On a recent Thursday evening, the proprietors of Schmendricks, the latest contender in the Bay Area's ongoing search for a Brooklyn-worthy bagel, made a rare appearance in the East Bay. In the back section of Saul's Restaurant & Delicatessen, about fifty bagel enthusiasts and East Coast fetishizers gathered, packed six to a booth, for an event titled "New York Bagel Education."
On hand to make a presentation on the cultural significance of bagels as an ethnic food and other assorted bagel trivia were three of the San Francisco-based pop-up's founding partners: David Kover (pizza writer for Serious Eats), his wife Dagny Dingman, and their friend (and lead baker) Deepa Subramanian. A fourth partner, Subramanian's husband, Dan Scholnick, wasn't present.
The trio took the audience through a quick history of the bagel, which most scholars seem to agree originated in Poland in the early 17th century — a response to anti-Semitic legislation stipulating that Jews couldn't bake bread (hence the crazy idea of boiling the bread first, before baking it), according to one version of the story.
The presentation also offered useful tidbits for food nerds and aspiring bagelmakers: the key to developing a good bagel's malty depth of flavor (a long cold fermentation), the number of bagels old-time artisans were able to roll out by hand in an hour (between 600 and 800), and the name of the exterior blistering that's prized by bagel connoisseurs ("fish eyes").
One of the more interesting points raised was something Kover called "Bagel Cognition Theory," a riff on former New York Times food critic Sam Sifton's "Pizza Cognition Theory," which states that whatever pizza you ate as a child becomes, by default, your definition of "authentic" pizza. Kover argued that the opposite is actually true of bagels — that no matter what kind of lousy bagels you grew up eating, once you encounter the real deal, you'll say, "Oh, this is a bagel."
And so, aside from Kover — who, as a Brooklyn native, can claim authentic bagels as his birthright — each of the panelists talked shamefacedly about the now-shunned bagels of their youth: for Dingman, it was cinnamon-sugar bagels slathered with cream cheese and grape jelly; for Subramanian, whole wheat bagels with a smear of jalapeño cream cheese.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that part of the point of the event was for the Schmendricks folks to promote their own product, which has been available on a limited basis, pretty much exclusively in San Francisco, for a couple of months now. In spite of the small scale of their business, many pundits have already declared Schmendricks bagels the best in the Bay Area — maybe even the best outside of a small number of old-school places in Brooklyn, Montreal, and New Jersey.
And so the evening's main event was a bagel taste-off, followed by a full-on bagel dinner, with Saul's providing an impressive spread of fixins and sides. Would the bagels stand up to the hype?
Without going into too much detail: Yes.
The Schmendricks bagels had a great malty flavor and gave my jaw a bit of a workout without being too hard (not to speak ill of the deceased, but I'm looking at you, SPOT Bagel). I especially liked how you could really distinguish between the crisp, nicely blistered crust of the bagel and the dense, chewy interior.
Not discussed much in the presentation — but absolutely key — was the freshness of the bagels. I overheard Subramanian saying she had just baked the batch we were eating three hours earlier. She explained that when they sell out at their primary pop-up site, at Fayes Video and Espresso Bar in San Francisco, she replenishes the supply with freshly baked batches several times during the course of the day.
In my experience, no matter how good a shop's recipe is, an eight-hour-old bagel is going to be a pale (and stale) shadow of itself.
Interestingly enough, no one brought up the 3,000-pound elephant in the room: how the Schmendricks founders can justify selling their bagels for $3 each — more than three times what The Bagel Hole, the Brooklyn shop they cite as their inspiration, charges. All I'll say about that is, in the absence of a viable competitor, I'm more than willing to shell out three bucks for one of these bagels. But $36 for a dozen is pretty excessive.
For those of us who live in the East Bay, it's largely a moot point, as Schmendricks has no immediate plans to sell its bagels on this side of the bridge on a regular basis. Nevertheless, we may very well be in the midst of a bagel renaissance, what with Beauty's Bagel Shop, Authentic Bagel Company, and newcomer Baron Baking all setting up shop in the East Bay.
Baron Baking, in particular, is still a little-known quantity, but Dan Graf's one-man operation is already supplying bagels for Saul's, Chop Bar, and the soon-to-open Stag's Lunchette. I tasted a couple of his bagels, and my initial impressions are unequivocally positive: Graf might even be primed to give Schmendricks a run for their money.