I just spent an entire post gushing about how Montreal is so French.
In a lot of ways, that's totally true. The French influence is undeniable, and the resultant plethora of cute cafes, bakeries, and French bistros most definitely confirms that fact.
However, Montreal is different from France in a lot of ways as well. There is a sizable Jewish population in Montreal. From a food perspective, that means the city boasts some of the best smoked meat sandwiches, Jewish babka loaves, as well as some pretty amazing bagels.
We only had a long weekend, but we made sure to hit several of the best bakeries around, everything from traditional French boulangeries and Jewish bakeries to the most famous bagel shops in town!
Stop #1: Hof Kelsten
Hof Kelsten bakes bread for many of Montreal's top restaurants, like Joe Beef, Leméac, and Toqué. Its chef-owner, Jeff Finkelstein, trained at many prestigious pastry shops and bakeries (and even spent time at El Bulli in Spain!) before deciding to open Hof Kelsten.
The bakery features several Jewish baked goods, such as challah bread and babka. The food menu also includes several Eastern European and Jewish items, like borscht (beet soup), matzo, and latkes. The sandwich menu looked enticing. Honestly, if we hadn't eaten brunch already, I would have loved to eat lunch here.
Instead, we opted for some pastries. We grabbed seats at one end of the long communal table at the center of the restaurant.
It was hard to decide what to get, but we ended up ordering espresso-based drinks (lattes, cortados, and the like), a gorgeous babka, and some rugelach, a Jewish layered pastry that involves rolling pastry dough around some sort of filling. The babka was great, with beautiful layers of eggy challah bread interspersed with dark and tasty chocolate. My friends really enjoyed the rugelach (I didn't have as much since I'm not a huge fruit + nut pastry kind of person).
Stop #2: Au Kouign-Amann Boulangerie Patisserie
I have been obsessed with kouign-amann as a dessert ever since a friend brought one to a potluck at my house a couple years ago. This was smack in the middle of the Cronut® craze when people would line up for hours just to get one of those layered fried pastries. Even then, my friend who brought the kouign-amman told me, "I think these are better than Cronuts®."
I still have yet to try a legit Cronut® (I know!), but I'm perfectly happy eating kouign-ammans in the meantime. If my friend's opinion is correct, then I'm not really missing out, right?
After devouring the kouign-amann that my friend brought to our house, I sought it out around the country. I found it consistently at a few Bouchon Bakeries, where I would happily indulge in one every time I was in one of those cities. Occasionally, Bryan would bring one back for me from his business trips.
Of course, once I found out there was a bakery in Montreal dedicated to this craft (it even put the pastry in its store name!), I knew I had to come.
Au Kouign-Amann Boulangerie Patisserie is tiny inside. There are only about two tables. The rest of the space is used for the line of people to stand while ordering their espresso drinks and bakery items. We lucked out and somehow nabbed one of the seats, thus allowing us to sip on our coffee drinks while enjoying several baked goods.
The kouign-amman comes by-the-slice, or you can order an entire pastry too if you want. We tried a slice and it was very good - buttery, flaky, and sweet. It doesn't have as many layers as the kouign-amman from La Porte, arguably one of the best in the city, but it was still quite enjoyable.
Bryan wanted something savory, so he got the cheese bread, which he thought was pretty tasty. Look at those gorgeous layers!
Stop #3: Boulangerie Cheskie
I found out about Boulangerie Cheskie through a friend who is totally obsessed with the Jewish layered chocolate bread babka. When she lived in Boston, she was always seeking out babka from various bakeries. When I told her I was in Montreal, she immediately asked me, "are you going to Cheskie's????"
It's a no-brainer to visit Cheskie's partly because it's only one block away (5-minute walk) from St. Viateur, one of the most famous bagel shops in Montreal.
After ordering (and eating!) some bagels at St. Viateur (more on that below!), I walked over to Cheskie's and picked up two of their babkas, the traditional style and the Russian style.
Are those absolutely incredible layers or what?
The one of the left is the traditional babka and is made with normal yeast bread. It's less dense, though it's a much bigger loaf. The ones on the right are Russian style. The bread is more buttery, like pastry dough. The chocolate inside is the same, and both are phenomenal.
Stops #4 and #5: Bagel Showdown! Fairmont vs. St. Viateur Bagel Shop
There will never be full agreement as to which bagel shop in Montreal is the best. It always comes down to Fairmont versus St. Viateur. The two are in the same neighborhood and can't be more than a 5-minute drive away from each other, so it's fun to compare and decide for yourself.
Fairmont is super tiny. There is hardly room for a line (see the crazy stacks of bagels on the right?), and you can't really see what's going on inside. Basically, you show up, order what you want, and leave. Be fast, because the line actually moves quite quickly.
The day I visited, the line at St. Viateur went out the door (this is not uncommon). St. Viateur has a bigger space inside and overall is more fun to visit.
You can watch the workers knead bagel dough, cut rounds, and bake them on these super long bagel paddles . Different bagels roll down the chute depending on the time of day. When we went, it was all sesame, which is awesome because that's one of my favorite flavors. It was soo good just eating a fresh hot one.
I would highly recommend trying bagels at both places and arriving at a conclusion on which is your favorite. This time around, I preferred the flavor of the Fairmont bagel slightly, though both are really good.
Montreal Bakeries & Bagel Shops
Au Kouign-Amann Boulangerie Patisserie
St. Viateur Bagel Shop
Next up: poutine!