It feels like a home kitchen when visiting Lev Levine’s Lox and Schmear smoked salmon and bagel shop in St. Clair West. Large portraits of Levine’s B’nai mitzvah celebrations adorn the wall (gloriously ’90s in every way, from “Blossom” fashions to medium-dark wooden picture frames).
Since the start of the pandemic, Levine has been the only person working in the kitchen, managing the four-day smoking process for every salmon fillet that arrives. Taking an order from them is like knowing a friend who got nerdy about cold smoking. salmon one day and decided to try it themselves.
In fact, that’s kind of how it started.
“I grew up eating bagels, smoked salmon and Montreal cream cheese,” Levine said. “I went to culinary school and jumped into restaurants around town, but I wanted to open a bagel shop that smoked its own fish, focusing on the inside of the bagel because we already have good bagels here.”
At the time, Levine explained, they lived in a basement apartment and used a hotel pot and a cold smoke generator to play with curing times.
“I wouldn’t recommend people do that,” Levine said with a laugh.
When Lox and Schmear opened in June 2017, a custom cedar smokehouse replaced the hotel’s pan. The faint aroma of food-grade smoked sawdust wafts through the air and into the fillets of fresh farmed Atlantic salmon.
Levine said it’s best for year-round consistency because frozen fillets fall apart and become mealy in the smoker.
The salmon, which comes in the plain, lemon-pepper and pastrami spice form, is significantly less smoky than mass-produced, allowing the buttery salmon to show through.
The shop initially served bagel sandwiches made from St. Urbain bagels, cream cheese from Kensington Market’s Global Cheese — which Levine then mixes with flavors like horseradish or scallions — and cold-smoked salmon from six hours that Levine slices by hand and weighs.
But when the pandemic first hit, the Lox and Schmear chairs were turned around, the tables removed, and one customer hasn’t entered since.
An online store has been created, and customers have a three-hour window on Sundays to pick up their orders at the door (usually from Levine’s mother who helps). The sandwiches have ceased to be made, but kits to make them at home can be purchased instead, bagels and fixings included.
Specialties like vegetarian matzo ball soup, knish and lentil shepherd’s pie were also on the menu. The restaurant is not kosher certified, but Levine says the shop is “kosher style.”
The shutdown allowed Levine to recalibrate, as the industry as a whole had to rethink long hours and compromise worker health for customer convenience.
“I managed to find a balance between professional and private life. We’ve been through this horrible thing, but I have to expand my menu, take away Saturdays for the first time in a decade. I need to feel good and stop comparing myself to how other people run their places,” Levine said, adding that if they were to rehire staff, it would be at a living wage.
“I also don’t have to wait for people to come in to make them a sandwich. I know how many orders I receive each week.
Although they don’t know if or when the sandwich shop will reopen for dinner, Levine said they’re happy for now.
“I’m still here and profitable and doing what I want without running a horrible business. I just want to make good food and make people happy.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION