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Covered in sesame seeds and sweat, Jeremiah Cohen re-moves his flour-dusted orange apron to reveal a black T-shirt that reads “EAT. SLEEP. COOK.”
“I’ve had nothing to eat, and I’ve had no sleep,” Cohen says. That’s not an exaggeration; the only thing his T-shirt has right is the “COOK” part. The former general manager of Tabard Inn has been holed up in the kitchen of Cork Market through the night and into Saturday morning making his New York–style bagels.
At this point, Cohen has lost track of how many he’s baked. Earlier in the week, his pie-in-the-sky goal was to sell 1,000 bagels for his Bullfrog Bagels pop-up, which he plans to eventually turn into a brick-and-mortar shop. But he reached that number in preorders even before the pop-up began. And when Cork Market opened at 9 a.m. Saturday, people were already lined up down the block hoping to pick up some of the 300 bagels not reserved in advance. He sold out within an hour.
For something so seemingly simple—flour, water, yeast—people get a little crazy about bagels. Especially in D.C., residents (particularly New York transplants) have long lamented the paucity of great bagels. The situation is dire enough that many restaurants abandon their local ethos and ship bagels in from New York or Montreal. A new crop of local artisan bakers is attempting to change all that. But first, they’ll have to deal with the skeptics.
Just how strong is the lure of out-of-town bagels? Nouveau-traditional Jewish deli DGS Delicatessen imports its stock half-cooked from famed bagelry St-Viateur in Montreal, then finishes them in-house. Chef Barry Koslow (who just left the restaurant) says he decided to go with Montreal bagles because they’re typically smaller than New York bagels, supporting rather than overshadowing his housemade white fish and smoked salmon. Plus, he says, the flavor is a little sweet and smoky, thanks to the way St-Viateur boils its bagels with honey and bakes them in a wood-fired oven.
Koslow says he would like to have used a more local bagel, but nothing else measured up. Initially, DGS had been in talks with baker Mark Furstenberg to produce its bagels. But when Furstenberg’s plans for a Dupont Circle bakery fell through, so did the bagels. (Now that Furstenberg has opened Bread Furst in Van Ness, the deli hopes to revisit the conversation.)
“We definitely tasted every bagel in D.C.” Koslow says. “A lot of them are steamed and not boiled. There’s just a lot of short cuts. A lot of them are machine-punched and not hand-rolled. If you want that really authentic New York bagel, you’re talking about slow fermentation. People in D.C. just don’t do that.”
Furstenberg thinks bagels everywhere are a victim of their own popularity. “It wasn’t really so long ago that bagels were unavailable in places like Kansas City,” he says. “Now, bagels are ubiquitous. They became really very quickly within 10 years extremely popular.” As bagel shops proliferated, so did flavors, like cinnamon raisin and chocolate, that once would have been inconceivable. Then came bagel sandwiches, and subsequently, the “hole became a navel,” Furstenberg says. “I think that the reason bagels deteriorated was that the bagel shops corrupted what a bagel was in an effort to find more uses and sell more bagels.
But restaurateur and bartender Gina Chersevani thinks D.C. bagels are doomed for an intrinsic and inescapable reason: “It’s the water. Most people are like ‘No, it can’t be. It can’t be.’ I’m like, ‘Don’t tell me it can’t be. It is.’”
At her Union Market soda shop Buffalo & Bergen, Chersevani buys frozen dough from A&S Bagels, a family-run wholesaler and retailer based in Long Island. She then bakes them on-site, sometimes four times a day on Saturdays. Chersevani grew up not far from A&S, which stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “There’s a line there morning, noon, and night. It’s an institution,” she says. In Buffalo & Bergen’s first three months, Chersevani would actually drive to Franklin Square, N.Y., twice a week for dough. Once she was buying about 200 dozen bagels a week, she started getting them shipped.
Chersevani says a friend of hers who worked at A&S Bagels tried to reproduce the recipe in D.C. The only variable? The water, she says. “We could not make it work. And that’s the reason why the bagels fall flat here.” She doesn’t think D.C. bagels are bad, per se. At the same time, “do I think they’re technically a bagel? No,” she says. “They’re something in between a roll and a bagel. And it’s not D.C.’s fault. It’s the water’s fault.”
Whether Chersevani is right or wrong about the water, the perception that a bagel that doesn’t hail from New York or Montreal isn’t a real bagel may be a mental roadblock for D.C.’s doughy rounds. For a lot of diners, the “best” bagels will always be in New York, the same way the “best” cheesesteaks will always be in Philadelphia.
“I wouldn’t touch bagels with a 10-foot pole,” says pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac. She’s made every baked good imaginable for Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s bevy of eateries. But never bagels. “People have a very specific idea of what a bagel is to them, and I don’t have the time to dedicate to making them as perfect as they need to be. Because people will totally not love a bagel that’s not perfect.” That goes for her, too: She says she’s enjoyed Georgetown Bagelry, but as a general rule, she’ll only eat bagels in New York.
But Bethesda Bagels owner Steve Fleishman, born and raised in the Bronx, believes even New York bagels are overrated these days. Rents are expensive, and bagels aren’t exactly high-profit products, so even some New York outfits are cutting corners. “I’m getting a lot of customers now who say, ‘I go back to New York and it’s not the same,’” he says.
Fleishman opened his business in 1982 because—wait for it—you couldn’t get a decent bagel in D.C. While his staff hand-rolls the bagels at his Bethesda and Dupont shops, he says he uses an extruder for his Gaithersburg wholesale factory, which delivers to 200 supermarkets, commissaries, and restaurants a day. But even he admits: “I can tell you there is no comparison from a machine-made bagel to a hand-made bagel…Once that bagel goes through an extruding machine the texture just changes somehow.”
He says he personally doesn’t know other bakers in the area who make bagels by hand, like he does in his shops. It’s not an easy business: “I’ve seen a lot of people come and go.”
But some brave souls are doing their best to bring more bagels to D.C. that can live up to northern standards. If Bullfrog Bagels is any indication, the demand is there. When Cohen first approached Cork owner Diane Gross, she was also shipping bagels in from New York. She grew up there and struggled to find a bagel she liked in D.C. But she was wooed by Cohen’s “chewy but not-too-chewy” bagels, which use a wild, young levain (a less sour sourdough starter) rather than commercial yeast and are hand-rolled and boiled in small batches.
“All those things combined really do turn out quite a wonderful product that it’s hard to find around here,” Cohen says. So many people wanted his bagels that Cork Market has expanded the pop-up to this weekend, too. Cohen hopes to find kitchen space—at Cork Market or elsewhere—where he’ll be able to sell bagels every weekend until he gets his own shop. “Bagels are the new cupcakes,” Cohen says. He may have a point: His lines last weekend rivaled those of Georgetown Cupcake.
Bullfrog Bagels isn’t an anomaly. Furstenberg says he’s barely staying ahead of the demand for his Montrealesque bagels at Bread Furst. The bakery produces 80 bagels every weekday and 200 on weekends—all of which sell out. “Our baker was joking in our first days that we were going to become a bagel shop,” Furstenberg says.
Meanwhile, Wesley Tahsir-Rodriguez, who operates a part-time Latin and Caribbean food catering company called Los Verracos, plans to debut his own slow-fermented, hand-rolled, and boiled bagels (plus bialys) this Saturday at the DC MEETMarket at 15th and P streets NW. He grew up in northern New Jersey and worked in New York and only eats bagels when he goes home. But after taking a course at Kossar’s Bialys, he has been working to perfect a comparable bagel recipe out of Union Kitchen. “Right now, it’s kind of a hot time for bagels, which is interesting for something that’s been around so long,” he says. “What’s old is new again.”
These new bagel options don’t just compete with existing ones. They’re also up against people’s memories from other times and places. “Much like the delicatessen, there’s so much nostalgia built into bagels,” says DGS Delicatessen’s Koslow. “What we learned early on is that it’s hard to compete with nostalgia, and I think anyone who tries to get into a serious bagel business here, they’re going to be confronted with that early on. But if it’s a good product, it’s a good product and people will pay for it.”
Koslow fully expects there will be online battles—nay, wars—waged about what’s a legit bagel and what’s not. “Maybe it’s a good conversation,” he says. “Maybe that’s another step in D.C.’s progression to being the food town that it wants to be: You’ve got to be able to get a good bagel.”
Photo by Jessica Sidman