REUBEN SCHWARTZ ORIGINAL EATERY (327 King West, at Widmer, 416-596-9201) This Montreal-style pseudo-deli offers a once-removed experience of the real thing. Anyone looking for authenticity should head for north Bathurst. Complete meals for $25 person ($10 at lunch), including all taxes and tip. Open Sunday to Thursday 11:30 am to 9 pm, Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to 4 am. Unlicensed. Smoke-free. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NN
former montrealers moan that
it's impossible to find authentic smoked meat in Toronto. So, when Reuben Schwartz opened a month ago on the King West tourist strip, hopes ran high among those who like to guzzle scotch on the rocks and chain-smoke Gitanes while pigging out on deli.
Schwartz's is Montreal's most famous purveyor of fat-riddled brisket on rye. Unfortunately, Toronto's new self-described Original Eatery has nothing to do with the similarly named institution on the Main.
Neither is it related to Ben's or Reuben's. Hell, there's not even a Reuben sandwich on the menu. But if your expectations are more along the lines of Druxy's, Shopsy's or the Pickle Barrel, Reuben Schwartz won't disappoint.
As a ponytailed server sings along with AC/DC blasting over a vintage radio, I wait at the fake wood-grain Formica counter for the main attraction. At 320 grams, the smoked meat sandwich ($6.95) weighs in as the second-largest in NOW's survey (see chart, this page).
Thickly sliced by hand, the beef comes piled high on generic supermarket-quality light rye spread with hot dog mustard.
And like most served here -- and in Montreal, for that matter -- the mildly spiced meat is virtually fat-free. The secret to the best Montreal smoked meat is its marbled fat. Over the last 20 years, as diners have become more health-conscious, leaner cuts have prevailed. Goodbye flavour, hello Reuben Schwartz.
On my second visit, the hefty sandwich has shrunk to a more ordinary 225 grams. With it, I savour crisp cabbage slaw ($1.95) in a pleasantly tart vinaigrette.
House-cut Yukon fries ($3.25) arrive perfectly cooked, but I have my doubts about the Willensky Famous Sandwich ($5.95). More homage to a Montreal deli, this grilled salami s'wich recalls the burnt baloney sandwiches of my suburban youth.
Montrealers ought to consider that Toronto has had its own lengthy romance with smoked meat. Until the 70s, our downtown core -- especially Spadina -- was home to more than a dozen authentic eastern European Jewish delis. Thing is, they headed north to the burbs.
Newcomer Mel's Montreal Delicatessen in the Annex bucks the trend. It's the closet thing to the real Schwartz's. Its smoked meat is shipped in twice a week from Lester's Deli in Outremont and is available in four grades: lean, medium, medium fat and fat, the latter an extremely tender, juicy and peppercorn-spicy sandwich. Uptown, Coleman's serves up an equally delicious version in a room with archetypal deli styling, complete with floral banquettes and matching wallpaper.
Corned Beef House also gets its meat from Lester's. It ups the ante by serving it on hand-cut dark rye with homemade hot mustard. Centre Street Deli in Thornhill gets a lot of press for its smoked meat -- served "old-fashioned" or extra lean -- but they taste exactly the same to me. Where's the fat?
Dunn's Famous, across the street from Mel's Square in a glitzy mall, is a franchise of the now-defunct Montreal deli.
Despite the upscale digs, its smoked meat sandwich exhibits all the taste of Hizzoner. Before it was sold to a corporation over 25 years ago, Shopsy's on Spadina was the standard-bearer for all things deli. Its new downtown location has a comfy show-biz vibe, but the smoked meat is what you'd expect from a vacu-sealed package.
Zupa's, on Adelaide just west of the avenue, sure looks like the delis of old -- lineups at the counter, hockey pictures on the wall -- but the smoked meat I sample is greasy and leathery.
Although it's served on light rye, the Pickle Barrel's sandwich is strictly white bread.
And Moe Pancer's smoked meat sandwich is the skimpiest portion of all I try.
Funky and friendly 50s spot, though.