Some things are just too good to give up, even if they’re not locally grown. Coffee. Chocolate. Olive oil. Black pepper and other spices. And if you’re from Montreal, bagels.
When Noah Bernamoff and Rae Cohen opened Mile End, a Montreal-style Jewish deli in Boerum Hill back in January, the couple imported bagels for their menu from Canada via FedEx. “We didn’t have any better ideas.” said Bernamoff. “Then our friend Joel said, ‘What if we brought the bagels in a car?'”
The friend in question, Joel Tietolman, a big, broad shouldered hockey fan with a law degree and an effusively huge personality to match his physical bearing, ran the numbers and realized that Mile End could afford to start selling bagels by the dozen if imported by the car-full. The FedEx costs made them slightly less than $3 per bagel. “I can sell a toasted bagel with cream cheese on a plate for $3,” says Bernmoff. “No one will buy a dozen bagels for $36, though.”
What Bernamoff and Tietolman didn’t realize when they hatched the scheme was that they were planning out their weekends for the next few months to come.
Every Friday Tietolman would drive from his home in Ottawa to Montreal (2.5 hours) to pick up 85 to 95 dozen bagels at Saint-Viateur Bagels, getting them fresh out of the oven at midnight. Then, he would head south to New York (6.5 hours), arriving in Brooklyn around 7 am, just in time for weekend brunch service. He’d then sleep on Bernamoff and Cohen’s couch, heading back to Ottawa (8 hours) on Sunday.
But wait, a bagel is a bagel right?
Montreal bagels are a whole other species, especially compared with the pillowy, multiflavored New York version. Up north they make them smaller and sweeter (thanks to a pre-oven soak in honey-infused water), and they’re cooked in a wood-fired oven. And, Montreal bagels really only come in one of two flavors: sesame or poppy. “It’s not like someone dips their hand into a little container of sesame seeds and sprinkles them on the bagel,” says Bernamoff, who grew up in Montreal. “They’re egg-washed and then totally coated in seeds.”
The bagel buying experience is different, too. “You don’t stop and get a bagel on your way to the subway,” Bernamoff explains. Montrealers either eat bagels sitting down in a restaurant as part of brunch, or they take a dozen home and toast them up. Toppings? “It’s usually a cream cheese situation,” says Bernamoff, who also noted that lox is an important part of the bagel experience for him.
These days, Tietolman is running the operation, finding bagel mules, filling out customs paperwork and staying friendly with the Food and Drug Administration. He doesn’t make the trip himself very often anymore, and Bernamoff and Cohen have their couch to themselves on most Saturday nights. Instead, Tietolman arranges two deliveries in an average week, bringing 85-95 dozen bagels to the city on weekends, for brunch and to sell in $18-dozens at the restaurant and The Flea, as well as a second 20-dozen trip on Tuesdays.
All the bagels, except those destined for weekend brunch plates, are immediately frozen to preserve their freshness. Once toasted, the result is “a great representation of a Montreal bagel,” says Bernamoff. Still, he’s eager to close the bagel loop and make Montreal-style bagels in Brooklyn. “I want to have Mile End Bagels,” he says. “You know anyone with a wood-burning oven I could use?”
Sent by Annaliese. Photos by Jayme Leitner and Dick Krantzler, courtesy of Mile End Deli.