Bagels and Lox

I suspect Sunday would still arrive if the New York Times suspended publication and the nation suffered a bagel shortage. As I recall from my time spent at sea and in the rural Deep South, the week rolls around even without such necessities.

The best in town?: The bagels and lox at Over Easy Cafe, served here by Michelle Goñi. Photo By Jon Elliston

But for anyone only a generation or two removed from New York City, those items are indeed necessities. Suffice to say my parents considered chucking their professional careers in the early 1970s to launch a bagel-delivery service in our Midwestern college town, where securing a good bagel meant making hotel reservations. Twenty years later, an undergraduate classmate of mine paid his bar tabs with money he earned filling orders for H&H Bagels—an endeavor that put 968 miles on his car every week. To those of us who felt badly imbalanced with only our mail-ordered New York Times to see us through Sunday, he was a brave martyr.

Technology has largely obliterated the role of heroes like him. The Times is delivered to nearly every zip code in the country, and most groceries keep bagels in their freezers. Snobs may scoff, but chains like Brueggers are churning out millions of fresh, round bread products that are much closer to well-made New York bagels than the English muffins with which we made do for decades. You can even order your bagel with lox, although employees at local Brueggers outlets will stare at you blankly till you call it “Atlantic salmon.”

That terminology strikes me as overly Anglophilic: I can hear the Queen Mum calling for a jolly good scone with a nibble of Atlantic salmon. But the phraseology isn’t really an affectation on anyone’s part: Lox isn’t smoked salmon, and vice versa. Real lox is always made from Pacific salmon, and it’s cured in brine, which makes for a mouth-sweatingly salty fish. But most of the time lox shows up on a menu, you might as well prep your palate for cold-smoked Eastern Seaboard salmon, or Nova.

That holds true here in Asheville, where I recently set out to find the best local bagel-and-lox (or something like it) plate. Since there’s only so much cream cheese any single eater could stomach in the course of a day, I put some restrictions on my search. I limited myself to eateries that were open on Sunday morning, since I see no point in having a lox plate on Monday. I also only visited places where I could either comfortably read the paper or order the bagel to go. And, finally, I stuck to places that reportedly served a decent bagel-and-lox.

I want to emphasize the “and” in that last sentence: Had I bought my bagel from one of the area’s estimable artisan bakeries and my salmon from a local fishmonger, I might have had a better sandwich. But I was interested in restaurants that could give me the whole megillah: A salt bagel, lox and schmear, with maybe some onions. (While I didn’t discount for capers, I’m not sure what place those little buds have on a classic American sandwich.)

The results were fairly encouraging. While I still haven’t found a superlative example of the genre in Asheville, a few restaurants are making quite passable stabs at the sandwich. After my sampling expedition, I certainly couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend anyone around here to try reviving the direct-from-H&H-Bagels business (especially since H&H bagels can now be ordered online).

A few highlights from my scouting trip:

Corner Kitchen: Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village tends to do a great job with bread-based breakfast dishes: Their waffles are legendary. Unfortunately, their bagels veer toward the waffle end of the starch spectrum, with too much chew and too little crust. They’re also way too greasy-tasting, as though they’ve been buttered and grilled rather than well-toasted. Bagels are apparently not a natural idiom for Corner Kitchen’s cooks: While I waited for my order, one of the yelps to emerge from the frantic open kitchen was “When we think bagels, we have to think cream cheese!” (One of those sensible but gratuitous admonitions, like “Let’s all breathe!”)

The slab of fatty smoked salmon served with the bagel was among the thickest I saw, almost as thick as a copy of The Old Man and the Sea. While it was better than the bagel, it didn’t elevate the sandwich in any meaningful way.

Dripolator: The salmon served with the Dripolator’s very pretty bagel presentation is as thin as Corner Kitchen’s is thick. Its color and width put me in mind of the pickled ginger served on almost every sushi plate. While the bagel wasn’t bad, the sheer salmon was stringy and lacked flavor. Better to stick with one of the Dripolator’s other brunch offerings, many of which are superb.

Table: Enjoying Table’s opulent take on bagel-and-lox, I could almost hear Theodore Bikel singing: “If I was a rich man, I’d thread my cream cheese with dilly-dilly-dum, if I were a wealthy man.” From the dill cream cheese to the parsley garnish, Table’s bialy—no humdrum bagels here—is a thoroughly upscale and largely satisfying presentation. The meaty salmon here is especially noteworthy.

New York Bagel: This North Asheville institution seemed the odds-on favorite to claim the bagel-and-lox crown. While the bagel was terrific, and the cream cheese was smooth and milky, the bubblegum-colored salmon wasn’t anything special. Like the Dripolator, New York Bagel apparently prefers a thin slice, serving a translucent Patagonian salmon.

Over Easy Café: Over Easy delivered my absolute favorite version of bagel-and-lox in this survey. I’d never before tried the sandwich here, since I’d always been distracted by the pancakes and omelettes. But that’s a mistake I’m unlikely to make again: It was the salmon that catapulted Over Easy to the top. The fish bears all the hallmarks of its oceanic origins: It’s deeply flavorful, salty and has a rich, orange hue. And it makes for a fine way to start a Sunday.

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