What's a "real" bagel supposed to taste like? It should be chewy on the inside, glossy and slightly brown on the outside with a rich yeasty taste that sets it far apart from a spongy roll. Most important, a real, New York-style bagel is kettle-boiled, not steamed.
In the six years since the Foraging column last tested bagels, there have been some changes in the local scene, with longtime owners turning over the reins to conglomerates and newcomers entering the fray. So we decided to go at it again. We did a blind taste test of six bagel stores, sampling plain and "everything" bagels from each site. Here's how they rated.
TOP OF THE HEAP
Owner Eric Koefoed claims the distinction of making the first New York-style bagels in Washington, where he set up shop in 1981. First or not, he makes an awfully nice bagel. A wonderful yeasty smell wafts off the plain version, which has some other nice attributes too: a good crust, chewy interior and fresh taste. The everything version we tried was just as good, with a nice balance of toppings--especially garlic and salt, which tend to be overpowering if not added in just the right amounts.
Koefoed opened a second location in Bethesda not long ago, but it's the Georgetown headquarters that most people know. If you're a first-timer, though, be prepared. An overhead TV blares nonstop, the staff can be brusque and the store itself can be downright disheveled at times. (Bagels about 60 cents each, $7.20 for 13.) 3245 M St. NW; call 202-965-1011. 5227 River Rd., Bethesda; call 301-657-4442.
MANHATTAN BAGEL COMPANY
This relative newcomer to the Washington area scored big in our blind taste test. Appropriately enough, the plain bagel has a real New York look and taste: a nicely browned crust and chewy, yeasty interior. The well-rounded everything was also a winner.
Arthur and Sally Michael, a brother-sister team, own this five-year-old franchise, one of close to 300 locations nationwide. Not only are the bagels kettle-boiled, but they're baked on burlap-covered boards in a hearthstone oven. The store itself is small but cheery, and folks behind the counter seem to know a lot of customers by name. But come early. It opens at 5 a.m., with bagels being made from 2 a.m. on, but closes at 4 p.m. (Bagels 59 cents each, $5.90 for 13.) 11622 Rockville Pike, Rockville; call 301-231-0771.
MIDDLE OF THE HEAP
The plain bagel from this Rockville landmark is not a bad bagel by any means. It has a nice crust and a dense interior. But a sweetness gave it an unfortunate aftertaste. As for the everything, the predominantly rye-bread interior was a little startling, tasting mostly of caraway seeds--inside and out.
New owner George Kavadoy took over from the Zlotnick family last November and promises to turn out fresh bagels every 15 minutes, using the same recipe. (Bagels 50 to 60 cents each, $6 to $6.60 for 13.) 12119 Rockville Pike, Rockville; call 301-231-8080.
CHESAPEAKE BAGEL BAKERY
There's nothing terribly thrilling about a plain bagel, but this one was downright boring. Better to toast it and add a shmear. The everything, however, had a lovely look and a good topping, with just the right amount of salt.
An Atlanta conglomerate took over from the hometown founders, Michael Robinson and Alan Manstof, in 1997, but David H. Lavine, the former president and CEO of Robinson and Manstof's company, now runs seven of the original stores as a franchise (Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, Tenleytown, Old Town Alexandria, Reagan National Airport, Georgetown Square in Bethesda and Shady Grove). Bagels are still made from scratch at these stores and at the majority of other franchise locations. (Bagels about 55 cents each, about $5.80 for 13.) Twenty-six stores throughout the Washington area.
BOTTOM OF THE HEAP
We couldn't detect a whiff of yeast from the bready, somewhat sweet plain bagel. As for the everything, the topping was so pungent and burnt-tasting--especially the garlic--that it masked everything underneath.
Owner Stephen Fleishman has sold all but the original Bethesda location and its sister store, Whatsa Bagel, in Cleveland Park. The bagels are still hand-formed, though, and given a distinctive shape that's unlike any other in town. (Bagels about 55 cents each, about $6.60 for 13.) 4819 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda; call 301-652-8990. Whatsa Bagel, 3513 Connecticut Ave. NW; call 202-966-8990.
EINSTEIN BROS. BAGELS
This nationwide chain has been in the Washington area for only three years, but already boasts 16 stores. Making a product that's "sandwichable" is the aim here. That means it's less like a bagel and more like a sandwich roll, which might explain why the varieties we tried differed greatly from all of the others.
They were the only bagels in our testing that were not kettle-boiled, which gave them a rounded, puffed-up shape. Both the plain and the everything were yellow inside, soft as a wet kitchen sponge and plagued by a sweet aftertaste. Think dinner roll and you get the idea. (Bagels about 65 cents each, about $5.50 for 13.) Call 1-800-BAGEL-ME for area locations.