics, cronyism and a general state of Taking Ourselves Too Seriously dominates the field. In other countries, I'm an outsider, a visitor, a guest. More importantly, I'm someone not enmeshed in their world of politics - which is a general recipe for a good time.

Four time Canadian Barista Champion Sammy Piccolo and his handlers.

The competition itself is improving. Vita and Les have really gotten their stuff together and things are flowing more smoothly than ever. The P.A. system is sounding good. They've got video. They're streaming it over the Internet. My image is being broadcasted on a global scale. Nice.

In the end, it all comes down to the scores and for the fourth time, continuing the unbroken Caffe Artigiano Dynasty, Sammy Piccolo has once again taken the Canadian Crown. Perhaps they'll put his face on the Looney.

Hmm. Dynasty. Hmmm. Let's review:

2008 - Sammy Piccolo - Caffe Artigiano, Vancouver, BC
2007 - Mike Yung - Caffe Artigiano, Vancouver, BC
2006 - Colter Jones - Caffe Artigiano, Vancouver, BC
2005 - Sammy Piccolo - Caffe Artigiano, Vancouver, BC
2004 - Sammy Piccolo - Caffe Artigiano, Vancouver, BC
2003 - Sammy Piccolo - Caffe Artigiano, Vancouver, BC

Who will dare to topple the Reign of Artigiano?

Maybe it's time to open a Spro in Toronto...

Montreal: Quincaillerie Dante

Got it, got it, got it, need it, got it...

I hate to seem like a tourist but sometimes I can't help it.

Things started off smoothly. I'm driving along the streets of Petit Italie heading towards the barista competition when I spot it: Quincaillerie Dante. You know it, I know it. We all saw it on Tony Bourdain's No Reservations and I had to stop.

We're not just talking about cooking utensils and supplies folks, we're also talking about guns and weapons.

Those who know me know I enjoy food. But those who really know me know I can appreciate guns. From the skilled artisanal beauty of a handcrafted Beretta over/under to the rhythmic rat-a-tat-tat of an AK-47, I like them all. At about ten years old, I remember learning how to fire a 1911 .45 ACP "Magnum P.I." handgun and an M-16 "Armalite" by my uncle while visiting the Philippines. That staccato burst of full automatic fire was enough to inspire a young boy to become a modern day barista.

Okay, maybe I stretched the truth a little about weapons leading to barista.

As I wandered the aisle of coffee making equipment, I couldn't help but relive a Bourdain moment noting what I already have and what I lusted after. Sure that Bialetti would be nice, but that Le Creuset extra large dutch oven would be even better. Oh, and how about that sexy Laguiole knife slash corkscrew? Even that butter bell would be cool. Or the Kyocera ceramic knives. I could go ballistic in here and it wouldn't be difficult.

Instead, I practice my resolve and hold back from unleashing credit card fury. Though I do see the house cookbook for thirty bucks and decide to get one - even though it's in French.

It's a book featuring Dante's Stefano Faita, who happens to be in the shop at the moment wrestling with issues about his dog. I don't understand what's going on but he's occupied with those matters and I decide against asking him to sign my book. I think that maybe he'll offer but he doesn't and I leave.

I really can't read French but the pictures look good and the recipes don't seem too hard to decipher. In a moment, I'm back on the road once again heading for the convention center.

Quincaillerie Dante
6851 Rue Saint Dominique
Montreal, QC H2S 3B3

Montreal: Marche Jean Talon

Fresh Organic Produce

Smarter, more responsible people would plan their mornings early, have a little breakfast and then plan their tour of a city accordingly. They wouldn't head off at the last minute when there were other appointments to be made.

I'm just not that smart.

It's the Finals today of the Canadian Barista Championship and I'm supposed to co-emcee the event. But I'm also planning on leaving town immediately after the finals and won't have time to pay my proper respects to Marche Jean Talon, the city's largest public market. After a quick calculation, it's on and I'm blazing out the door and up Rue Saint Laurent heading for Rue Jean Talon and the market in Montreal's Petite Italie (Little Italy).

There's still more to fall's bounty at Jean Talon.

I've been here before and I know what to expect: French Culinary Goodness. On the way, I'm planning in my mind what to seek out. I've only got an hour to spare so I've got to be quick about it and I won't have time to properly explore the marche like last time. I'm thinking: cheese, duck confit, meats and whatever else catches my fancy. A friend warned me about problems crossing the border into the United States and since I've forgotten to bring my vacuum sealer, I'm taking a chance. But life is a gamble anyway, right?

At the market, I spy all sorts of tasty treats. Au Lait Cru is chock full of wonderful cheeses, Porcmillieur is stocked up with everything pork, the husband and wife team at the sausage place attract my attention and I'm running away with some Mini Menage sausage and a vac pack of Saucisse "Toulouse" Confite, He gives me a taste of the Mini Menage and it's absolutely beautiful. Rich, complex and buttery on the tongue. I should have bought more.

A little paella, just in case.

At Au Lait Cru, I realize that, like many things, cheese is my nemesis. I really know nothing about cheeses. It's all a mystery to me. So many to choose from. I don't know how. Sure, I'll go to the local market at home and just buy whatever to give it a taste but here in Montreal, i don't want to choose poorly. It's not like I'm coming back here next week.

Luckily, the counter guy must be familiar with idiot Americans and he guides me to some choices. There's a wedge of a Swiss cheese and two Quebec made cheeses (goat and a soft cheese similar to camembert). He assures me that these are good quality and hopes that I'll enjoy them.

Must avoid the fromagerie.

At Porcmillieur, I dig around their bins until I find a nice hunk of smoked loin ready for poaching, roasting, slicing and eating. The girl speaks about as much English as I do French but we manage to discuss the finer points of the loin and how to prepare it nonetheless.

Next to Porcmillieur is a specialty butcher and he's got some nice looking vac packed duck confit. I can't resist. Oh, and is that a tub of duck fat I spy in the display case? I'll take that too.

Wonderful duck and pork goodness.

Ah, saucissons!

A closer look at the sausages.

Jean Talon also has a nice selection of prepared foods, including baked pies and such. But I'm on a schedule and whatever I buy has to keep for several days until I return home to Maryland. I decide to pass on the baked goods - except for the Ficelle I picked up for the cheeses.

A Petroncini coffee roaster.

All this shopping and I'm feeling the need for a little nourishment, as well as a little coffee. There's a coffee shop in the market and I order an 8z drip coffee. They've got espresso, but many times I'd rather just have a plain old brewed cup of coffee. The coffee looks pretty decent and they roast their own on a Petroncini roaster.

Coffee and a cream-filled beignet.

Add a little sugar and milk to the coffee but the pastries at the coffeeshop look pretty mundane and run of the mill but there's a nice looking bakery across the way. There I decide on a cream-filled beignet to go with my coffee. The combination of coffee and beignet is a classic. It's just right, delicious and a great way to get things rolling.

From here, it's back into the Sonoma and back to the Palais des Congres de Montreal for the championship.

Marche Jean Talon
70/70 Rue Henri-Julien
Montreal, QC