Don’t Believe the Hype: Black Seed Bagels Are Just So … Ordinary

Posted on: July 21st, 2014 at 10:26 am by
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The world of bagels is not unlike the world of pizza – even a bad bagel is still a good bagel. From Lenders to Pain d’Avignon – I’ve never met a bagel I didn’t devour. Give me an “as is,” toasted, grilled, sandwiched, buttered, cheesed – I draw the line at loxed, unless I’m in the mood to destroy something beautiful. I will usually defer to an Everything toasted with butter or cream cheese, because I like to keep a subjective running tally of the best I’ve had. Few have been the champion of my affections; most are unsung heroes plugging along, feeding my daily bagel addiction, lulling me into a false sense of security that they’ll always be there, only to vanish suddenly and send me spiraling into an unwarranted carbohydrate detox, roaming the streets on a quest for bagels as good as (fill in the blank).

Black Seed on Elizabeth Street, as you’ve probably heard by now, is the “it” place for Montreal-style bagels. So they say. It’s the brainchild of Mile End’s Noah Bernamoff (famed for driving the sought after bagel down from Canada daily), and Smile’s Matt Kliegman. I read the reviews, I bought into the hype, I salivated over the descriptions of hand-rolled chewy, dense bagels first boiled in honey water, then crisply baked in a custom wood fired oven. Honey water – if that isn’t something straight from the chalice of Zeus, I don’t know what is. They also, from what I’d heard, purvey decent coffee (Stumptown). This was my holy food grail. It had to be.

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Black Seed

When I arrived, the line was six deep; just about time for second breakfast. The menu was sort of a pain in the ass to peruse in tight quarters, and written in script on a mirror. But no matter – I went with my one-of-two failsafes, an Everything with cream cheese, toasted.

I’ve read more than I’d care to admit about these so-called “bagel wars” between New York and Montreal, as well as purist propaganda on “the proper way to eat a bagel.” I’ve come across highbrow tones that insist bagels should not be toasted – Montreal bagels in particular. These have been minutes spent that I apologetically can never get back; in their wake, I can only offer up this one personal absolute: if your bagel cannot be delicious when toasted, I want no part of it.

I waited several minutes, the steady line of patrons hugging the wall and doing a tiny shuffle when those who chose to eat within the confines of the shop had to get up for napkins, sugar in their coffee, etc. I giddily ordered and slid to the right to await what I presumed to be the best bagel ever. I recall the cashier saying something like $6 or so, but I handed her my debit card, completely oblivious – yes, fine, whatever it costs, money is no object, I must have this bagel!

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Finally, they called my name, and I swear the world stopped spinning and a light shone down from the heavens as the Black Seed employee handed me my small, warm prize wrapped in white paper. I squeezed past hungry onlookers and scurried to Sara D. Roosevelt Park to scarf it down. I found a perfect spot, and unwrapped it. It looked pretty well-done, but maybe this is what the whole Montreal thing is about – charred bagels! After all, it’s not like I’ve had many in this style before.

I grinned to myself and took a bite. It was salty, but not terribly so. It was small, and slightly burned, but these things didn’t phase me. What nagged at me as I tried to tell myself that this was a spectacular bagel, was that it tasted so… so… nondescript. And then the echoing cashier’s price tag came back to haunt me, and my skeptical American brain kicked into judging gear: “This? This is worth that much, and it only tastes ordinary?” As I watched the kids zipping about in the park, I took a moment for self-reflection. First, I felt a little bad about buying such a costly baked good, especially knowing at least five other places in the neighborhood that could provide me with equal or greater satisfaction, and at a fraction of the price. I blamed myself for ordering a toasted bagel – perhaps I should shell out and give them another go. But I knew in my heart it wasn’t a toasting issue. I blamed gentrification and the emperor’s new clothes hype effect it’s had on maintaining a successful enterprise on the Lower East Side. This bagel is a microcosm for what’s happening to the neighborhood.

And then I resolutely blamed Montreal. Because, history of this fine food aside, they should really leave well enough alone.



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