One of the more interesting things about the simple bagel is that quite a few major metropolitan areas have ended up creating their own region-specific rendition. While for many people the “New York Bagel” is the ne plus ultra bagel (with many arguments about which particular bakery one should be visiting), I’ve been to two other cities with their particular bagel traditions: London (in which the “beigel” is particularly less crusty, andin most cases, the star of the show is the salt beef it’s served with), and Montreal, which is well-known for their “Montreal Style Bagel”. (Unfortunately, most of the “bagels” that one finds in most of the country are of a fourth type, the “fake bagel”, or “circular bread” as I call it, steamed instead of boiled, and lacking the correct bagel texture. But that’s perhaps a topic for another time.)
In most any discussion of Montreal-style bagels, there are two canonical bakeries always mentioned, Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel. And, like asking someone in New Haven whether Sally’s or Pepe’s has better pizza, asking someone in Montreal which they prefer is likely to get you an answer involving particular strong opinions and often a religious-like devotion to one or the other (in fact, until recently, there was even an occasional mention to a third contender, Faubourg Bagel in the increasingly dilapidated Faubourg Ste-Catherine shopping center, but they closed recently). I actually like both, but our recent visit to Lawrence was right down the street from Fairmount Bagel, and a good chance to pop in an give this place a proper review.
One of the first things you notice approaching Fairmount is that it’s been there a while. The signage says 1919, but that was for the original location, the current location on 74 Avenue Fairmount Ouest has it’s home since 1949. And for a long time, the place has been a 24/7 operation, so you can always count on Fairmount being open, even in the wee hours of the morning (indeed, when we visited, we noted that, at present, Fairmount doesn’t even seem to have a door installed in the doorframe at the front of the building).
The operation is relatively straight forward and no-frills: You walk in, wait in line, order up your bagels, and then watch them make more bagels while they are putting your order together, hand forming the bagels, boiling the bagels, baking them in wood oven on the odd 20-bagel long paddles, and then tossing them by the paddle-full into waiting bins. Luckily for us, 11am on a Sunday morning wasn’t the peak bagel-buying hour at Fairmount; while I’ve often seen the line out the door and down the block, we were able to walk right in and buy our bagels (two dozen for us, and a dozen for Carol’s coworkers). Note to self: buying even a single fresh garlic bagel from Fairmount will result in a garlicky smell perfusing throughout your entire vehicle for the trip home.
How is the bagel? Well, let’s first talk about what makes a Montreal bagel a Montreal bagel. Unlike it’s rather voluminous New York cousin, the first thing that stands out about a Montreal bagel is that it’s substantially smaller, with a larger circle in the middle. Being cooked in a wood oven, it also is crispier and browner, often showing a bit of variation in brown-ness from the irregularities of the oven. Biting into it, it’s a denser and slightly chewier (but less elastic) body than the New York bagel, making up a bit for the difference in overall heft. The flavor is probably the other major difference: while the main flavor note I get aside from dough in a New York bagel is salt, the inclusion of malt in the recipe makes the Montreal bagel a substantially sweeter product. The result is a product distinct from it’s New York cousin, but good and proud in its own right (For the record, I don’t really have a preference: the Montreal Bagel is simply different from a New York bagel, and any given day I may prefer either… and even a bad Montreal bagel more closely resembles a good New York bagel than most of the mass-produced fake bagels out there).
How does Fairmount do producing a Montreal bagel? Quite well. There’s a reason it’s one of the two most popular bagel bakeries in Montreal, since they’ve got a reliably good product with a long tradition. It’s slightly sweeter and slightly less roasted than St-Viateur’s product (which I’ll try to review on my next visit), but it’s a particularly pleasant baked snack, and one of my favorite breakfasts, with a fresh Fairmount Bagel slathered with some good butter. I’m not sure which place wins the bagel war, but it’s good to have such good options when visiting.