As an avid, please forgive my use of the word, foodie, I managed to live in Montreal for two whole years without trying the fare on offer at Schwartz’s. Being one to root for the underdog, I took the comments by seasoned smoked meat enthusiasts—that Le Main is actually where it’s at—very seriously. So, using my French culinary expertise, I decided I had to go and find out which is better, once and for all.
I started with Le Main to avoid the snowy wait at Schwartz’s across the street. Immediately upon entering the restaurant, the vibe was immaculate. Walking into the diner feels a bit like stepping back in time, and the warmth of the staff caught me off guard as someone born and raised in Paris. The attitude at Le Main felt genuine. When I told the waitress who seated me that I’d never tried smoked meat, she brought me a plate of freshly cut meat to try. The meat itself was smooth and easily pulled apart, with a nice peppery crust. Very tasty, but not particularly as smoky as I had been promised.
I ordered a smoked meat sandwich, for $13.25, along with a side of fries, three latkes and an order of potato pierogies served with fried onions and sour cream. The sandwich itself was tasty, but with a 10:1 meat-to-bread ratio, I would recommend ordering an extra slice on the side. The trio of flavours from the rye bread, smoked meat, and yellow dye no. 2 American mustard was incredible. The first bite made me regret the two years I’ve missed out on this culinary delicacy. The fries were fries, but the latkes and vareniki really stole the show.
After conversing with my waitress, Anastasia Xenos, for a bit, I found out that she was Leonard Cohen’s favourite waitress and she showed us the booth where he liked to sit. Cohen was famously a big fan of Le Main’s smoked meat sandwich combo.
“I served him […] almost 400 times,” Xenos said.
Among other famous patrons, Xenos also served Justin Trudeau many times when he lived in Montreal. Like a true Canadian, his favourite dish on the menu was the poutine, although he also liked the latkes.
I was satisfied with my first experience of Montreal smoked meat but knew I had to go across the street to check out the competition. Luckily, by 5 p.m. on this snowy Sunday, there was no line and was able to walk right in and order at the bar. I ordered a smoked meat sandwich for $13.75, with a side of fries.
The food came in about a minute and 30 seconds, so I cannot lament about the waiting time. The culinary experience of the sandwich was almost identical, and that holy trinity of rye, mustard, and meat really satisfied. But again, the name smoked meat feels misleading because no smoky flavour could be detected past the first millimetre of crust.
When asked if he had ever tried out the competition, my waiter assured me: “No I’ve never been, but I’ll go if they pay me better!”
When it comes down to it, the quality of the meat and sandwich was essentially identical, and I would argue that any preference between the two likely stems from differences in which cut of meat you got served on that particular day, not any sweeping distinction between the meat itself.
If you are in search of the Montreal smoked meat experience ask yourself the following question: What is more of an authentic Montreal experience––waiting in line in the snow for Schwartz’s, or going across the street to sit down for the same sandwich and be served by the same person who served Leonard Cohen and Justin Trudeau? If you can answer that, then you know where to eat!