Sunday, May 24, 2015

Hof Kelsten

As lunch time drew near I realized I hadn't brought a lunch.

I had been distracted by the morning paper and forgot to throw a lunch together.

One of the distractions was an article about local Montreal businesses that the city had recognized with design awards.  Many of them were restaurants, and quite a few I hadn't heard of.  Among them was Boulangerie Hof Kelsten, a Jewish bakery cum deli counter on St-Laurent barely north of Mount-Royal avenue.

What better time to check this modest eatery out, than when you forget to pack a lunch?  Especially if you commute on a Vespa.  Parking for four-wheelers in that neighborhood is hellish.  For a Vespa, it's a no-brainer.  I tucked my GTS between two trucks right across the street, and strolled in for lunch.
Though this lunch counter on the Main is barely more than that, it's more than worth a visit.

As the name implies, Boulangerie Hof Kelsten it is a bakery first.  A Jewish bakery, in the French tradition.   You won't find racks of bread sliced and bagged in plastic, supermarket fashion.  You also won't find lots and lots of loaves.

What you will find on the shelves, and in the display, is to-die-for freshly baked bread, croissants, and pastry.  The kind you can only make in small batches, by hand, with a lot of talent, much love, patience, and passion.
Having read the write-up in the Gazette, I knew what I was after long before I got there.  I was having the brisket sandwich.

And here you have it:
OK, calm down, I know, it doesn't look like it's worth the trek, now does it?  Even the iced tea looks drab.

Brisket, mainly smoked brisket, is as quintessentially and famously Montreal as the Canadiens, Mount Royal, Leonard Cohen, and now poutine.  

Every casual restaurant seems to have smoked meat on the menu.  When you go to Halifax, or Toronto, or Vancouver, some restaurants claim to offer 'Montreal-style smoked meat'.  But appearances are most often deceiving.  The smoked brisket that made Montreal famous, and causes acute withdrawal pangs in ex-pats, is only available in a handful of iconic restaurants: Scwhartz's, Smoked Meat Pete's, Dunn's, and maybe, just maybe, the Snowdon Deli.

So when a Montreal lunch counter offers a 'brisket sandwich', you know it won't be smoked meat.  When you see it wrapped in wax paper, you know it's not a smoked meat sandwich.

But... you are justified in expecting something special.
I wasn't disappointed.

Hof Kelsten is a boulangerie so you expect really, really good bread.  And yes, the bread in this sandwich was really good bread.  Crunch in the crust where you want it, nice, fresh and moist when you sink your teeth into it, with that dreamy fresh-from-the-oven subtle aroma.  But great bread alone won't make a great sandwich.  It's all about the ingredients nestled between the slices.

What makes a great dish great, whether it's elegantly plated in a Michelin-star restaurant, or just a lunchtime sandwich, is contrast.  It's all about contrast.  Rich fatty proteins, a touch of acidity, saltiness that dances on your taste buds, and a hint of sweet to set it all off.  You take a bite, and it's all there: crunch, toothy texture, the meat (always the star!), and then the rest of cast, conspiring to create that explosion of flavours that makes you close your eyes in rapture and smile a foodie smile.

So how did they do it?  Freshly baked artisan bread, generous slices of warm mouth-watering beef brisket, pickled borscht-like purple cabbage, a wonderful concoction of mayonnaise, ketchup and chopped pickles, and thinly sliced apple.  Wow! It was that good.

The iced tea was the perfect drink to have.  Unassuming, quiet, playing its unsung supporting role in the wings.

That hit precisely the right spot.

6 comments:

  1. You should be deli / bakery tester. Your reviews are certainly mouthwatering, and I look very much forward to explore Montreal from culinary point of view. Yum!

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    1. Watch out Sonja, exploring culinary Montreal is only a slightly smaller task than exploring the known internet. You might get stuck here for years on end.

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  2. I think the bread alone sounds divine.

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    1. You're right Brandy. I didn't think to see if they had vegetarian options. As a confirmed meat-a-tarian, checking those options out is not exacly in my wheelhouse. My evolution is a never-ending quest.

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  3. And a much more reasonable portion compared to some of the more iconic deli locations.

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    1. The typical Montreal smoked meat sandwich requires the ability to disengage one's jaw, snake-like, in order to get a whole bite out of the sandwich bread to bread.

      The best I can do it go at it sideways.

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The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.