142 University Avenue, Suite C, Hillcrest
New York gets most of the good bagel press, but in my travels the bagel culture that’s made the most lasting impression belongs to Montreal. The denser wood-fired bagels trade a hint of salt for a hint of honey, and if Wikipedia is to be believed it stems back to Montreal’s bagel forbears immigrating from a different part of Poland than New York’s. Specifically, Chaim Seligman, a founder of St. Viateur Bagel Shop, where Québécois line up daily for small chewy bagels generously encrusted in sesame seeds. Tourists follow suit, and the result is plenty of happy bagel eaters evangelizing the Montreal Bagel.
This bagel has landed in Hillcrest with the April 9 opening of Mess Royale. The casual all-day eatery serves a litany of bagel sandwiches using genuine St. Viateur sesame bagels overnighted twice a week, direct from Montreal’s artsy Mile End neighborhood. Obviously, this means customers must forfeit that crucial baked-this-morning bagel experience that really sold a salt-tooth like me on the smaller and sweeter style in the first place. To compensate, Mess Royale only serves these bagels in prepared dishes, slightly toasted.
It works out. For eight dollars I grabbed an avocado, tomato, and sprout sandwich, and the bagel held up on the chewy end, with the sesame really shining. Not as out-of-this-world as steaming fresh but still fantastic and much better than any San Diego bagel (disputes welcome on this point). Granted, at $6 for a bagel with cream cheese, you do pay for the privilege of trying this world-class treat. I’m told fresh deliveries turn up on Tuesdays and Fridays, so those days should be considered for relative freshness.
Of course, bagels have nothing to do with the name Mess Royale. That may be attributed to Montreal’s other, better-known specialty: poutine. The restaurant offers an even longer list of poutines, each featuring house made gravy and Wisconsin cheese curds over french fries. According to a wall hanging within the Mess Royale, the Francophone restaurateur first asked to serve fries this way called the results a “maudite poutine,” a damn mess.
Ranging from 8-12 bucks, these poutines come topped with anything from bacon and shredded pork to pastrami or even lobster. I went with the bare bones OG Poutine, figuring if I liked that, I could presume adding meat would just make it better. I couldn’t quite place the gravy, which probably features beef stock in addition to other ingredients the proprietor’s keeping secret. It plays sort of salty-sweet, with a little tanginess. Served in a bowl, the fries on the bottom take quite a bath in that gravy, so best to stir it all up before digging in. The cheese curds weren’t quite melting but were warm, soft, and freshly cheesy. The fries are genuine potato, so no complaints there. Just be warned: this ain’t no side salad. It’s as gluttonously heavy as you’d expect.
I doubt Montreal tourists visiting San Diego will bother, but anyone unable to make it to Mile End this year should find reason to enjoy this pretty fair mess of a Canadian restaurant.