Searching For Bagels Beyond the Big Apple
DC on Rye
Published: Friday, March 15, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 22:03
While many of you headed to Mexico’s sunny shores for spring break, I had the unique privilege of fighting a snowstorm in New York for the better part of that week.
People have wondered for millennia why the best bagels come from New York City. Some argue that whatever they put in the New York tap water is responsible. Others argue that it is due to New York’s Jewish population. But as a sandwich aficionado, I think the bagels are just one part of the equation. For me, the perfect bagel experience begins in one of New England’s many rivers, as thousands of Atlantic salmon hatch and head downstream, many of them on the long and difficult journey to loxhood. The bagel itself is merely the canvas upon which many New Yorkers creatively compose some of the most classic and delicious sandwiches the world has ever known.
Of course, not all bagels are created equal, and some are enhanced with sesame, poppy or other seeds (which, until recently, had habits of aggressively lodging themselves within the cavities of my braces). In New York, I usually would get my bagels at Jumbo Bagels on Second Avenue and 56th Street, but for spring break, I ventured to Amsterdam Avenue and 87th Street to try the legendary century-old bagel shop, Barney Greengrass.
Greengrass is not really a bagel place — Greengrass is all about the fish. Even though I was skeptical about whether or not they make their own bagels at all, the presentation and simplicity of the sandwich I ordered redeemed any doubts I had about Barney Greengrass. It came in the perfect packaging: a simple brown bag with an additional wrapping of white parchment paper cut in half so the white cream cheese oozed out onto the bag and stained the bottom with grease. When I looked into the bag, I could see the light pink streaks of the salmon. (I confess that my friends, who are not nearly as adventurous as I am when it comes to fish, pressured me into ordering the weak Nova lox that is reserved almost exclusively for tourists, and not at all like the full-force lox I am accustomed to). The bagel itself was average. The inside was adequately chewy, but the dryness of the crust made me slightly suspicious that it had been frozen earlier that week. The cream cheese was fine, but there is nothing especially outstanding about an average bagel with plain cream cheese.
It was the fish that got me. To start, I have no idea how the people at Greengrass managed to fit that much salmon on a bagel that size. Including the bag, the parchment paper, the bagel and the dense cream cheese, I’d say half of the weight of the sandwich was the lox.
Due respect to Midnight M.U.G. and the Einstein Bro’s at Car Barn — which deserve credit for providing us with bagels at all — I had to go outside the WASP’s nest we call Georgetown to find a bagel that I could compare with those of New York. Dupont Circle’s DGS Delicatessen was the closest I came to satisfying my craving for lox after my completely mind-blowing experience at Greengrass.
I give DGS a lot of credit: I tried a few side items from the menu, which were all stellar — DGS knows how to brine things properly. I eventually ordered the smoked salmon pastrami, which also confused me, but I assure you, it has no pastrami. It was a Montreal-style bagel (which is not quite as doughy as the typical New York bagel), covered in a yogurt-based spread instead of the traditional cream cheese, and the lox wasn’t in the same heaping pile as at Barney Greengrass. But the fish was perfectly fresh and embellished with an interesting balance of spices that almost made me feel like I was eating gravlax.
I am not surprised that there is no place to find a perfect New York bagel in Washington, D.C., but I am still comforted knowing that I can go as close as Dupont Circle for even a moderate version of the bagel nirvana I had the luxury of experiencing in the Big Apple.
David Chardack is a freshman in the College. DC ON RYE appears every other Friday in the guide.