Now this is a sandwich. A thick, compact stack of tender smoked meat, with the perfect proportion of lean beef to fat to peppery crust, framed by two fragrant slices of rye. Nothing fancy—just really good brisket and bread and a slick of mustard in between. You pick it up and it squishes to the shape of your hand, so you don't put it down until you're done. It smells like burning embers and tastes the way you always hope pastrami will taste: smoky, salty, beefy, sweet. The few minutes I spent eating one on a snowy morning last week, at the new little deli called Mile End near my home in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, were concentrated bliss.
In Montreal, where this magnificent thing was born, they call it a smoked meat sandwich, or a sandwich a la viande fumee, and it is indeed a relative of New York's pastrami sandwich—a staple born of the city's Jewish delis, and a descendant of Eastern Europe's smoked meat traditions. On trips to Montreal, I have spent many a snowy afternoon standing in line outside the revered 80-year-old Schwartz's delicatessen on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, salivating before the steamy front window, where a dozen or so spice-coated hunks of beef are always piled up haphazardly, and wondering what makes this brined and seasoned meat different from the version I get at Katz's or Second Avenue Deli in New York. And now I know. As Noah Bernamoff, the Montreal native who's behind Mile End, explains in an interview with Gothamist, the distinction is to some degree a butcher's point: in Montreal, they use the prime inner portion of the brisket, not just the fattier back end (the front end is usually used for corned beef, he says). It's also a matter of smoke: in many places, including Montreal, neither smoked beef nor pastrami tends to be smoked in the traditional way anymore, because of health code regulations and cost.
But Bernamoff, a former bass player and law student who followed his heart to New York (her name is Rachel, and if you are lucky she will be your waiter. She lights up the already cheery room), is a traditionalist, in some regards. After he cures his meat, he smokes it for hours in a small smoker behind the line of his open kitchen, then steams it and hand-slices it. But he's forward-thinking, too. Mile End's offerings aren't limited to traditional notions of what a deli should be; it serves other things that you've probably pined for after trips to Montreal: the city's small, sweetish, sesame-coated bagels (shipped down from the bagel shop St-Viateur and served, if you wish, with house-cured, hand-sliced lox) and poutine (frites topped with molten, squeaky cheese curds and luscious gravy). It makes a fresh, zesty beet coleslaw and sour pickles (which weren't ready yet when I visited).
David Sax, author of the great book Save the Deli (and himself a Canadian), said it best on his blog. Don't compare Mile End's signature dish, he said, to pastrami, or even to Montreal's legendary smoked meat. "What Noah and Rachel have done at Mile End is take a first step toward a new future for Jewish deli in New York," Sax writes. They're "bringing it back to its roots, rebuilding a mom and pop style deli, where everything is made from scratch…. They've introduced new flavors, new techniques, and done so in a small, economical, and friendly neighborhood atmosphere." The result is nothing short of a revelation.
Mile End Delicatessen, 97A Hoyt Street, Brooklyn, New York (718/852-7510; firstname.lastname@example.org)