Food Feature: Where's the beef?
Scaling new heights in meaty, mouth-watering Montreal
"It was back in 1908 when Ben Kravitz and his wife Fanny produced the first smoked meat sandwich ... "
So says the copy on the cover of the menu at Bens Montreal Deli.
I first heard about the famous Montreal-style smoked meat while still in Atlanta. "It's just corned beef," said some. "Oh no, it's not," said others. As the expatriot Canucks haggled over their particular version of salted meat, I committed myself to experiencing the delicacy in one of the landmarks that put the meat on the map.
Squarely located on de Maisonneuve Boulevard — a block from the adult playground of shopping, restaurants, bars and sex clubs (the other thing that put Montreal on the map) on Sainte Catherine Street — Bens, with its '50s diner feel, is an instant escape from the French finery and old-world charm of the rest of Montreal.
The orange-and-yellow paneling outside leads you to yellow Formica and green-tinged light inside. My friend and I took a seat at a table with mismatched, spindly metal chairs. An elderly waiter shambled over. The menu was large. And you can get smoked meat on just about anything. It can be added to your eggs, to your spaghetti, to your latkes, to your salad. You can eat it in a house, with a mouse ... .
I got the basic smoked meat sandwich — a towering stack of juicy meat between two pieces of rye bread, served with sides of deli mustard and a kosher pickle. After one bite, I understood what all the fuss was about. The monster sandwich was stuffed to perfection. The meat was juicy and thinly sliced. It was salty, vinegary and smoky.
My friend, however, had been jonesing for a Montreal-style bagel. A bagel's a bagel, I thought. What's the big deal? The chewy bagel topped anything I've ever had in New York and put to shame what passes for bagels in Atlanta. With just a bit of butter, it was another food coup.
Montreal may have made a name for itself with those food specialties, but Montreal derives its name from nearby Mount Royal. Located just above the picturesque campus of McGill University, the "mountain" was climbed in 1535 by Jacques Cartier who claimed the land for the French. Filled with smoked meat and bagels, my friend and I ascended the 794-foot hill to the observation area above. Original designs for the park at Mount Royal were by Frederick Law Olmstead. Although those plans were never fully achieved, the curving paths and shrubberies still provide a popular spot for walkers, joggers and bikers. Ah ... just like Piedmont Park. But steeper. Maybe the bus ride to the top would have been worth it. Stairs begin part way up and never seem to stop.
We saw panting passersby on their trek down who encouraged us to make it up the hundreds of stairs stretching onward into the sky. Then came the joggers. They stretched and forced their calves to function as they sweated by us, pacing their way to the top. Bikers hefted their contraptions on their shoulders and trudged along. Some little girls decided they couldn't make it and sat down halfway between ground and sky. They watched chattering squirrels and laughed at us as we passed them. Tourists from all over huffed and puffed onward. The spruce trees were scarred with French graffiti — foreign scribbles warning us that others had passed who never made it? The creaking wooden steps finally came to an abrupt stop and there was a quick view of the city between a copse of trees — a hint of what we were striving for. But we weren't finished. More stairs and a few paths later and finally we were at the top.
From the observation deck, we could see what made Montreal great: the Olympic stadium, the St. Lawrence River, Quartier Chinois (Chinatown), the skyscrapers that surrounded the French-speaking citizens. But there were hundreds of other things that we couldn't see from our aerie in the clouds: the old town with its cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, boulangeries and patisseries. The all-night full frontal sex clubs. French charm and attitude. And, of course, a certain sandwich at chez Bens.