The Whole Schmear on NYC Bagels
by Julie Besonen, 02/05/2009
- nyc bagels/
- The Whole Schmear on NYC Bagels
- Building the Perfect Bagel
Bagels are sacred to New Yorkers, our most hallowed morning ritual. What started out as a Jewish specialty is now all-American, and, naturally, everyone has an opinion about who does it best. Old-school aficionados swear by dense, fist-size rings, while challengers rave about the puffy, supersize variety. But there's one thing everyone seems to agree on: they're most irresistible fresh from the oven. A well-crafted bagel gives a lot of bang for your buck, and sometimes costs even less. The most famous and ubiquitous emporium is H&H Bagels, whose shop ships all over the world. Then there's the hotly debated Ess-a-Bagel—are its doughy disks wondrous or too elephantine? We'll leave that argument up to you and focus on lesser-known, key bagel spots around the City.
Some say Absolute Bagels are, ahem, absolutely the best. Indeed, fresh from the oven they're hard to beat: the egg version—as golden as a yolk—is a must, and the shiny, perfectly textured bagels are big, but not oversize. For those with smaller appetites, the 60-cent snack version is a popular draw, luring Columbia students into lines that wrap out the door on weekends. The storefront space is a bit shabby, with just a few tables and tinny pop music playing on the stereo. Kids love the sweet, fruity spreads like strawberry, blueberry and apple, while adults lean more toward standard schmears and Nova salmon. There's also olive and pimento Tofutti for the lactose intolerant.
On the Lower East Side, Kossar's Bialys has been producing bialys—traditional Polish rolls with diced onions in the depressed center—since the 1930s, but it's only been making bagels since 1998. Despite being a late bloomer, Kossar's manages to craft bagels with the same TLC it puts into its bialys (the bagels might even be better). The dough is hand rolled and proofed for 24 hours before boiling and baking. The pumpernickel is almost black, while other flavors—poppy, sesame, everything—are dense and rich with a glossy sheen. It's a no-nonsense, take-out-only shop that sells a collection of do-it-yourself schmears, coffee and juice. You might get barked at, but it's a legitimate old-school experience.
New York University students and other assorted bohemians and rockers congregate at Murray's Bagels in Greenwich Village. This is the warmest and cutest of all the authentic bagel purveyors, with brick walls, bagel art, chalkboard menus and a spirited bonhomie. There's a wide assortment of spreads, from roasted-garlic cream cheese and organic cranberry-herb tofu to hummus and Nutella. You can get eggs on a bagel, belly lox, gravlax and even tomato sauce and mozzarella if you're in the mood for pizza. But the plain bagels are nothing to sneer at, swollen and yeasty rolls-with-a-hole for $1.
Murray Hill workers and commuters file into Bagel Cafe, formerly Bagelry, where bagels are baked fresh every hour until about 1pm. Breakfast in Midtown for under $5 is quite a draw, especially when it involves a freshly baked bagel, two eggs any style and ham, bacon or sausage. The café is clean and simple, brightly lit with a jumble of tables. Bagels are on sale for half-price from 5pm to 6pm every day, including the crusty flat bagels (often called flagels), disk shaped to create the illusion of eating fewer carbs. Spreads run the gamut from lox cream cheese and peanut butter and jelly to tofu and sun-dried tomato. Lunch includes simple sandwiches made with Boar's Head cold cuts, tuna salad, chicken salad and more, and all are under $8.
Brooklynites take solace in the small but mighty fine bagels at Bagel Hole in Park Slope. The tiny place isn't much to look at, more of a cluttered bodega than a dough shop. The baking is done in the back, with bins of bagels periodically replenished throughout the day. The specimens are small but pack a punch, allegedly closer to the size of New York's original bagels, pre-supersizing. All the standard flavors are here—salt, sesame, poppy, everything—and schmears are generous but not overwhelming (try the fresh lox cream cheese spread). Six people can barely fit inside at a time, so it's not a place to linger, especially since there are no tables. Eat these bagels on the street, at home or with a cup of coffee in the nearby Barnes & Noble café.
Commuters from Manhattan pull off the Long Island Expressway for a bagel fix at the renowned Bagel Oasis in Fresh Meadows, Queens. This simple storefront has survived since 1961, making good-size bagels the old-fashioned way: with malt and a variety of homemade spreads (vegetable, scallion, bacon, walnut-raisin). It's open 24/7 and really fills up on Friday and Saturday nights when the bars let out. In the wee hours you'll see state workers, club kids, police and a fair number of drunks, who will say it's the best and brook no kvetching.
Icons of the Industry
Bagels widda schmear can be found at delis like Russ & Daughters and Barney Greengrass, both superior when it comes to toppings of silky Nova salmon, salty lox and whitefish salad. Their bagels are made off-premises but are always fresh—and so is the service. The countermen at these old-fashioned, New York–style general stores exhibit a make-up-your-mind—yet still endearing—sense of impatience. Zabar's and 2nd Ave Deli get it right, too, with chewy bagels, fresh-whipped cream cheese and a host of smoked fish to complete the perfect culinary merger.
Get the inside scoop on NYC bagels straight from the founders of Murray's Bagels, Ess-a-Bagel and more.