I have a confession that’s not going to win me any friends in New York. An opinion so controversial, it should come with a warning label. Here it goes: Montréal bagels are better than New York’s.
Now, hear me out.
I know bagels are a serious matter for New Yorkers. I spent a few good years in the city researching, believe me. I stuffed my face at Absolute and Ess-a-Bagel; I cured hangovers at Murray’s and Russ & Daughters. I searched for bagels boiled and baked to perfection and left not even my neighborhood bodegas unturned.
Each time I devoured those blissfully carby discs piled high with lox or schmeared with good old cream cheese, I was left with no doubt that New York bagels were untouchable.
That is until I went to Montréal.
It was a Saturday morning, and a line had already formed at St-Viateur, the longest-running bagel shop in Montréal. Founded by Polish Holocaust survivor Myer Lewkowicz, the shop has been churning out some legendary dough in the cool Plateau neighborhood since 1957.
I was skeptical—I’d been let down before in other cities that claimed bagel goodness (L.A., Miami). But one bite, two bites, three of their classic sesame, and I was practically singing O Canada.
Why did I love them? Let me count the ways. At St-Viateur you can see the bagel-making process unfold before your eyes: they are hand-shaped, so like a snowflake, each one is unique.
Next: the water. Many New York bagel purists say the secret to a great bagel is boiling it in New York’s A+ water. (I concur that NYC water is delicious straight from the tap.) But Montréal goes a step further. They simmer their dough in honey water, giving it a slight sweetness.
The real magic, though, is that Montréal bagels are baked in a wood-fired oven. Watching a plank carrying bagels into the oven is mesmerizing, yes, but it’s the flavor that drives it home. Wood-firing gives the crust a golden crispiness and a rich taste, especially with the original sesame.
The result is a crusty-on-the-outside, pillowy-on-the-inside hunk of heaven. It’s a much lighter bagel than the bulky New York variety, which you have to admit is quite dense. Montréal’s are just easier to sink your teeth into. No jaws were harmed in the making of this article. No excessive chewing.
Montréal bagels taste great right out of the brown bag with nothing at all to cover their flavor—that wood-fired honey and sesame are all you need—but a schmear of cream cheese puts it over the edge.
And let’s not discount the cool factor of the Montréal bagel having traveled to space. You read that right. Montreal-born astronaut Gregory Chamitoff brought Fairmount bagels to the International Space Station with him in 2008, making these bagels officially out of this world.
What’s most impressive to me though, is that I felt like I could still eat a meal later that day.
To be fair, comparing New York bagels to Montréal bagels is not totally an apples-to-apples (dough-to-dough?) competition. The techniques aren’t the same; the flavor profiles are completely different; and well, it all comes down to preference (and I suppose city loyalty). I still love you, New York. But I tasted something that day in Montreal I can’t un-taste.
Don’t believe me? Try for yourself. The two best places to bite into a Montréal bagel are St-Viateur and Fairmount, two iconic institutions that have each garnered loyal followings. (Really loyal. Like, life-long-allegiance, I-can’t-be-friends-with-you-if-you-don’t-agree-with-me loyalty.) Have your own bagel war between the two greats, taste-testing to determine which side you’re on, and by the end, you’ll know why each draws lines of folks who think they’re the best thing since sliced bread.
You may not agree with me about the bagels, and that’s okay. You don’t need bagels to fall in love with Montréal’s food. Its international food scene is legendary, thanks to the city’s mosaic of cultures. Go for Portuguese chicken at Ma Poule Mouillée or for superb African food at Le Virunga. Go for a cannoli and coffee at Café Olimpico. They’ll take you around the world and back.
Don’t leave without embracing uniquely Quebecois fare by sampling fresh fruits and fromages at the Marché Jean-Talon, sipping a pint at one of the city’s many microbreweries, like Mellön (try the My Heart Will Gose On), or scarfing down some of Canada’s national dish, poutine, that indulgent combo of fries covered in cheese curds and gravy.
With more restaurants per capita than New York–65 every square kilometer–it’s no wonder locals claim the food scene is better than New York’s, too.
But I haven’t conceded on that front just yet. I’ll need to go back for more…research.