Or, 'Ed Levine's Existential Bagel Crisis'
It's a question asked so often that it's astounding that we've never attempted an answer.
Who makes the best bagel in New York?
There are a few clear contenders. In the past, Ed has leaned toward the Upper West Side's Absolute Bagels; his exhaustive 2003 bagel hunt for the New York Times also saluted Bagel Oasis and Hot Bialys in Queens, Terrace Bagels in Windsor Terrace, and Manhattan stalwart Murray's.
So we organized a simple taste-test. Serious eaters would fan out over the three most bagel-happy boroughs and hurry back to World Headquarters with their piping hot loot, as fast as their feet, bikes, buses, trains, subways, or Zipcars could carry them. We'd cut them all up; we'd do a blind tasting; we'd ponder their merits and crown a winner. Simple, right?
But it wasn't that easy.
The problem became clear as we chomped our way through Round One, pens at the ready, taking bite after bite. None of the bagels were more than two hours old. All of them had been hand-delivered that morning. But chewing through so many mouthfuls of plain bagels, we all felt the same uneasy feeling descending upon us. Ed broke the silence.
"They all taste the same."
Well... not quite the same.
No one mistook Dunkin' Donuts bagels for Murray's, say. (Although it should be noted that Dunkin' didn't place dead last.) Some bagels were clearly superior to others. But none really stood out. None jumped off its plate and declared itself a first-class New York bagel—and these were the best of the very best.
"They aren't calling to me," said Ed Levine—a man who had once written the sentence "No city, perhaps in the history of the world, is so closely identified with a breadstuff as New York is with the bagel." Who had used words such as superb and terrific and huzzah! to describe the very same bagels that sat before us.
There was only one bagel that the tasters rallied around—and that was one from the neighborhood bagel shop, a dark horse, one we'd thought little more than a control.
Ed hung his head, a full-blown mid-life bagel crisis coming on. What was going on?
That corner bagel shop, Brooklyn Bagel—Bagel 1 in our blind taste test—told the whole story. Swooped up on the way to the office, those bagels weren't more than 15 minutes old. Bagels that had traveled from the outer reaches of Queens had spent more than two hours on the rapid decline. And since early-bird Ed had trekked up to Absolute Bagels at the crack of dawn, their three-hour old contestants came in dead last.
Our conclusion? A bagel's half-life, untoasted and unadorned, is no more than half an hour. It was far less than any of us had thought, but after more than thirty minutes, we saw a rapid decline in texture, crust, and even taste. Brooklyn Bagel's initial victory? Simply a matter of freshness.
And therein lies the fundamental problem of a blind test. Let's call it the Heisen-Bagel Uncertainty Principle. (Credit the name where credit is due.) It seemed that the very act of assembling a critical mass of bagels requires enough time that a fair comparison is rendered impossible. So a blind bagel taste-test could never produce conclusive results. And in Round One, Brooklyn Bagel's proximity to the oven threw our bagel sensors all out of whack.
So for Round Two, we synchronized purchase times more closely; no three-hour elderly bagels, no shiny young superstars. And in this controlled environment, our results were a good deal more informative. Here are our bagel conclusions.
The Painfully Terrible Control Group
We threw Dunkin' Donut's bagels in as a foil, and luckily for our credibility as food journalists, no one took the bait. The texture: "Very crusty, but way too bready." The color: "Evenly brown. That shouldn't be the case, should it." And the ultimate indictment: "I grew up eating these bagels. I also grew up in Kansas City!"
That said, more than half of our tasters ranked Dunkin's bagels above two or three local establishments. Chew on that.
Ed, on Lender's "New York Style" Pre-Sliced Bagels: "I love the size. But that's all I love."
The Big Names We Didn't Love
Once schmeared, there's nothing wrong with a good old H&H Bagel. But on their own, our crack tasters found them dense and sweet. "Way too dense," said Ed. And the seven-ounce monsters from Ess-A-Bagel were called "incredibly dry," and "funky, almost moldy-tasting."
The Solid Contenders
Terrace Bagel, in Brooklyn's Windsor Terrace, gave us a puffy, just sweet enough bagel that some liked for its "slight tanginess" and others for its "nice hole structure." Ed said he'd take a decent hike to pick a few up. But it didn't have a particularly crisp crust, and it was far bigger than most of us wanted in a bagel.
Murray's? Our tasters had some problems with the texture ("chewy but not crisp"; "like a Posturepedic pillow"). But the slightly malty taste got quite a few positive marks.
Ed liked Hot Bialys, which once ranked in his Top Five bagel list: "Not as crisp as I would like," he said this time, "but great flavor." Another taster agreed. "Very yeasty, good yeasty." Others weren't so kind. "I wish this had some texture." "Plasticky, ugh!"
The Elusive Heartbreaker
Let's call it the Heisen-Bagel principle at work.
Rushing out of the Bagel Oasis in Queens, I tore my teeth into a fresh, plain bagel—and literally stopped dead in my tracks. As the cars tore by me on the LIE, I stood there on the side of the road, chewing blissfully. This was without question the best bagel I had ever eaten. The initial bite and crust. The way the inside pulled apart softly when I ripped it in half. The doughy, yeasty, but not too sweet interior. I felt as if I suddenly understood what a bagel was supposed to taste like. I got back on the freeway convinced that Bagel Oasis would win the day.
The tasters' comments? "Bready." "Dull." "Springy-chewy, but otherwise unmemorable."
I couldn't believe my eyes. But back at the office, a few hours later, I tried a piece of the bagel they sampled—and every comment was right. Two hours had made all the difference in the world.
Bagel Oasis: 183-12 Horace Harding Expressway, Fresh Meadows, Queens (map); 718-359-9245
The Surprising Game-Changer
Here's Brooklyn Bagel, just around the corner from Serious Eats. In Round One, it was the unanimous winner. "Crisp, with a noticable crisp SOUND!," one taster wrote. "Nicely salted," said another. "I'd travel far for this one," someone scribbled. "Perfect bagel shell." "Um—yes."
But the second time around, when these bagels had aged along with the others, it wasn't all so sunny. "Soft, some chew, but not much crunch." A minutes-old Brooklyn Bagel was as good as any we tasted. That said, an hours-old one wasn't bad, either.
Brooklyn Bagels: 286 8th Avenue (map); 212-924-2824
Ages Badly, But Otherwise Excellent
Ed's go-to, Absolute Bagels, fared terribly in the first round. Excerpted notes: "I guess this is edible." "Boring." "Eh." And: "I would only eat this if it were on my kitchen counter. AND if I were too hungover to leave the house."
But when a bit newer, and perhaps more importantly, not held up against newer bagels, they earned a solid silver medal for their real outside crunch, fine hole structure, and perfect salty-malty-sweet balance. Ed: "Now these are the Absolute Bagels I remember really liking."
Absolute Bagels: 2788 Broadway (map); 212-932-2052
The Ultimate Victor
Ed, on the merits of Bagel Hole:
Bagel Hole's plain bagel had just about everything I look for in a bagel. It makes a satisfying crunching sound when I bit into it; the exterior actually required the use of my teeth; it was a lovely dark brown color; it was moist and almost light on the inside, and it wasn't absurdly large. No sign of bagel elephantiasis on this puppy.
Bagel Hole: 400 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn (map); 718-788-4014
Ed's existential bagel mid-life crisis was over. No more bagel angst, at least for the moment.
Friend of Serious Eats Harvey suggested a way to combat the Heisen-Bagel.
"Kidnap Ed. Blindfold him. Toss him in the back of a van, drive him around New York, and feed him minutes-old bagels from all of these places."
Now that's a YouTube hit in the making.