What’s going on at Schwartz’s?

Montreal’s venerable smoked meat mecca is serving too many sandwiches that fight back

Jacob Richler

What’s going on at Schwartz’s?On Wednesday, June 10, very near to five on an otherwise glorious Montreal afternoon, the unthinkable happened: I took a bite of a freshly unwrapped medium-fat smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s, then chewed, chewed some more—chewed far too much—and then, racked with sadness, tossed the rest of it into the nearest rubbish bin. This was a profoundly poignant moment for someone who has been a regular at the iconic delicatessen on the Main since long before he could even see over the counter—way back when the sign outside actually just said Schwartz’s instead of Charcuterie Hébraïque de Montréal. So a few days later, I rang up and broke the news to Schwartz’s manager Frank Silva, who works days.

“Was this at night?” he asked.

I conceded that it was.

“I knew it,” Silva replied, and he volunteered a description of his main suspect. “Problems—a cutter cuts a sandwich too lean, cuts the meat too thick, he doesn’t steam the brisket long enough—you got problems.”

Problems, yes. The pair of medium-fats I ordered that fateful day was afflicted by all three. When I bit down, the meat beneath the rye did not greet my teeth by collapsing in total submission, but instead it repelled their advance. And when it came time to separate that hard-won mouthful from the remaining half-sandwich, a sharp tug was required, and at that, the strands of meat and fat stretched before they snapped.

To come clean, I have been worried about Schwartz’s since last summer, when I sat down alone at the counter one afternoon, and while eating my first sandwich I suddenly clocked that the waiters gathered around the service counter in a quiet moment were actually talking about, um, gnocchi (“They’re like potatoes, and you fry ’em, and then add this stuff called pesto, and then some cream . . .”)

To be perfectly precise, the last time I was served a peerless pair of top-form medium-fat smoked meat sandwiches at Schwartz’s was at roughly 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 15, 2007, when I had reserved a table for 12 for my celebratory last meal as a single man. Since that glorious day, when Silva himself sliced the sandwiches, I have endured a run of five sets of dodgy sandwiches. Yes, 10 consecutive medium-fats of which five possessed a semi-vulcanized springiness, three were shockingly salty, one was arrestingly dry, and one desiccated sample was somehow all three.

Unlike smoked meat itself, this sort of thing keeps me up at night. For the undeniable fact is that quality control at Schwartz’s has never been so uneven, and I know of many others who share my concerns.

Some blame Hy Diamond, the accountant who bought Schwartz’s in 1999 and, in a quest to improve what must have been an already dazzling bottom line, openly contemplated the unthinkable—a second branch on Crescent Street—before finally retreating in the face of the public outcry. Others have suggested that quality has slipped in their meat supply. But what is posited most plausibly is that this tiny delicatessen that turns out nearly 10,000 lb. of smoked meat every week might simply be too busy for its own good.

“It’s a wonderful position to be in but it’s tough to uphold,” another Montreal deli owner said to me. “If you’re going to be an institution that every tourist has to come to, it’s a lot easier to be St. Joseph’s Oratory and all you have to do is mop the floor. With restaurants, it’s a little more difficult.”

But how difficult is smoked meat? Not very. The trickiest part is the penultimate step—after the spicing, marinating and roasting—because the correct steaming time varies from one brisket to another, and just 10 minutes too few can yield rubbery meat, while 10 too many can result in a brisket that is dry and stringy. And there is no infallible test for pinpointing that moment in between when a brisket in the steamer has attained its apotheosis. It all comes down to experience: you stick a fork in it, jiggle it a little, and assess the feedback.

Given that the quality of a whole Schwartz’s brisket steamed at home has been unchanged these last few years, this must be the main area where Schwartz’s has been falling down on the job. I do hope they sort this out soon. And in the meantime, I will say the previously unthinkable, recently verified through the selfless consumption of seven medium-fats in seven days: the best smoked meat in Montreal these days is not to be found at Schwartz’s, but on the West Island—in a strip mall in the suburbs!—at Abie’s.