Pesach ended on Monday for my reform self, and as we sat contemplating where to break it, my roomate confessed to me that he’d never eaten at a Jewish delicatessen in his life. He’s Jewish, but not from a deli family, and so the sheer urgency of the mission had me frantically calling my Toronto favorites. I rang Yitz’s, Pancer’s and Centre Street, but all were closed (observing the full 8 days of passover).
“I suppose we could try Mel’s,” I said, very hesitantly. Mel’s Montreal Diner is a 24 hour restaurant in my neighborhood of the Annex, which claims to serve authentic Montreal style deli. I’ve eaten there a few times, though never deli food (always a club or breakfast). Mel’s also happens to be four blocks from my apartment, so between that and the lack of other options Adam and I set out.
Over the years I had read reviews of Mel’s claiming it as “The Real Deal”, or “Authentic Montreal Deli”, but I always remained skeptical. With its yellow walls and shoddy frescoes it never struck me as anything near haymish. In fact, it reminded me more of Greek diners in Montreal, where you could get anything with smoked meat on it (smoked meat pizza or smoked meat poutine). Plus, there were Chowhound posts claiming it was fantastic. Some even put it in the same league as the big Toronto three.
“i’d agree with the centre street deli, but i’d also cast a vote for the smoked meat at mel’s on bloor near spadina. it’s the original dunn’s recipe from montreal (in fact i’m pretty sure they get it shipped in several times a week). hand cut, nice and thick and as fatty or lean as you like it. and 24 hours. mmmm, 3 a.m. heartburn, mmmmmm.”
So we went, sat down, and with great anticipation from our bread starved selves, ordered a medium fat old fashioned smoked meat sandwich (hand cut, the menu said) and two bowls of matzo ball soup. After the order was taken I gazed at the menu, which included kreplach stuffed with smoked meat and other bastardized deli dishes. When the food arrived my suspicions were sadly astute. Before Adam and I stood a sandwich stacked with watery underheated smoked meat, the rubbery slices resting between two pieces of flavorless/crustless rye. The taste wasn’t awful, their product was clearly Lester’s…who runs the Canadian smoked meat market, but you could tell the person making the sandwich had no knowledge of the brisket’s inner workings. I took three bites and moved on to the soup.
It looked promising…a fat m-ball in a nice amber bowl of broth. No veggies or chicken could be seen, but some people like it that way. I sliced off a chunk with my spoon, got some soup in the trough and put it in my mouth and tasted nothing. I looked at Adam and he looked back with the same stunned gaze of shock and disbelief. Mel’s had somehow turned Matzo Ball Soup, the most fragrant, flavourful, and simple of Jewish dishes, into the blandest concoction we’d ever tasted. When I say nothing, I literally mean that it was unseasoned water in the shape of matzo ball soup. There was no taste; not salt, not fat, and definitely not chicken.
We quickly got the check, walked down the street and had a second lunch…trying desperately to wash the memory from our tongues. I apologized profusely to Adam though I was most sorry for myself. Here I was back home and the worst deli I’d eaten in 16,000 kms of road tripping, plus a month in New York, was right in my backyard. A shonda.