Humble 'Big Three' are quintessential Montreal foods

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In Montreal, a city where classic French haute cuisine reigns supreme in country kitchens as well as on fancy metro menus, a trio of lowly food staples -- a cheese fries and gravy combo called poutine, a pastrami-like smoked brisket and a spindly, chewy bagel -- remain unambiguously emblematic of popular tastes in these parts.

In short, to experience Montreal as the locals do, visitors are well advised to dig in at neighborhood bistros and boites in order to sample the lore of the Big Three.

Poutine

The ultimate in comfort food, poutine is said to have originated in rural Quebec in the late 1950s, but there are so many claims to its birth it is safest to say that, like success, it has many fathers. Or at least a host of foundational short-order cooks.

Basically, poutine is cheese fries with an attitude. The classic rendition is a melange of french fries (not steak fries) topped by finger-sized chunks of briny cheddar cheese curds (not processed yellow cheese as in the U.S.), with the whole thing liberally doused with a chicken-based gravy.

Of course, there are variants to this elemental assemblage (more about that below), but the basic fries, cheese curds and gravy is where it all began and, for some purists, where the dish should remain.

The following restaurants are known for serving good poutine and are worth a visit:

Maamm Bolduc (also listed as Ma-Am-M. Bolduc): Renovated in 2005, this bistro-like eatery features a large blackboard menu, a wall of local artworks and an all-day breakfast service. A tree-shaded terrace makes for pleasant dining when the weather permits.

Maamm Bolduc's menu offers eight versions of poutine, including Italienne (marinara sauce) and Bourguignon (ground beef, onions and garlic). A small order starts at about $7.50, and a large costs about $9.

One caveat: As a rule, "small" means "large" when it comes to poutine portions, with a large serving enough to feed the forward line of the Montreal Canadiens. Address: 4351 Avenue de Lorimier; (514) 527-3884.

La Banquise: This spot opened as a dairy bar in 1968 and shortly thereafter offered two varieties of poutine to local customers: the simple classic and the Italienne. Renovated and expanded in 2006, La Banquise now features 25 varieties of poutine, including Elvis poutine (minced meat, peppers and sauteed mushrooms), kamikaze poutine (Merguez sausages, hot peppers and Tabasco) and dance poutine (chicken, onions, bacon and pepper sauce).

A regular order comes to $5.25, while the large poutine classique is $8.50. Address: 994 Rachel East, corner of Lafontaine Park; (514) 525-2415.

Au Pied du Cochon: One of the better-known restaurants in Montreal, Au Pied du Cochon offers an upscale menu that includes fois gras poutine at $23 a plate. Maybe it is time to get back to basics. Address: 536 Duluth East; (514) 281-1114.

Smoked meat

Smoked meat, the second of Montreal's gastronomic standbys, is often referred to as pastrami by those who don't know better.

But deli devotees contend there is a world of difference between the local beef brisket and its better-known New York counterpart. 

While both trace to Jewish immigrants who came to North America at the turn of the century, Montreal's naturally aged and marinated smoked meat features different spices and flavoring than pastrami and has a texture, color and taste all its own.

Invariably served in layered slabs between slices of rye bread, with a pickle, mustard and a side of cole slaw, a Montreal smoked meat sandwich can be ordered lean to fatty.

Opt for the lean, as a recent "medium fat" was nothing short of a cholesterol catastrophe.

And as with poutine, a regular-size sandwich is immense, while a giant is ... well, gigantic.

Schwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen: Queues of locals and tourists wait patiently outside Schwartz's every day at lunch hour for the opportunity to be treated dismissively by no-nonsense waiters none too eager to please (no "servers" or "associates" here).

A Montreal landmark since its opening in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, Schwartz's remains the No. 1 destination for smoked-meat aficionados.

A regular sandwich will set you back about $5.20. Address: 3895 St.-Laurent Blvd.; (514) 842-4813.

Reuben's: Reuben's features big and bustling operations, with soup-to-nuts menus, in two locations. Smoked meat sandwiches come in 10-ounce or hard-to-fit-on-a plate, one-pound versions. Address: 888 St.-Catherine West; (514) 861-1255. 1116 St.-Catherine West; (514) 866-1029.

Dunn's: Dunn's traces its origins to 1927, when it was opened by Myer Dunn. These days, Dunn's smoked meat sandwiches come hand-carved from the eponymous Myer's Classic Deli Counter. Main location: 1249 Metcalfe; (514) 395-1927.

Montreal bagel

Like smoked meat, the Montreal bagel was originated by Jewish immigrants to the city.

Hand-rolled, boiled in honey-sweetened water and then baked in wood-fired ovens, the local bagel is smaller, sweeter and chewier than its omnipresent U.S. cousin.

The basic ingredients are malt, egg and unbleached flour (no salt is added), and often the bagels are finished with poppy or sesame seeds.

St. Viateur Bagel Bakery: Open 24 hours, St. Viateur is both a neighborhood hangout and a must-see site for travelers to Montreal.

With more than 40 years of bagel-baking behind him (he got his first job at St. Viateur as a 14-year-old in 1962), current owner Joe Morena produces only two kinds of bagels, poppy and sesame, the only two varieties turned out by St. Viateur since Meyer Lewkowicz opened his original shop in 1957. Main location: 263 St.-Viateur West; (514) 276-8044.

Fairmount Bagel: This long-established bagel bakery has a major, American, claim to fame: Montreal native and astronaut Gregory Chamitoff carried 18 Fairmount bagels on a 14-day space voyage when he was a member of the U.S. space shuttle Discovery crew in early June. Address: 74 Fairmount West; (514) 272-0667.

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