12 Clinton St., Toronto. 416-500-3852. Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip, $35.
When I was in my 20s, lunch with my dad was one of my favourite things. He would pick me up in his Pontiac Grand Prix and say: "Shopsy's or Switzer's?" Both were on the Avenue, the Spadina of my people's history.
This was back in the days when corned beef was king, in sandwiches made from a big fatty red brisket sliced to order by a greasy guy behind the counter. He piled the fragrant meat on that day's fresh rye and slapped it down on the dented Formica counter. I always specified a new dill (Strub's) on the side, and not too much ballpark mustard. It was roots food.
Corned beef came into being as one of my mishpochah's favourite foods. Back in the shtetl in Ukraine, where my grandparents grew up, refrigeration was non-existent and only the cheapest cuts of meat were available. Hence, the practice of brining brisket to preserve it. This is why Forest Hill takes a break from filet mignon to eat brisket on Jewish holidays. Out of necessity grew gastronomic habit.
My grandparents' generation supported the old delis on Spadina partly out of nostalgia and partly because that fatty salty beef was a lot of fun. The fact that my people abandoned the Avenue and moved north contributed to the demise of the Spadina delis. But the move to boil-in-the-bag industrial corned beef put the nails in the coffin.
The state of deli food in general in Toronto is appalling: If my Boba could taste the watery drek they call chicken soup, she would worry about it giving Jewish penicillin a bad name. As for their dried-out chopped liver, feh. And the corned beef? Between it and sawdust, not so much difference you would taste. Most delis use corned beef that has been injected with chemicals - if there's smoke involved in the process and they're making smoked meat, which is kissin' cousin to corned beef, it's fake smoke just like the chemical "flavours" they inject into the meat.
But today there is a one-man smoked-meat renaissance, driven by Zane Caplansky.
My Boba might not feel so comfy in the second-floor tavern where Zane has set up shop, but she would be happy to hear that he's probably paying bubkas for rent to sell smoked meat and fries out of the tiny Monarch Tavern kitchen.
Caplansky is meshuga for smoked meat. He's got a bee in his bonnet to make the best smoked meat in the world. No fake smoke or chemical injections for this guy.
He dry-cures the fresh briskets for two weeks with pepper and spices, and then smokes them over hickory for 10 hours, producing a result that is an amalgam of traditional corned beef and southern barbecue - smokier than the former and more fatty and less sugary than the latter. Corned-beef cognoscenti are endlessly debating the merits of the Caplansky sandwich on foodie Web forums.
It's not Montreal smoked meat, it's not Toronto corned beef, and some days the guy doing the slicing screws up and there are big yucky ribbons of fat on the meat. But mostly the passion of Zane Caplansky is exactly what the doctor ordered to birth the renaissance of the deli.
When confronted with the choice between medium and fatty meat, I stare my conscience (a.k.a. cholesterol count) in the face and go fatty, for its erotic juiciness.
Something about the way the fresh Jewish rye absorbs all that meat fat should maybe be illegal it's so good. Unless you tell him not to, Zane slathers on his own piquant mustard made with Belgian beer.
His pickles are pedestrian, his cole slaw has too much oil and an excess of garlic (My Boba did not approve of garlic.) My Boba's reputation rested on her sweet golden chicken soup, but her cabbage borscht was also of the highest order. Exactly like the cabbage borscht at the old Bagel on College at Spadina, which was sweet 'n' sour and thick with cabbage. Caplansky's cabbage borscht, already (unjustly) famous, has so much smoked meat in it that the smoky-meat flavour overwhelms the cabbage and the sweet/sour seasoning, which is insufficient anyway.
A much better context for smoked-meat flavour is his split pea soup, which profits from the flavour punch of those smoky beef shreds. But his fries are supernal - crisp, sweet, fresh. With the fries you can have a little plastic cup of Zane's gravy, which he makes by simmering the scrapings from the smoked beef cutting board with chicken stock. For me, it's too beefy and peppery for the delicate fries, but you gotta thank the guy for trying so hard. Which he does every step of the way. His poutine is those fabulous fries topped with homemade smoked-beef gravy and good cheese curds.
The fact that we're dining in a second-floor beer hall fits the food. Grease and beer, what could go better together? Except maybe a Cott's black cherry pop.
The room is dark and dingy, decorated with old sports paraphernalia, several TVs always tuned to sports, and a Playboy Bunny pinball machine hard by the ATM - 'cause they take only cash.