Some say it's in the water, and some say it’s simply a precise science that people from down South fail to grasp. Whatever it is that makes New York bagels so good, frankly, is in short supply in these parts. Since New York Bagel and Deli on Merrimon closed (and Harry’s Bagels before it), area cafés and restaurants have had little in the way of local sources for the classic nosh — at least the version similar to what’s found in the myriad delis of the Big Apple.
If you've lived in Asheville long enough, you may remember that Gold Hill Espresso and Fine Teas used to serve a good bagel. The bialys that Gold Hill used to ship from the North were so hard to keep in-house that people would call the café to reserve them.
These days, even our favorite local haunts don't know where to turn for the real deal. The Green Sage sources theirs from Sysco, and Greenlife no longer offers single bagels in their deli section (an employee of the market said that they are looking for a provider, however).
A number of Asheville’s coffee shops buy their bagels from Bruegger’s Bagels, including the Clingman Café, the Dripolator, Firestorm Café, Izzy's, Malaprop's and Over Easy, according to a Bruegger’s shift manager, who declined to give her full name. What she would divulge, however, is her recipe for bagel success. "If it's not boiled, it's not a bagel, I can tell you that," she said.
Though the dough for Bruegger's bagels is ordered from an outside source, it is boiled and baked in-house, at least at the Asheville location. So, are Bruegger’s bagels comparable to a New York bagel? "From what I understand, yes. Many people who have moved to this area from New York and various places up north definitely say that we have the best bagels in town," says our Bruegger’s source.
The lack of WNC-made bagels is no fault of coffee-shop owners. In fact, when contacted, Firestorm, Over Easy and Clingman Café all noted that Bruegger’s is the only wholesale source for bagels available in this area to their knowledge. It seems that the bakeries that have the space to make their own bagels are holding tightly to them once they come out of the oven, at least for the time being.
Xpress recently hit the town to find out what the local guys are doing with our favorite breakfast fodder. Even if a true New York-style bagel is pretty tough to come by around here, it's nice to know there are local sources to support. (Note: these aren't the only locally made bagels in town. West End Bakery in West Asheville makes them in-house, as does Farm and Sparrow bakery. Know of more? Go to mountainx.com and fill us in.)
Big city flavor
Jesse Bardyn, head baker at City Bakery, knows his bagels. Bardyn says that what he bakes is very much along the lines of a New York-style bagel. "A classic bagel is boiled, then baked, and ours are made in that classic style." All of City Bakery’s bagels, he says, are hand-cut and shaped, boiled, then baked in deck ovens with steam-injection systems.
While his bagels aren’t exactly authentic Big Apple bagels, Bardyn says that people he considers to be in the know enjoy what he’s turning out. Made with King Arthur flour (milled in North Carolina), his bagels go through a two-step fermentation process. "You get a little bit more flavor that way,” says Bardyn. “I find that sometimes bagels just taste like flour, and don't really have a lot of flavor. We've tried to change that a little bit," he says. Bardyn’s bagels come in traditional flavors — plain, poppy, sesame, onion and wheat, for starters.
Though they get approached often to provide bagels for local businesses, the City Bakery currently doesn't have the space to honor all of the requests. "The problem is that you need a big kettle to boil them in, and I have to arrange four or five pots on the stove to get enough space," says Bardyn.
Bardyn, however, does let on that larger-scale bagel-making might be on the bakery's agenda in the future. "We're entertaining the idea," he says. "All the bagel shops are gone now, and nobody's really filled that spot."
Also? Bardyn makes bialys on occasion. Of course, the first thing on my mind is … when can I come get one? "I've had multiple older Jewish men call me and harass me about it," says Bardyn. "So, soon."
It's tasty at Tod's
Tod's Tasties and To-Gos on Montford offers a truly great Yankee-fied breakfast sandwich for those sick of grits and biscuits. The chewy in-house-made bagel comes toped with lox, red onion, cream cheese, capers, tomato and lettuce for a hearty morning nosh. But, if you like your bagels spiked with all manner of onion flakes and what-not, this is not the place for you.
Baker Laura Goetz lets the dough speak for itself, baking plain — and only plain — bagels. She mixes and shapes that dough, then lets it proof overnight so that it develops plenty of flavor. She uses much of the same method that Bardyn uses at the City Bakery —boil, then bake in the oven. Her equipment is a bit less advanced than that at the City Bakery; since there are no steam injection systems in this tiny kitchen, Goetz throws ice cubes in the baking trays.
So, how close is a Tod's bagel to a New York bagel? "Jacob (Sessoms), who owns this place, is from New York," Goetz offers. You can definitely attribute the style of bagels that Tod's serves to his tastes, she says.
And how do those tastes translate to the final product? Goetz is coy: "We have a lot of people that come in and say that they love them and that they're the best in town, but it's all opinion."
Xpress is of the opinion that Tod's serves a whole lot of tasty for a small amount of money, and suggests that the lox bagel offers a pretty screaming good value at $4.95.
A face-burner of a bagel
Though Paige Scully, co-owner of Beans and Berries, concedes that her eatery's bagel dough is purchased from an outside source — food distribution giant Sysco — the bagels are still baked in-house — and turned into something special by the staff bakers.
In contrast to Tod's sparse repertoire of flavors, the Merrimon Avenue café turns out bagel concoctions like sun-dried tomato Parmesan, mozzarella-basil, Mediterranean bagels with feta and olives, and even the occasional seasonal special, like a fall bagel made with pumpkin pureé. "We do blueberry bagels where we actually poke blueberries in the dough," says Scully. "They look different, but they're really good."
Beans and Berries offers bagels that are the least New York style of the trio we sampled. The staff tries to get the boiled effect by adding ice cubes to the trays as the bagels bake. What they lack in chewy texture, they make up for in flavor, however. Of note is the spicy cheddar-jalapeño, which Scully calls "the bagel."
The jalapeño bagels vary in heat from batch to batch, she says, even though the staff adds the same amount of peppers to each one. The bagel that Scully provides as a sample is actually ferociously hot. "We also have a jalapeño cream cheese that people get to put on that," she says, pointing to the bagel. They're such a hit, says Scully, it's hard to keep them in the case — which guarantees that the bagels are fresh every day. "It definitely became more than we anticipated. It can be hard to keep up," she says.
I ask Scully if she's had anything that compares to a New York bagel in this area. "I mean, not really," she says. "Nothing really does elsewhere in the world. But, for me, it's really hard to go wrong with a bagel. Unless you're getting Sara Lee."