Last Thursday, 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 Deli, about 40 or 50 bagel enthusiasts and East Coast fetishizers gathered, packed six to a booth, for a $25-a-person ticketed event titled “New York Bagel Education.”
On hand to make a presentation on the cultural significance of bagels as an ethnic food in America and other assorted bagel trivia were three of the San Francisco based pop-up’s founding partners: David Kover (who writes about pizza 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 food historians seem to agree originated in Poland in the early 17th century — a response to an anti-Semitic piece of 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 aspiring bagelmakers and hardcore food nerds: the key to developing a good bagel’s malty depth of flavor (a long cold ferment), the number of bagels old-time artisans were able to roll out by hand in a single hour (between 600 and 800!), and the name of the exterior blistering on the crust of a bagel that’s prized by connoisseurs (“fish eyes”).
- David Kover, one of the owners of Schmendricks, is a Brooklyn native who grew up eating authentic New York bagels.
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 that she slathered with cream cheese and grape jelly; for Subramanian, it was whole wheat bagels with a smear of jalapeño cream cheese.
Transplanted Jersey boy and insufferable bagel snob that I am, there was still something a tiny bit sad about hearing folks describe their childhood comfort foods as “disgusting.” As much as I’ve lamented the puffy bagel-shaped dinner rolls that too often pass for bagels in these parts, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for that double bastardization known as the pizza bagel: Staple of my pre-adolescent afternoon snackery, that was one of the first foods I learned to “cook.”
Anyway, 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 an extremely limited basis, pretty much exclusively in San Francisco, for a couple of months now. In spite of the small scale of their business, many of the pundits have already declared Schmendricks the best in the Bay Area
— maybe even the best you can get outside of a small number of old-school places in Brooklyn, Montreal, and New Jersey (yeah, I’ll stand up for Jersey here).
- Can you guess which is the Schmendricks bagel?
And so the main event, so to speak, 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 blind tasting itself wasn't exactly a fair fight, though — the two other offerings were awful mass-produced things, as sweet and doughy as Wonder Bread. Kover and company didn't identify these commercial bagels, but they tasted like something along the line of Lender's.
On the other hand, the Schmendricks bagels I tried 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, in my opinion — was the freshness of the bagels. I overheard Subramanian saying she’d baked the batch we were eating — at around 7:30 in the evening — at 4:30 or 5:00 that afternoon. She explained that when they sell out of their primary pop-up site, at Fayes Video and Espresso Bar in San Francisco’s Mission district, she replenishes the supply with freshly-baked batches several times during the course of the day.
In my experience, no matter how good a recipe a shop is using, an eight-hour-old bagel is going to be a pale (and stale) shadow of itself. If you have to toast it, there's something wrong.
Interestingly enough, no one brought up the three-thousand-pound elephant in the room: How can Schmendricks justify selling their bagels for $3 each
— more than three times what they charge at The Bagel Hole
, the Brooklyn shop the founders cite as one of their main inspirations? All I’ll say about that is, in the absence of a viable competitor, for the time being I’m more than willing to shell out three bucks for one of these bagels any chance I get. $36 for a dozen? Not so much.
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 — right now, Kover says they’re more focused on getting their brick-and-mortar shop set up in San Francisco.
Nevertheless, we may very well be in the midst of a sort of bagel renaissance, what with Beauty’s Bagels
, Authentic Bagel Company
, and newcomer Baron Baking
all setting up shop in the East Bay. Baron, in particular, is still a little-known quantity, but Dan Graf’s one-man operation is already supplying all of the bagels at Saul’s. I’ve only tasted a couple of his bagels, but my initial impressions were unequivocally positive: Graf might even be primed to give Schmendricks a run for their money.Got tips or suggestions? Email me at Luke (dot) Tsai (at) EastBayExpress (dot) com. Otherwise, keep in touch by following me on Twitter @theluketsai, or simply by posting a comment. I'll read ‘em all.