One day, Zane Caplansky craved a smoked meat sandwich. A friend travelling to Montreal promised he would bring back some of its renowned smoked meat. He didn't. "I kinda got a little bit frustrated," recalls Zane with measured restraint. Aloud he cried the age old question, "why can't I find this food here!" Necessity being the mother of invention, our hero realized there might be a way to make it himself. With brisket and a backyard style smoker in hand, he scoured the internet for just the rig
ht recipe. Like an alchemist in a lab, he frantically raced to discover this holy grail of deli meat. As fortune would have it, his eureka moment occurred on his very first attempt and with it the realization that when you make a ten pound brisket for yourself - you're going to have leftovers.
It was during this time of waiting for his friend, and trying to figure out "how do I get this sandwich?!" that Zane had what culinary psychologists call a "deli-epiphany". At this moment of clarity he understood that this, his boyhood dream, was exactly what he should be doing with his life and for others like him. Corralling troops of passionate deli lovers, he found that, "everybody who tried it thought it was the best thing ever, and wanted to buy some." Fuelled by his new found confidence, Zane made his authentic hand-cut smoked meat the most sought after in all of Toronto. So popular, he has since had to regroup and rethink how to process orders. His kitchen has now become Toronto's mecca for sit down, take-out and even catering of this special handmade delicacy.
So what's his secret? "There's no mystery here," he points out matter-of-factly, "there's Zane; there's his smoker; there's the meat." The four aspects to this, he informs, are: sheering, spicing, smoking, and cutting. "We do it the old-old-fashioned way. We hand rub the cure on the outside and then physically turn each brisket everyday for three weeks. We smoke it here in the kitchen, and then we hand-cut each piece." It is total comfort food; not mass produced; unique yet identifiable. "Nobody else does this in Toronto," he assures. It's true. Most smoked meat tastes of pickling and that's all. This 7oz Smoked Meat Sandwich ($7) has that unique smoky, charcoal flavour that is so right you just want to embrace it. So good, it's also offered in the crunchy Poutine ($6).
After graduating from the chef school at George Brown College; epic round the world adventures and inspiration from the book, "What Colour is Your Parachute?", Zane took what little money he had and struck a deal in which he could use the kitchen at the Monarch Tavern, cover his own costs and share the sixty-six capacity dining room with their bar. Now, if you dine at Caplansky's and order a drink you'll get two separate bills at the end of your meal. It's a happy, good humoured, symbiotic relationship that lends Caplansky's an admirable charm and humility.
Except for the bread and the pickles, everything is made in-house and the smoked meat is the key to it all. In addition to the meat, Zane makes old fashioned handmade mustard in which the seeds are fermented in Chimay. The coleslaw of fennel, red onions, garlic, carrots, cabbage, and olive oil, is also his own. Everything tastes homemade and homespun. There are two soups, a velvety, sweet and tangy Tomato and Red Pepper ($4), and a Russian style cabbage Borsht ($4) that made cousin Estelle exclaim, "it's just like my great grandmother Molly's soup!" Hot and comforting, this mildly sweet, mouth watering stew is, as it should be, a meal in itself. By adding the smoked meat to it, there is that extra smokiness and spice to the hand pressed tomatoes that will make you hold up your finished bowl and say, "please sir, I want some more".
Beaming with excitement Zane informs me, "My mother's crazy for my knishes"-code for: you have to try this! This traditional Yiddish snack ($5) of meat fresh from the cutting board, mashed potatoes and onions fried in shmaltz (rendered fat), are stuffed inside a puff pastry and baked. "I went around and tried everybody's knish in the city of Toronto," he tells me, "and then a friend of mine made something that I thought was even better." Accompanied by rich, but light gravy, it shares that signature smokiness of which I can no longer get enough.
Dessert? The Cheesecake ($4) is simply the best I've ever tasted. The recipe? It belongs to one of his staff and she will not divulge it. Well, that's certainly one way to keep a job. Zane himself doesn't even know what's in it.
The smoking of meat has been practiced for ages. Among the most famous early smokers of meat were the Ashkenazi Jewry of Eastern Europe. Popularized beyond its Jewish origins into the general population of Quebec, it became emblematic of Montreal cuisine. Although it can be found across Canada, proponents of Montreal's smoked meat have long claimed theirs is the most tasty and authentic. Toronto has really needed a great smoked meat sandwich; now our long awaited answer to Montreal's Schwartz's and New York's Carnegie Deli has come and it is indeed Caplansky's. "This is who I was always meant to be," says Zane with humble assuredness. The new face of deli is a return to old-fashioned tradition, and with each bite his customers live happily ever after.