I am declaring the long drought over. It’s been 160 years since the Denny Party arrived and founded Seattle in 1851. And the Duwamish were here long before that. And just as 2011 dawned, Stephen Brown and Daniel Levin decided it was (finally) time to bring world class bagels to the Emerald City. They’ve positioned their new bagelry – Eltana – well (both literally and figuratively) for the self-conscious Seattle trendsters, but more on that in a bit. First let’s establish my own personal baseline for bagel quality. (Cue insecure Seattleites to point out what an asshole I am for having an opinion.)
- Seattle Bagels – A motley collection of bad impressions of New York bagels and chain puffery. Meh. I suspect they’re no better than what you can get in Indianapolis. (I’ve only been to Indianapolis once and I never plan on returning so that comparison will have to remain unproven.)
- New York Bagels – Overrated. Classic American confusion – large does not equal good.
- Montreal Bagels – World class, small, almost pretzel-like. Chewy, darker, delicious. Densely flavorful. St. Viateur’s in Montreal is the standard bearer here.
- Toronto Bagels – World class, puffs of airy deliciousness. You can eat two before you even make it to the car from picking them up. Gryfe’s Bagels in Toronto is the standard bearer for this perfect creation. (I personally have a slight preference for Toronto bagels but I will not deny Montreal their due. They produce some kickass bagels as well. And I like that they’re in a different style. Diversity and all that…)
- Israeli Arab ‘Baygelah’ – These aren’t really bagels per se. They’re not boiled. But they are hoops (bigger than bagels) and every piece of surface area is covered in sesame seeds. The flavor is starkly fresh. And when mixed with Zatar spice medley it’s positively heavenly.
OK. Now that we’ve done our survey, Messr. Levin used to work (as an intern) at St. Viateur’s and brought his expertise to Eltana. Yay! He calls his bagels wood-fired and sells them out of his lovely establishment in Capitol Hill appealing to all the locals with a wall sized crossword puzzle that changes regularly. He can call the bagels eco-friendly, organic, hemp bagels for all I care. Whatever keeps Eltana in business with Seattle folk is fine with me, because these are the best bagels in Seattle. And, I suspect, they are the best bagels in the United States. I’d like to hear of challengers for this crown, but until I try something better I’m declaring default judgment in favor of Eltana.
The bagels themselves are small, almost pretzel-like. They’re made by hand and there are no blueberry or asiago versions. Just the basics – sesame, salt, poppy,
pumpernickel (bad blogging memory), wheat, and plain. (Levin tells me he’s working on Zaatar and Cinnamon Raisin as well.) The flavor is clean clean clean. I was reminded not just of St. Viateur’s bagels but of the Israeli baygelah when eating Eltana’s sesame bagel. And that’s a good thing. There’s a density and chewiness to these bagels that reminds you that you’re eating a food of substance.
A competing bagel maker in Seattle once told me he got his recipe from food consultants in Denver. Denver!!!! I’d set aside my snobbiness at their origin if the bagels were any good… which they were decidedly not. Characterless facsimiles of oversized, novelty New York bagels (cranberry anyone?). The only thing I want from food consultants in Denver is a recipe for chips and salsa that goes well with Coors beer and a Bronco’s loss.
Eltana’s creators’ Jewish/Israeli cultural influences show beyond their staple in their spreads and salads. Thankfully absent are the faux Jewish cultural icons of the Noah’s bagel chain. Instead of “shmear” you get Zhoug Egg Salad (Zhoug being an Israeli/Middle Eastern mix of chopped hot peppers), Crispy Chickpeas and Leeks, Tahini with Cauliflower, and of course the Shakshuka – a savory and satisfying tomato pepper and egg stew. (I was too early to sample it but I’ll be back.) Make no mistake about it… Eltana is really an upscale modern Israeli cafe. The bagels are the least Israeli thing on the menu. And all that delicious food is wrapped in a Seattle friendly, non-threatening package. The owners of Eltana may have a brilliant plan or be crazily winging it. Either way, they are bringing fantastic examples of the food of my people to the Pacific Northwest. Let’s hope the Pacific Northwest realizes how lucky they are to have it.