Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017

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Mordecai’s Montreal

The author of Barney’s Version loved the city he lived in. He also loved its delis and bistros

My father Mordecai was never much of a cook. Come spring, when my mother’s vegetable garden at our house in the Eastern Townships began to sprout, whoever of the five children hanging about the kitchen would greet, with a mixture of love and dread, that moment when, knocking off early after a good day, my father would descend from the office and announce that he was going to cook. This meant standing by and cleaning up the astonishing detritus of dirty knives, chopping boards, pots, plates, bowls, discarded tins and vegetable waste that would be left in his wake.

After an hour or so, visibly satisfied with his cyclone tour through the kitchen, he would give the pot of simmering soup that was the result a seasonal name — Bonjour printemps, (Hello Spring), or Salut l’automne (Cheers Fall). What was effectively his minestrone was pretty good. It was certainly more nutritious than the omelette—filled with slices of all-beef kosher salami from Montréal company, Levitt’s that he used to make when my mother was away.

His appetites were simple, but discerning, within the categories that mattered. Deli, though not just any deli: knishes from the Brown Derby Delicatessen on Van Horne, now gone; smoked meat only from Schwartz’s (895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard; tel; 514-842-4813; schwartzsdeli.com).*

Even in winter—and Montréal winters are serious—I’d relish the command to cross the mountain (usually during a blizzard) over to Boulevard Saint-Laurent, a.k.a. the Main, to fetch a dozen karnatzel (dried-meat sausage), his cherished smoked meat — “medium-fat” — and pickles. It was a 40-minute walk up and around the foot of the mountain, then below the park (that became Fletcher’s Field in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz*) and over to Schwartz’s. By the time I’d make it back, the zipper on my jeans would be freezing and the fries sodden. But even then, there would be nothing but delight on his face as he’d take the sandwiches out of the double paper bag I’d kept within my jacket so that I, too, smelled of smoked meat.

Wilensky’s (34 Fairmount Avenue West; tel: 514-271-0247), the diner associated with his work that he called Eddy’s Cigar & Soda in his novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was made famous by the movie. It is still, to this day, largely unchanged, with an old soda bar, antique phone booth and small library of falling-apart paperbacks, and it still serves the “Special”: mustard and cold cuts on a kaiser roll, toasted on the hot plate behind the counter. Though plan ahead. Its hours of operation—lunch only—are short.

When my family did cross over to the Main, however, it was not to eat at Wilensky’s, but to buy bread from St Lawrence Bakery opposite Schwartz’s; bagels from St-Viateur Bagel(263 Saint-Viateur Street West; tel: 514-276-8044; stviateurbagel.com) east of Park Avenue; or to have chopped liver with onions and then the “Junior Rib” at Moishes (3961 Saint-Laurent Boulevard; tel: 514-845-3509; moishes.ca) — the incomparable steak house that makes a cameo in Barney’s Version* (the movie).

By the time of Barney’s Version — his last novel and the one in which, after Duddy Kravitz, he most deliberately sought to act as witness to his beloved Montréal — the map of his city had evolved along with the politics of the place.

Living in the Château Apartments meant he no longer needed to descend from upper Westmount, via the staircases that are such a special feature of that part of the city, to the Maritime Bar in the Ritz-Carlton or the old Press Club in the Windsor Arms. Neither bar is operational now.

Instead, he frequented the bars of what is still a fairly Anglophone few blocks of Montréal’s downtown: Woody’s (1234 Bishop Street; tel: 514-954-0771) on Bishop, Winnie’s (1455 Crescent Street; tel: 514-288-3814; winniesbar.com) and Ziggy’s Pub (1470 Crescent Street; tel: 514-285-8855) on Crescent — places to drink and to gossip, to evade work not going so well or to catch a bit of a hockey game.

His favourite restaurants were remarkably constant, but specific to a certain time of day. In the evening, to treat the family or if he and my mother wanted a tasteful and romantic night out, then L’Express (3927 Saint-Denis Street; tel: 514-845-5333) on St-Denis above Pine was always the first choice—the place he could depend upon to be exactly itself, and where he could have a plate of roasted marrow bones or an order of steak tartare,and my mother some oysters and something finer. He liked the long bar and its lively activity—and the jars of albeit French cornichons, not pickles, that were brought to the table.

But for lunch, there was no question that his choice restaurant was Le Mas des Oliviers (1216 Bishop Street; tel: 514-861-6733; lemasdesoliviesrs.ca), below Ste-Catherine—a restaurant that he names in Barney’s Version. Le Mas is the sort of restaurant where patrons who live in a city of sometimes divisive politics make a point of leaving their politics at the door. At Le Mas, the mâitre d’, Jacques, always kept the table at the rear corner for my father because he could keep his back to the wall and, nodding to the other regulars who’d all put aside their prejudices, revel in the Montréal atmosphere of a restaurant where the stragglers at lunch stayed well into the afternoon.

The day my father died, on July 3, 2001, Jacques put up the chairs and retired his table for a few days. My father would have appreciated that — and how Jacques still reserves the table for his wife and children, no questions asked. And how we still use it.

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