The journey to the best bagel of my life was a journey of precisely three miles. It started on the Upper East Side, near 2nd Avenue in the 70s, and ended close to Columbia University, on Broadway near 108th Street. I told myself that I could treat myself to a decked-out bagel if I walked all the way to Absolute Bagels, home of what Ed Levine once called “the best bagel in New York.”
As a die-hard bagel aficionado, I considered it a great source of shame that I hadn’t yet been to Absolute. I always knew about it, it was always in my brain as a place I must go to someday, and so it was that yesterday was the day.
The walk there took me through Central Park, which is particularly gorgeous this time of year:
And up the Upper West Side, where crowds of people gathered to eat bagels at places like Barney Greengrass. Absolute, when I finally got there, was no exception:
The line moved quickly, though, and once in the door I got to soak in the atmosphere:
Frankly, there’s not much atmosphere worth soaking, but it had the bustle and excitement you find on a Sunday morning when Jewish people gather to eat bagels. (And non-Jewish people too. But I’m pretty sure it’s a Jewish thing.)
The cream cheeses in the case were speckled with their various toppings:
Slowly you shift towards the counter where slightly-impatient bagel-makers take your order:
Take a look at those bagels:
That’s a sight for sore eyes, especially after a year of L.A. bagelessness. (Bagel Bombs notwithstanding.)
You can see the giant vat where the bagels are boiled here:
When it came time to place my order, I went deluxe: Everything Bagel, scallion cream cheese, smoked salmon, tomato and onion. My juice pairing, for this bagel, was orange: Tropicana, Some Pulp.
You might ask, at this juncture: “Did the fact that this place had already been heralded as having New York’s best bagel influence your reaction to it when you bit in?”
I answer with a picture:
If presented with just that, out of context, I would still swoon as much as a person can swoon over boiled dough that’s studded with seeds and onions and garlic before being baked to perfection. And perfection absolutely describes this Absolute bagel: still warm from the oven, just chewy enough but layered, almost, like a pastry, I marveled at every bite. I didn’t want it to end. I considered going back for a second.
I even considered buying a plain bagel just to study it, by itself, to figure out what makes it so wonderful. The dough is slightly sweet. The warm-out-of-the-oven quality keeps it soft. The size is correct (based on the classic bagel): it’s compact, it’s relatively small. But the most compelling part, I believe, is the structure: something about how the bagel dough is combined, kneaded, and shaped holds the secret to the mystery.
Ed Levine knows what he’s talking about and this pilgrimage to Absolute became something of a religious experience for me. All of my life’s other bagels must now bow down before this one: the Absolute bagel reigns above all.