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.
by Jacob Richler
Tempted by the dough of another
Chubby people in Leaside, already justifiably fearful of the intersection of Bayview and Millwood, awoke last Thursday to find the stretch had grown even more menacing overnight. For only the week before, as long as you passed through this corridor of bread and doughy pastry hugging the east side of the street, you had a fair shot at safely making it past Epi, the iffy bakery dominating the southwest corner (1526 Bayview Ave.), as well as the Bagel House (1548 Bayview), our best - and only - purveyor of top-quality Montreal bagels.
For a last stop I dropped by the Bagel House to see if the wood-oven-roasted bagels were as good as I remembered them. And back home spread it all out on the table.
The Bagel House, meanwhile, is still making excellent bagels. And so, chunky locals will still find their safest passage on the east side of the street.
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!
An old bagel is a doughnut with rigor mortis, say the wags. It\\'s true: freshness is everything. Lineups at The bagel House begin at 7am, when the steaming specimens, straight from their honey bath and wood-smoked sauna, are first sent out into the world. Owner Jessie Sahdra learned his trade at Fairmount and St. Viateur, two venerable bagelries in Montreal, and it shows in these glossy-skinned sweet breads. From $5.45 a dozen.
Montreal bagels are hot stuff in Toronto
Expat baker learned from masters
Susan Semenak,. The Gazette
TORONTO Bagels. They are among the few things Montrealers can still lord over Toronto.
There's something petty - but gratifying - about watching exiles from Montreal load up on bagels from the Fairmount Ave. or St. Viateur St. shops before the trip back down the 401.
But even that pleasure might soon be gone. There\\'s a new bagel bakery, Bagels 'N' Things, on Bayview Ave. in toronto, making Montreal-style bagels. It has former Montrealers lining up out the door and Torontonians gloating.
There are other wanna-be Montreal-style bagel bakeries in Toronto, but none of them comes this close to the real thing, aficionados say. The bagels at this place actually taste like Montreal bagels: chewy and a little sweet, hand-rolled and slightly lopsided, coated with sesame or poppy seeds.
Jessie Sahdra lived for 17 years in Montreal, working as a baker in just about every bagel factory there is _ from the Fairmount Bagel Bakers to St. Viateur Bagel, Real Bagel and Homemade Kosher bakery. All along the way, he says, he watched, he listened and he gleaned secrets and recipes from the masters in those hallowed bagel halls.
Then, in September of last year, Sahdra sold his home in Pierrefonds, moved his wife and two children to Toronto and bought a bagel shop on Bayview Ave. in Toronto's chi-chi Leaside neighbourhood.
His former boss, Joseph Datillo, owner of the Real Bagel franchise on St. John\\'s Blvd. in Dollard des Ormeaux, had been operating the shop long-distance for six years, with mixed results.
Sahdra's bagels have caused quite a sensation in a city where what usually passes for a bagel is a big puffy bread-like bun with a hole in the middle.
Sales at Bagels 'N' Things have sky-rocketed by 40 percent in only a few months. According to Sahdra's estimates, he is selling more than 21,600 bagels a week.
Customers line up at 7 or 8 am on Saturday and Sunday. To add insult to injury, Sahdra said he has a steady flow of customers from out West who come in to his Toronto store to buy Montreal-style bagels to bring back to Calgary, Edmonton or Vancouver.
"My life has changed," said Rita Fundner, who moved to Toronto from Montreal 20 years ago, as she lined up for two dozen sesame-seed bagels at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. She is so loyal a customer, she keeps a running tab at Bagels'N' Things. "I don't have to truck my bagels in from Montreal any more."
"We didn't believe it could be. But these are pretty, pretty close to the real thing," says Margaret Stewart, an expatriate Montrealer who has been living in Toronto with her husband and two children for three and a half years.
"Otherwise they don\\'t even know what a real bagel is here. They eat these big round puffy things, and they love them."
So does all the buzz about this Toronto upstart worry Marco Sblano, co-owner of Montreal's St. Viateur Bagel?
"I can't comment because I've never tasted one of these Toronto bagels," Sblano said. "To tell you the truth, I've never even been to Toronto."
But he said he hasn't noticed any decrease in business from Toronto regulars who come in on long weekends and holidays.
He and his partners don\\'t have any plans to set up their own store in Toronto, either. Besides, he said, the secret to a real Montreal bagel isn't just a good recipe, it's also in the design of the wood stove and the inimitable ambience of a Montreal bagel shop.
Sahdra still calls himself a Montrealer. He drives back to visit in-laws and friends at least once a month. So you\\'d think the guy would feel a little guilty about rustling the Montreal bagel out of Montreal? But no.
Sahdra sees himself not as a quiling, but as a ambassador sharing the quintessence of Montreal with the world, or at least Ontario.
"Look, I'm missing Montreal. I miss the jazz festival and the night life and camping at Mont Tremblant," Sahdra said, looking for absolution. \\"You can\\'t even get a beer here at the dépanneur after 6pm. And people in Toronto are always running, running, running.
"I would go back to Montreal in a minute - it's only the work that keep me here."
Sahdra has taken a few Torontonian liberties with his Montreal-style bagels. Take, for example, the cutesy names: Perfectly Plain, Big Twister or Exciting Everything.
Would any self-respecting Montrealer be caught eating designer bagels made with caraway, flax and cinnamon (at $6.25 a dozen)?
There are low-fat and sugar-free bagels, too. But it\\'s the plain old-fashioned bagels with sesame seeds, at $5.15 a dozen, that have emerged as the biggest hit at Bagels "n" Things.
"Maybe now I can bring you bagels next time we come back to visit," one especially nasty ex-Montrealer teased his sister on a recent visit.
Is nothing sacred any more?
Bagels 'N' Things is at 1548 Bayview Ave, Toronto