The Great Bagel Debate: Montreal v. NYC


A little over a month ago I ventured to the FAR NORTH with my new hubbie (Romeo).  That’s right folks, I’m talking about Canada.  We spent a little under a week in Montreal, an exceedingly charming city full of appealing, beautiful, smiling, amiable people who seemed to do almost everything better than their southern neighbors.

Our luggage arrived at baggage claim within mere seconds of us exiting the secure area and public transportation was far-advanced and gloriously easy to understand. The city was thoroughly walkable and every neighborhood left us gasping at its beauty. Nearly everyone was bilingual yet didn’t look down on us for our inability to speak French. The food courts were full of healthy food: fresh and delicious and diverse. The more upscale dining joints were completely comfortable with my food limitations and whipped up thoroughly decadent dishes.

Everything was beautiful, perfect and French Canadian.  I was in love.

I was eager to try one particular morsel of Montreal cuisine that I had heard about from all the Canucks I’ve ever known:  The Montreal bagel.

Every Canuck I’ve come across has sung the praises of the Montreal bagel, asserting its clear superiority over the New York bagel.  As it was hard for me, the daughter of a New York Jew, to imagine any way of improving on a genuine New York bagel (far easier to improve on the piss-poor excuse for bagels we tend to encounter in DC), I couldn’t wait to try this mythic culinary invention.

Would the Montreal bagel stand up to my expectations? And what’s the difference between a Montreal bagel and a NYC bagel anyway? Answers after the jump….

Montreal Bagel from St. V's

Montreal Bagel from St. V's

That’s no bagel,” I told Romeo reflexively after my first bite of my first Montreal bagel.  I was disappointed.  I expected a bagel, but better.  Instead the Montreal bagel seemed to me to be the anorexic, atrophied cousin of a sesame seed New York bagel.

It had none of the chewiness, none of the rich contrast of textures I expect from a perfectly toasted New York bagel (you know: the pillowy, doughy, chewy inside juxtaposed with the tougher crustier exterior).  I was confused:  Perhaps I was simply surprised because there is so much Montrealers have to feel rightfully superior about that it was odd to me that they seized on something so obviously inferior….

It wasn’t that I disliked the Montreal bagel.  It just wasn’t a bagel. It was closer to a bagel-shaped, sesame seeded, oven-toasted baguette.  And Canadian folks don’t tend to serve the bagel with cream cheese, or at least that isn’t the go-to topping of choice.  Butter seems to be the preferred condiment, jam a close second…. Not that I can eat cream cheese, but still….

Another disappointment – whole wheat bagels are hard to find.  In fact it was very difficult to find a Montreal Bagel not made with “enriched” white flour covered with sesame seeds.  They don’t really do the million-different bagel flavors thing like we do south of the border. (Although Fairmont Bakery has apparently begun offering bagels in flavored varieties, they are frowned upon for doing so by Montreal bagel traditionalists, like the owner of a superb establishment in Montreal, Beauty’s Diner.)

Maybe it’s a metaphor for the difference between U.S. Nationals and Canadian Nationals?  You know: We’re fatter and more diverse demographically, and so too are our bagels.

Despite all these deficiencies Montreal natives (and most Canucks I know) are extremely proud of what they consider a superior Canadian product.  In December the Montreal Gazette published an article contesting the findings of a New York Times taste test in which New Yorkers reportedly found Montreal bagels “totally bland.”  Said the Montreal Gazette:

Well, we at The Gazette beg to differ. Been there, done that. In our head-to-head tasting with N.Y. bagels back in 2000, the Montreal specimens won out….There’s nothing quite so perfect as a Montreal bagel.

I get it I guess… You love what you know.  Bagels for me have always been the ultimate comfort food and I was completely discomfited by the bagel shaped object masquerading as one of my favorite filling breakfast foods.

Montreal bagels differ from New York bagels in several important ways.  First of all Montreal bagels are always baked in a wood-fired oven.  The holes are larger, the bagel is skinnier and flatter, and the taste is drier and slightly sweeter. Apparently Montreal bagel bakers do not use salt as do their New Yorker counterparts in the recipe. The Montreal bagel also contains sugar and is boiled in honey-sweetened water before baking in the wood-fired oven.  The salt in the New York bagel and the baking after boiling in a standard oven apparently allows the New York bagel to retain more moisture and for the dough to rise more during the baking process.

The result: New York bagel is puffy and proud, while the Montreal bagel is smaller, drier and crisper.  Think about the difference between the crusts on pizzas baked in a wood brick oven and those baked in a traditional oven and you’ll get the idea.

Anyway, the Montreal Bagel is worth a try, just to see what all the hype is about.  You can order them online from either of the two famous bagel sellers in Montreal (Montreal natives argue over which has better bagels): The Fairmont Bagel Bakery and St. Viateur Bagel.  While Fairmont offers the bagels in Sesame, Plain, Poppy Seed as well as other varieties,  St. Viateur is more appealing to the Montreal bagel purists as they only offer their bagels in Sesame and Poppy Seed.  For NYC Bagel lovers, just don’t expect a real bagel when you try it and you won’t be as disappointed as I was!

I like to think of myself as a fair sort at any rate, and I wonder what you all think of this bagel controversy.  Which bagel is more beguiling for you?

NYC garlic and onion bagelMontreal Bagel

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  • BS August 4, 2010  

    I haven’t tried the great north bagel yet, but I’m glad you tempered my expectations. Looks interesting, yes. But bagel? no.

  • Nee Nee August 4, 2010  

    I had the “All Dressed” with cream cheese at Fairmont. Mr. Nee Nee was rushing me to order and I didn’t see that they were calling the ‘everything’ bagel ‘all dressed’ so I ordered an everything like it was a universal term. Perhaps I didn’t try the authentic Montreal plain, but it was anemic and too dry to swallow without a ton more condiment. When I think about the best bagel experience I’ve ever had, Bagelsmith in Williamsburg stands out, not Fairmont in Montreal.

  • FrenchTwistDC August 4, 2010  

    I miss the bagels at St Viateur, and Montreal in general.

  • deb August 4, 2010  

    what you seem to perceive as a “new york” bagel — puffy and over-inflated — has nothing in common with the *real* new york bagels that were made in the city before, say, 1990 or so. the kaiser-roll styled specimens of today are more cincinnati-via-grand rapids styled things. montreal bagels of today are far more ‘authentic,’ and to my tastebuds, far yummier.

  • Maids August 4, 2010  

    @deb – You flatter me. I’m far too old to have had my first NYC bagel after 1990. Nope I’m talking the real deal, NYC bagel. My grandma and dad, native New Yorkers were bagel connoisseurs. I had many a deli fresh real authentic NY bagel, and Montreal bagels simply don’t hold a candle to them! Are you a fairmont gal or a St. Viateur gal?

  • deb August 4, 2010  

    @ Maids. that made me giggle! different strokes, i guess. i just remember less….shall we say….”inflation” back in the 70s and 80s (my early frame of reference as a teen/adolescent)

  • Food Guy Montreal August 4, 2010  

    OUR bagels are tasteless? Smaller they may be. Crispier, perhaps, but they are NOT crispy in any way shape of form. Dry? Oh no no no no no no. They are most certainly not dry. They deliver the delightful chewyness that NY bagels do not deliver. I find NY bagels dough-ier if that makes sense. They are commonly referred to as “rolls with a hole” which is exactly what they are.
    Also, not to slam your comment, but eating them with cream cheese is preferred up here. Whether they are MTL or NY bagels, eating them with lox, cream cheese, capers, and red onions is the BEST way to enjoy any bagel. I do enjoy the all dressed/everything bagel, and we do have them here. I simply don’t think you explored enough to find the right ones. St. Viateur and Fairmont are the preferred brands, but there are others. Next time you venture up to this city, it will be my pleasure to show you around a little more. Nice article btw. 🙂

  • Jason Sandeman August 4, 2010  

    Hmmm… I prefer the St Viateur bagel myself, and I would definately say they are tender, moist and beautiful. I also know that they have 9 different types available for order there as well, a nice multigrain one as well. Gail is who I usually get mine from, and she is the bomb. The bagels are so loved, that everytime I do a brunch that is Kosher-Friendly these bagels are a MUST. Also, we tend to have our bagels here with lox, and there is just no arguing with that!

  • Maids August 4, 2010  

    @FoodGuyMontreal and Jason Sandeman
    I stand corrected. Maybe it was a fluke that the two times I sat down for a bagel in Montreal no cream cheese was on site. or maybe they took me for the lactose intolerant creamcheese craver I am on first blush and like the nice Canadians they were chose to save me from myself. Still…. NYC bagels get my unequivocal vote.

  • erica August 4, 2010  

    all i have to say is: go to italy and get a pizza. different strokes for different folks: we all like what we know and all else is wrong.

  • a.j. kinik August 4, 2010  

    the NY vs. Mtl thing seems a little played-out to me

    i’m really not sure about this “we love what we know” line of argument too–isn’t there a higher standard?–I consider myself a bagel lover–I’m open to all different shapes, sizes, styles, regional variations, as long as they’re distinctive and delicious

    the baguette comparison is simply mystifying

    glad you corrected the thing about cream cheese not being the spread of choice up here

    how about ranking the best bagels in North America by bakery?–how about taking into account Boston, Jersey, Toronto, Miami, etc., in addition to NY and Mtl?

    most bagels anywhere are subpar–ditto for baguettes, sourdough loaves, croissants, etc.–ditto for bread as a whole–you’ve gotta go bakery by bakery, and, occasionally, very rarely, you can find a place that’s got a concentration of good bakeries–like the Bay Area, where the rediscovery of traditional bread baking was an important part of the development of “California cuisine”–or France, where bread is considered an integral part of the culture and there are subsidies for bakeries and boulangeries, which means you can find great bakeries scattered across the entire country, although, again, most French bread bakeries are really not very interesting and most French bread is bunk

    Montreal has a great bagel, and the true Montreal bagel is unique too, but the number of bagel shops that actually produce such a specimen is tiny–our favorite is Fairmount, by a long shot, but you’ve gotta stick to the poppy seeds and sesames (“blacks” and “whites” in local Anglo parlance) and the everything/all dressed–all those other ones (blueberry, whole wheat, flax, chocolate chip) are just the result of some pathetic attempt to keep up with the times and should be avoided–St Viateur makes a good bagel, but Fairmount’s poppy seeds and sesames are superior, in my opinion

    there are great NY bagels out there, but they’re hard to find too, which is why we should start naming them

    Ed Behr had some interesting comments on the origins of the Montreal bagel in a long article on Montreal from a number of years back (The Art of Eating, No. 69, Summer 2005)

  • Natalie Sztern August 4, 2010  

    Being a Montrealer I have one thing to say, which recently caused a vote on Chowhound USA to the question “who likes a scooped out bagel and who doesn’t” … horror I thought what is a ‘scooped out bagel’ and then my question was answered. Your bagels are so big that when one wants ‘less calories’ one eats a scooped out bagel. If we scooped our bagels out we would be eating our fingers!

    Hence just another difference in the bagel war.

  • Scene by Laurie August 4, 2010  

    Grew up in DC. Went to McGill and loved my four years in Montreal. Have now lived in New York for 20 years. And if you look at my site, you’ll see that I love all things NY, but on this BIG debate I have to go with Montreal 🙂 Have loved (and missed) Montreal bagels since I lived there!

  • rumblegut August 5, 2010  

    No way can I let0 this defamation of New York bagels go on. Rolls with holes? New York bagels are crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside, simply divine creations. And I’ve always been one to embrace salt over sweet. Recently I read something that suggested the perfect bagel would use the new York dough recipe but bake the bagel in a wood fire oven . I can see that. Anyone up for an experiment?

  • Maids August 5, 2010  

    @Natalie, scooped bagels! Ugh that’s bagel blasphemy if I’ve ever heard it. Yet another blow dealt to culinary tradition by the late Dr. Adkins! Don’t scoop your bagels people! Just go whole wheat!

  • Rich Vidutis December 28, 2010  

    NY bagels are like 10 slices of Wonder Bread compacted into one hunk of unimaginative globby dough. So much of America’s food is now machine made and cranked out. It’s the same disaster here in the DC area–the same monotone pucks of tooth sticking dough they call bagels. Yuck! We used to have Posner’s where their small handmade bagels were closer to the Montreal bagel and very delicious. Sadly, they went out of business. But then how can you compete with Wonder Bread bagels? Around here, as they say in southern Indiana, folks can’t tell the difference between s**t and apple butter.

  • sarelf May 9, 2011  

    Please lay this argument to rest. There is no question that both NYC and Montreal bagel bakers do a highly credible job as compared with most other bakeries in North America. But those bagels are best eaten hot out of the oven. After thirty minutes they fossilize! Treat yourself to a Western Bagel from L.A. in plain, whole wheat, chocolate, jalapeno-cheddar, or any of their other delectable flavors, warm or at room temp. I guarantee that the debate will end. Los Angeles is no longer reputed to be the land of fruits and nuts, but home to the best bagel in America!

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