My never-ending quest for the perfect bagel

Several years ago, my husband and I were watching the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Drives, which I do not recommend watching right before bed unless you want to dream of tasty treats all night long. That episode, Guy Fieri visited a bar in St. Paul, MN called The Nook. We watched the owners make their signature Nookie burgers while salivating on the pillows. My husband turned to me and said, “If we left first thing in the morning, we could get there for lunch.”

I muted the volume so as not to be distracted by Fieri and said, we could not possibly do that; it would be crazy since we have kids. And, you know, they have school. But the following day, I called a good friend in Minneapolis and said we were coming for a visit and going to The Nook. She had never heard of it, but after our visit to Minneapolis a few weeks later, The Nook has become a regular stop for us.  From that point on, the Food Network dictated where we would dine on future out-of-town visits across our great country.

Flash forward to the advent of social media. I don’t know about your Instagram account, but mine is filled with food. Restaurants, chefs, bloggers, healthy food, paleo food. Food. Recently, my husband and I decided to take our kids to New York City, and I compiled a list of restaurants I follow on Instagram. We don’t need fancy-shmancy, expensive food. We like whatever the quintessential food is in an area and eat a variety of it. Thus, my bagel bucket-list was put in place.

Absolute Bagel. Photo by Ilyse Steiner
Absolute Bagel. Photo by Ilyse Steiner

Below is my list in order of eaten bagels we consumed on our 5-day trip. New Yorkers say they have the best bagels. I’m not going to argue about that because they are right. I live in Chicago, and the best bagel place here is called New York Bagel & Bialy. New York is a special place because wherever you go, whether it’s Greenwich Village or the Upper West Side or Midtown, you can get a delicious, fresh-from-the-oven bagel.  Not one of these bagel institutions sold overblown, bloated, breadlike bagels like so many franchises and national brands. New York bagels are the real deal.

Absolute Bagels
2788 Broadway, NY, NY

Line out the door, but it moved quickly with many Columbia students and a sprinkled assortment of locals and tourists. Kettle boiled bagels, with a crunchier outside than Ess-A-Bagel. Terrific yeasty, salty, bagel flavor. They load the cream cheese on, so if you don’t like a thick wedge of cream cheese on your bagel, tell them. Also they charge 10¢ to toast. So just suck it up and eat it untoasted. You don’t need it toasted anyway. They sell so fast, it is directly from the oven to you.  Also, be prepared…they accept payment by cash only.

Ess-A-Bagel 1976
831 3rd, Ave., NY, NY

Ess A Bagel. Photo by Ilyse Steiner

Restaurant & deli. Crowded with locals and tourists alike. Traditional hand-rolled, kettle boiled bagels. They seriously frown upon toasting bagels and will argue with customers about it. There’s really no need to toast it since it arrives on a plate fresh from the oven. The bagel had a soft outside and dense, steaming inside that doesn’t require further toasting. Many cream and soy cheese options from jalapeno and olive to chocolate chip and banana nut. They also had a full menu of deli sandwiches, sides and soups. We ordered a bowl of matzo ball soup that was served already cut up. We weren’t sure if that was a quirky idiosyncrasy of Ess-A-Bagel, but we’d prefer to cut our own.

Black Seed Bagel
170 Elizabeth St., NY, NY

Store-front restaurant with sandwiches, drinks and a variety of coffee beverages. The restaurant was  well designed rather than crammed tables like many bagel shops. There was once again, a line out the door. Hand-rolled, Montreal-style bagels and cooked in a wood-fired oven. They offer to toast if you’re so inclined, but there’s no need since they are so fresh. Smaller than kettle-boiled, but a strong outside crunch and soft, dense inside. Well seasoned. Great sandwich and cream/soy toppings. The hummus/beet sandwich was unusual and not overpowering. The lox and cream cheese was generous in toppings and the bacon, egg and cheese was gooey, salty and cheesy.

Russ & Daughters Cafe
127 Orchard St., NY, NY

If you’re craving lox and cream cheese on a bagel, and you are particular about your smoked fish, go to this traditional Jewish dairy restaurant that has been a New York institution since 1914. Be prepared to wait. They’ve got lox, sturgeon, caviar, the whole megillah. I ate the “Yum Kippered” on Hanukkah that was smoked then baked salmon. Oh, and the bagels are dense and chewy and everything you’d want. I also recommend the “latkes” as well. That’s a deep fried potato pancake which was thick and crispy. Latkes can be shredded potato, but these were more of a pureed and cake consistency. They serve it with traditional sour cream and applesauce or crème fraiche and caviar. We ate both.

370 Lexington Ave., NY, NY

Hand-rolled, chewy, dense bagel. Heavy poppyseed topping and the cream cheese ratio to bagel and not overpowering. Mid-town location with many commuters carrying out.

In the end, you can’t go wrong on the isle of Manhattan or most anywhere in New York for a dense, chewy, hot bagel. I don’t know if the water truly matters, but New Yorkers insist it is the special ingredient. Whatever it is, may there always be a bagel in the boroughs of New York.



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