Thursday, May 30, 2024

Are We Living Through a Bagel Renaissance?

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A few weeks ago, after a rare earthquake in New Jersey sent tremors through New York, giving the denizens of the five boroughs a mild shock and an immoderate jolt of self-importance, a writer named John DeVore posted the following on X: “i know nyc isn’t the first city to ever experience an earthquake but imagine how los angelenos would react if they, one day, suddenly, ate a delicious, fresh bagel in their city.” It’s an old joke, not least because Los Angeles has lately grown rich in bagels—bagels that some New York transplants insist are actually good, bagels that have earned accolades from even the New York Times, which dared publish, in 2021, an article titled “The Best Bagels Are in California (Sorry, New York).”

I wouldn’t go quite that far, but to write off bagels made outside of New York would be a mistake—not only because there are plenty of great ones to be eaten elsewhere but because New York’s bagel culture, until recently, was growing rather stagnant. I’m hardly the first to note the broad downward spiral of New York bagels, which were first made by Ellis Island-era Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and, in the course of the twentieth century, began to assimilate. Once uniformly small, dense, salty, and malty—traditionally, the dough is boiled in water and barley malt syrup before baking—bagels surpassed doughnuts in popularity in the U.S. but also evolved to look more like them, becoming sweeter, paler, and softer. Even in New York, they’ve attained obscene new forms (see: the rainbow bagel), adopted increasingly outlandish flavors, such as French toast (what cinnamon-raisin hath wrought!), and grown ever more puffy as traditional methods of hand-rolling gave way to high-output mechanization. Despite popular claims about the quality of municipal water or baking altitude, the science of bagel-making is not about terroir but, rather, about context: every bagel reflects the tastes of the people it exists to serve.

L.A. is just one data point in what Bon Appétit has dubbed “The Great Bagel Boom,” and what Sam Silverman, the founder of New York’s annual BagelFest, calls “a bagel revolution.” Cities across America have long been home to flaccid facsimiles of New York-style bagel shops, but lately they’ve been joined by a new breed: bagel businesses undertaken by ambitious, savvy young people, who are seeking not to replicate some Platonic ideal of the bagel so much as to make it their own. Every city—see Miami’s El Bagel, where the menu includes a bagel layered with guava marmalade, cream cheese, and a fried egg, and New Orleans’s Flour Moon Bagels, which offers bagel “tartines” (plus, sometimes, a crawfish-stuffed bialy)—seems to have its own new-wave status bagel, which draws fanfare on social media and long lines in real life. “The bagel business has been, historically, a pretty terrible business, but the rise of this sandwich culture really helps,” Silverman told me. “It’s a vehicle that can infuse any sort of local culture and cuisine.”

The last time I was in L.A., I made a trip to the most famous of the city’s entries to the field. In 2020, the owners of Courage Bagels, who initially peddled their wares from the basket of a bicycle, opened a brick-and-mortar store in Virgil Village, between East Hollywood and Silver Lake. Midmorning on a Monday, I joined a line that had at first seemed reasonable and quickly became a way to spend half a day, snaking down the quiet block, opposite a dollar store and a tattoo parlor. When I started a casual conversation with the woman in front of me, she seemed almost startled. She had moved recently from New York, it turned out, to work as an assistant to an entrepreneur, whose bagel she was waiting to order. “People don’t make small talk in L.A.!” she said. Another former New Yorker in front of her, overhearing us, nodded in weary agreement.

It was easy to see how a Courage bagel could offend, if not enrage, a New York purist. It brings to mind a rustic, crusty baguette: the exterior is dark, craggy, and heavily blistered; the crumb is a little stretchy with a lot of air holes. (Courage bagels are leavened with sourdough starter, rather than commercial yeast.) If you were to scoop it, another move for which a bagel aficionado might make a citizen’s arrest—stay safe out there!—you’d be left with mostly crust. This makes it especially suited to Courage’s main offering: photogenic open-faced sandwiches. Bagel halves are topped with various combinations of cream cheese, jewel-like slices of tomato, thin coins of cucumber, smoked salmon, roe, or sardines, then painstakingly finished with salt, freshly cracked pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, fronds of dill. A Courage bagel is a Los Angeles bagel, ready for its closeup.

You could argue that the nationwide bagel revival has been a boon to New York’s own scene, shaking it out of complacency. Ten years ago, the introduction of Black Seed’s Montreal-inspired bagels, which are thinner and sweeter, boiled in honeyed water, only improved the landscape. Lately, the city has been home to a growing roster of indie bagel-makers, many of whom started by churning them out of restaurant kitchens during off-hours, or at home. On a recent Saturday morning, as I picked up a half-dozen sourdough bagels and a tub of burnt-scallion cream cheese from Wheated Brooklyn, a pizza restaurant just south of Prospect Park, the owner, David Sheridan, told me, “There’s a bagel movement happening in this country.” Louisville, Kentucky, of all places, had inspired him to get into bagels: as he prepared to open a location of Wheated there, he noticed a huge hole in the bagel market. Back in Brooklyn, he dove into R. & D., selling the fruits of his experiments on the weekends.

Earlier this spring, the people behind Leo, a sourdough-pizza place in Williamsburg, opened Apollo Bagels, in the East Village, which serves L.A.-inflected bagels, open-faced and meticulously assembled. (If I were the owners of Courage, I’d cock an eye at Apollo and remind myself that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.) The Mud Club, a wood-fired bagel, pizza, and tapas restaurant and dance club in the Hudson Valley, is currently popping up on the Lower East Side in the original location of Scarr’s Pizza, where, the other day, I ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese, oozing aioli and roasted-jalapeño-and-tomato jam, on a dense and crusty everything bagel. (They’ll soon open a permanent outpost a few blocks away.) Sakura Smith, the baker behind Bagel Bunny, supplies private clients and sometimes specialty shops with small, soft bagels made from a vegetable-flecked dough; it’s leavened with a fermented yeast that she says was first grown by a monk in Japan in the nineteen-seventies and feeds off mountain yams, rice, and carrots.

When it comes to my own bagel preferences, I am open to creative recipes but believe that a bagel should be, fundamentally, a humble staple—relatively inexpensive and sold by the dozen, or a multiple thereof. A sandwich has its place, but bagels belong, first and foremost, in a paper sack, hot from the oven (they need not be toasted unless they’ve gone stale), grab-and-go. The new-wave shops, especially outside of New York, don’t all seem to embrace the bagel’s inherent utility. In Washington, D.C., at a café called Ellē, my six sourdough bagels came packaged in individual paper sleeves, as if they were croissants or artisanal chocolate-chip cookies. At Courage, I had to wait—and wait, and wait—for my half-dozen. As the sun grew hotter, and I paced back and forth, restlessly sipping on a rose-flavored lemonade, I had to wonder, What were they doing in there? You could imagine a chef adhering sesame seeds one at a time with a tweezer.

The newcomer bagel that best fits my vision can be found in New York but it was born—sorry, haters—in Westport, Connecticut. One day in the summer of 2020, Adam Goldberg, a flood-mitigation specialist in his forties, was floating in his pool with his cousin, “having margaritas at eight-thirty in the morning,” he recalled recently. “We looked at each other and we decided that it was too hot to make sourdough like we’d been making every other day for the whole pandemic.” They decided to make bagels instead, imagining that they’d be “more refreshing.” After just a couple of weeks of recipe-developing, Goldberg settled on his ideal formula, and it wasn’t long before he was selling bagels out of his back yard. Four years later, the business, PopUp Bagels, is growing rapidly, with multiple locations in Connecticut and in tony precincts including Greenwich Village, Palm Beach, and Wellesley, Massachusetts.

PopUp offers, strictly, bagels and schmear, and if you preorder a dozen to pick up from the store, they will still be warm when the paper bag is passed to you. Goldberg is careful not to describe PopUp bagels as New York bagels. “It was the first thing we dropped from our branding,” he told me. “We’re our own style of bagel.” He uses a proprietary mix of flours and commercial yeast, no sourdough, and he has worked under the guidance of a “dough coach,” a championship baker he’s hired “to refine our recipe so that it’s more mobile.” When I asked him if he’d been aware, before getting into bagels, that there were people who called themselves dough coaches, he said, “No. In fact, my dough coach was unaware of it also. But once I told him he was my dough coach, he was very excited.”

A PopUp bagel is a bit less dense than the most traditional New York bagels; Goldberg wanted to make them light enough that you could comfortably eat more than one. In other ways, a PopUp bagel seems archetypal: small, chewy, with a crisp, golden-brown crust—urbane, and almost chic, in its restraint. Goldberg has kept the flavors classic, offering just plain, sesame, poppy, everything, and salt. He only gets playful with gimmicky (and sometimes great) cream-cheese flavors—Old Bay, ramp, coffee cake—and the occasional absurdist collaboration; just last week, PopUp and Dominique Ansel, of Cronut fame, introduced a limited-time-only Gruyère bagel with escargot butter, for a cool eighteen dollars.

This may seem like an awful lot of fuss over boiled bread with a hole in it, but pedantry is part of the fun. We enjoy outraging the purists and then posturing as purists ourselves, bringing our own tastes and associations to the image of the perfect bagel. I discussed this recently with Zoë Kanan, a pastry chef and baker who can make an excellent bagel anywhere (she once did a stint as a bagel consultant in Mexico City) and who will open a Jewish-ish bakery, called Elbow Bread, on the Lower East Side in May. Kanan and I were both introduced to bagels inauspiciously. Every day in elementary school, in New Haven, I ate a sandwich of Genoa salami on a squishy egg-flavored Lender’s bagel—the brand sold in plastic sleeves in the grocery store. Kanan grew up in Houston, where her weekly order at the Hot Bagel Shop was a strawberry bagel with strawberry cream cheese. Which is to say that, when it comes to bagels, we were blasphemers: in the High Court of Bagel, we’d be sternly sentenced to a penal colony.

Despite these beginnings, or perhaps because of them, Kanan and I now share a strong internal compass about what a bagel should be. “Chew is at the top of the list,” she said, as I nodded fervently at the other end of the line. “It should, I think, give your jaw a little bit of a workout when you’re eating it.” She explained that a low-hydration dough (as opposed to, say, the wetter dough you need for a spongy focaccia) made with high-protein flour gives you a strong gluten structure, and optimal chewiness, but can also result in a bagel that stales quickly. To extend shelf life, she’s come up with a slightly left-field solution: potatoes, roasted whole, skin-on, and mixed in with the flour, yeast, and water. “It adds starch, which locks in moisture,” she explained, and also results in “a really thin, kind of crackery shell of a crust. And then, the interior is chewy, and also tender, and moist.” I pictured an arrow hitting a bull’s-eye.

One New York bagel shop that sates both traditionalist tastes and the Internet’s appetite for absurd viral foods is Utopia, in Whitestone, Queens. Here, they hand-roll the bagels, boil them in enormous kettles, and then bake them in a carrousel oven made in 1947. They’ve got all the essential flavors, including pumpernickel—a favorite of mine, and rarer and rarer these days—but if you want sourdough they have those, too, plus rainbow, piña colada, and jalapeño-cheddar. As if to provoke the snobs who complain about ballooning bagel sizes, they also sell a ten-pound “party style bagel wheel,” an audacious rejoinder to the party sub. The giant everything bagel I ordered the other day was, I’m sad to say, completely raw in the center. (My theory was that they’d taken it out too soon, when the garlic that dotted the exterior had started to burn.) But I’d also ordered a party-style pizza bagel, a sesame ten-pounder sliced in half, scooped (the extra dough gets turned into garlic knots), and layered with marinara sauce, mozzarella, and chopped chicken cutlet. It was outrageous yet comfortingly familiar and, dare I say, spectacular. ♦





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