Montreal tradition finally rises in Toronto
Diana Zlomislic, Living Reporter
A delicious tradition rooted in 19th-century Eastern Europe and popularized by Montreal's Jewish bakeries for decades is finally coming to Toronto.
Tomorrow, residents at Avenue and Lawrence — home to Pusateri's fine foods and the city's sexiest heels at Zola — will be spoiled yet again with Toronto's first 24-hour bagelry, where hand-rolled bagels boiled in honey water and toasted in a massive wood-burning oven will be available round the clock.
While pizza arguably holds reign as this town's tastiest midnight snack, note there have been few other options as hot and affordable at 3 a.m.
Sat Chouhan, 40, and Jessi Sahdra, 42, partners in The Bagel House have been dreaming of a 24-hour shop since opening their first store in 1999. Born in India, the bakers honed their techniques at iconic Jewish bagelries like St. Viateur and Fairmount during the '80s and '90s in Montreal, where it's easy to find a freshly baked ring of dough at any hour.
In Poland during the late 19th century, the humble bread brought people together almost every night of the week barring the Sabbath, of course, says Maria Balinska, London-based author of The Bagel: A Cultural History (Yale University Press), due in stores this fall. Town folk, she says, would line up late in the evening outside the bakeries waiting for hot bagels by the dozen.
Today, Chouhan and Sahra's secret to success is simple. Flour, water, eggs, oil, malt and sugar.
And "never salt the dough," warns Chouhan, who chastises the typical Toronto bagel as "bread with a hole." The beauty of a Montreal bagel — crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside — is its density and a slight sweetness that tempts one to lick it like a soft, round lollypop before the first bite.
Whether it'll satiate bleary-eyed clubbers on their way home from the Entertainment District, we'll find out this weekend.
Here\'s a sample of Toronto\'s French-inspired baked goods to whet your appetite
Jennifer Bain, food editor
Carbs be damned. It\'s time to fight the cult of Atkins by celebrating scrumptious baked goods.
Pistachio danishes, Fig croissants, French toast crafted from day-old baguettes.
Bagels that would delight a finicky Montrealer. Brioche-like baguettes studded with fine chocolate.
It\'s ours for the eating in Toronto.
Let this be the bakery that puts the whole tiresome Montreal bagel debate to rest: The Bagel House makes great Montreal bagels. Period.
Jessie Sahdra, 38 and Sat Chouhan, 36, born in India, worked the Montreal bagel scene for several dozen years combined at hotspots including Fairmount Bagel Bakers and St. Viateur Bagel. They make bagels here using the same simple ingredients (water, flour, sugar, eggs and oil - no shortening), hand-rolled and boiled in honey water to provide a crunchy-sweet exterior, baked 15 minutes in a wood oven fuelled by maple, coated (if desired) with sesame or poppy seeds.
If the stray customer occasionally argues that there\'s a subtle difference between Montreal and Toronto water, the Bagel House boys vehemently disagree. \"Some people think our bagels are close, but there\'s still a difference,\" says Chouhan. \"There is no difference.\"
This bagel story begins in 1999 when Sahdra took over Bagels \'N Things on Bayview Ave. in Leaside. He changed the bagels immediately and changed the shop\'s name in 2003, the same year he and his best friend Chouhan launched a second branch on Avenue Rd. near Pusateri\'s Fine Foods. The duo, like many, consider Ontario lightweight bagels to be the bread-like buns with a hole. (This is a hole other debate.) They scoff at Toronto shops that use frozen, pre-mixed dough, machine-roll their bagels or cook them in gas ovens.
Bagel House makes 16 varieties, selling a dozen sesame seed ones for $5.45. (It also stocks chopped liver, smoked meat and more from Solly The Caterer in Montreal.)
Although this congenial baking duo is lauded in The French Side of Toronto, the French connection is tenuous.
\"Ex-Québecois, ex-Indian, recently turned Torontonian,\" is the way Chouhan describes himself. Adds Sahdra: \"we don\'t speak much French. We learned only a few words of bagel language. The bagel business in Montreal is owned by Jewish people, so it\'s no problem if you\'re not bilingual, and we worked in the back of the bakery.\"
Sahdra is proud to say he left high school to work as a cleaner in a bakery. He worked his way up through the ranks doing the bagel rolling, then the bagel baking, becoming a store manager in Montreal and finally a store owner here in Toronto. He\'d love to see a third Bagel House in Mississauga, and to stay open 24/7. \"In Montreal we used to work 24 hours and never close the stores. Every time you walked in, you\'d have a hot bagel and that\'s exactly what I want to do.\"
The Bagel House: 1548 Bayview Ave. (south of Eglinton Ave.), 416-481-8184; 1722 Avenue Rd. (north of Lawrence Ave.), 416-781-0032. Hours: Daily 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m.
The essential 2004 guide to French food and culture in Toronto
Did you know?
While it is true the bagel doesn\'t have French roots, you\'d be hard-pressed to find a Quebecker who hasn\'t embraced this dense, round, holed bread as much as the croissant. Originally derived from the culinary history of Russian and European Jews, the history of the bagel in Canada can be traced to 1919, when a Jewish immigrant by the name of Isadore Shiafman opened his first bagel shop in Montreal on St-Laurent Street. This was followed by a second shot in 1949 on Fairmount Street, a region that would become known as the bagel district. There are bagels, and then there are Montreal-style bagels. Their distinctive taste and texture is achieved by a process of hand-rolling, boiling and baking in a wood-burning oven. Montreal-style bagels are exactly what real bagels are meant to be - slightly chewy, a little sweet and perfectly sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds. for many years, the only hope Montreal expats living in Toronto had of satisfying their bagel cravings was to stock up by the dozen with each trip to la belle Province, then deep-freeze this manna from heaven, to be savoured on special occasions only. Mais, enfin! There is a small but steady supply of Montreal-style bagel shops right here in the city for your convenience and continuous enjoyment.
THE BAGEL HOUSE
1584 Bayview Avenue
1722 Avenue Road (corner of Fairlawn Avenue)
Montreal ex-pat Jessie Sahdra has 17 years\' experience in some of the most popular bagel shop in Quebec, and it shows. There are only a handful of places in Toronto that make authentic Montreal-style bagels, with their distinctive texture, taste and preparation, and The Bagel House is one of them. Mr. Sahdra\'s mastery of his art is evident with every bagel he produces. The bagels at The Bagel House come in 12 or so flavours, although purists will likely stick to the sesame or poppy varieties!