Save the Deli

“Brisket and twister bagels find their way back downtown” in the Globe and Mail

I had two articles in the Globe and Mail this past weekend about deli. For those who don’t know, the Globe and Mail is Canada’s preeminent national paper, basically a smaller, WASPier version of the New York Times…but for Canada.

The first is on the return of Jewish food to downtown Toronto, including Caplansky’s deli, which will open tomorrow (I’ll be there).

Brisket and twister bagels find their way back downtown

Come this Tuesday afternoon, anyone walking into Little Italy’s venerable Monarch Tavern will find the usual perfume of veal sandwiches and draft beers overwhelmed by an olfactory assault of garlic, cumin, salt, smoke and steaming briskets. The powerful aroma will emanate from the Monarch’s small kitchen, where Zane Caplansky will be slicing the inaugural smoked meat sandwiches at his new Jewish delicatessen, Caplansky’s, located inside the tavern, a College and Clinton standby.

For Mr. Caplansky, a 39-year-old caterer whose great-grandfather was one of the city’s first kosher butchers, his venture is the result of his mission to return the cured meats of his forefathers to their historical home.

“There is an absence of Jewish food culture in downtown Toronto,” Mr. Caplansky says, adding that his locally raised meat will be cured and smoked in-house. “These are the sidewalks my family grew up on. This is my heritage. It’s an honour to carry on their tradition.”

Mr. Caplansky’s taste for deli food was shaped by Sunday lunches with his grandfather at the departed Switzer’s delicatessen, during the closing days of Toronto’s downtown Jewish food scene in the 1970s. (Switzer’s is now located near Pearson International Airport.)

In the first half of the 20th century, Toronto’s Jewish population largely lived in and around Kensington Market. Much like New York’s fabled Lower East Side, the dense tenements teemed with dozens of kosher butchers, fishmongers, bagel bakeries, appetizing stores and delicatessens. It was a rich cultural life defined by the poverty of immigrants, new opportunity and the adherence to biblical law.

But the postwar era saw Toronto’s Jewish population shift drastically. Many migrated north up Bathurst Street, to the more spacious neighbourhoods of Forest Hill, North York, Thornhill and Richmond Hill, where one could buy a detached house in a safe, Jewish neighbourhood.

Several downtown Jewish eateries followed, establishing themselves in new strip malls and plazas. United Bakers Dairy Restaurant, Coleman’s Restaurant and Deli, and Moe Pancer’s Delicatessen, all located on Bathurst at or north of Lawrence, are migrants from downtown. Each displays worn photographs of their old stomping grounds on walls brimming with nostalgia.

Spadina’s mostly Jewish-owned garment trade gradually disappeared, taking with it the lunchtime crowds that sustained the neighbourhood delis and bagel shops. As the Jews departed, Kensington Market was given over to the tastes of Jamaican patties, grilled Portuguese sardines and Chinese dim sum. The remaining Jewish restaurants and stores that didn’t make the move north eventually went out of business. Over time, the tastes of Toronto’s Jews also evolved. Each generation born in Canada was more willing to explore other kitchens.

Health trends demonized Eastern European Jewish cooking as dangerously fatty and salty. When the Jewish Community Centre at Bloor and Spadina underwent a renovation a few years back, it replaced the family-run delicatessen inside with four decidedly non-Jewish eateries: A Second Cup, a bubble tea shop, a Middle Eastern takeout stand, and an ice-cream parlour. Most Jewish Torontonians now only eat traditional foods during the holidays.

Today, only a few Jewish food businesses remain downtown. The oldest is the family-owned Silverstein’s Bakery, a sprawling factory at McCaul and Baldwin, which produces the rye bread used to frame Caplansky’s sandwiches. Still, you would be hard-pressed to find a blintz south of Lawrence.

But there is good reason to hope that Caplansky’s will herald a revival of Jewish food downtown. Several weeks after it opens, Bloor Street will see the arrival of a Bagel World outlet, the first expansion by the beloved brunch spot at Wilson and Bathurst. Set in the heart of the Annex, Bagel World will serve up its famous twister bagels, cream cheese, chopped herring, smoked whitefish, lox and dishes of eggs and onions to a growing downtown Jewish population.

“A lot of Jewish people are coming back to the area,” says Bagel World’s co-owner, Saul Herszkowicz, who will target a mix of younger downtown Jews and their suburban boomer parents who have recently downsized to smaller houses.

“A lot of my customers are saying, ‘Great, we finally don’t have to schlep all the way north up Bathurst.’ I mean, look, the only bagel place near here is Tim Hortons. I just can’t wait to introduce the non-Jewish people to real bagels, and to our Jewish tam, which is Yiddish for the taste, the kibitz, and the whole feeling of Jewish soul food.”

As for Mr. Caplansky, he’s betting that young downtown Jews are hankering for a bite of something authentic. “I’m putting the Star of David on my menu as a way of identifying this as an authentic Jewish deli,” he says, hoping that “the smell of smoked meat will awaken their nascent memories.”

The other article was a small little travel piece on my favorite deli in Paris, the venerable Maison David.

EAT: LE NOSH C’EST BON

From Langer’s in Los Angeles to Schwartz’s in Montreal, Jewish deli boasts many temples. And I’ve had the pleasure of indulging in most of them while researching my upcoming book on delicatessens.

But it was a tiny butcher shop in Paris that blew me away, that showed me the untapped culinary possibility of kosher noshes.

Maison David, found just off the fabled rue des Rosiers in the historic Jewish quarter, is run by master butcher Michel Kalifa, who will proffer up slices of creamy cured goose ($28 a pound) and delicate peppered duck ($35 a pound) that dissolves into stock upon the tongue. His aged sausages are hand-ground, darkly coloured and flecked with delicious fat. Some even come impregnated with white peppercorns or whole hazelnuts ($36 a pound). Keep in mind that Maison David isn’t a restaurant, and they don’t have sandwiches. Forget the mustard, rye and black cherry – this is deli as fine art.

Maison David 6, rue des Ecouffes; 33 1 4278-1576.

I’m heading to Paris this Friday, for a week’s vacation with Ms. Save the Deli, and I’ll be visiting Michel next Sunday.

Update in the next few days from Caplansky’s.

13 Responses to ““Brisket and twister bagels find their way back downtown” in the Globe and Mail”

  1. Herman Bressel Says:

    David; great blog with interesting info about the
    delis in Canada. Guess you llive in Toronto. I’m a
    native of NYC but left many, many years ago. I get
    to visit too infrequently. Been to Montreal and Schwartz’s … etc …. Found it pretty good. I
    live in Long Beach, CA and so I can get to Langer’s
    which is just the best in the USA for pastrami.
    Nate & Al’s is not bad for the other deli stuff. Better
    pickles than Langer’s. I also lived in France for 4 years and have returned many times. Never found American style deli food there (not suprising), The
    most well known Jewish deli in Paris during my stay back in the 60′s was Jo Goldenberg’s in the Marais district. Been there a couple of times and found the food to be barely edible and the place generally fly specked. However, in Paris and the provinces, it usually possible to get an appetizer course in a lot of restauants of creamed Baltic herring with steamed and parsleyed new potatoes.
    I always find this to be delicious and was never able to find an equivalent in the “New World”. Thanks for your blog and I will be watching for your new book on delis. Best Regards, Herman Bressel

  2. Save The Deli » Blog Archive » Caplansky’s so popular, it runs out of meat! Says:

    [...] case with the opening of Caplansky’s, here in Toronto last Tuesday. I wrote about it in the Globe and Mail last Sunday, and posted on it Tuesday afternoon. That posting was my largest ever, bringing over [...]

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