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.
Everything Bagel Bombs
The Build-A-Better-Bagel Workshop
The Egg Onion Bagel
Bagelworks, Boca Raton
Way Beyond Bagels, Boca Raton
5 thoughts on “Absolute Bagels (And The Best Bagel Of My Life, So Far)”
Hi, I hate to bust your bubble, but i was born in new york to jewish parents, in the 30’s. ( in the 1930’s if you didnt know what that means). and i grew up eating lox ( that’s smoked salmon in jewish) and you always had to have it on a ‘toasted’ , lightly browned onion bagel. smear it with a little butter or margarine, then a bunch of cream cheese, also scallions cut up if you like them, then a bunch of lox, ( don’t be stingy) then a big slice of tomato, don’t use roma, their way to dry. you want a very juicy tomato.and thick. or you can use a juicy small tomato. and put about 3 slices on it. then put a big sliced onion if you like them. eat it while it’s hot for an out of this world taste. you can make this without the onions and it still taste’s fabulous.you got to try it you just won’t believe it. here’s the kicker, I just read the article about to best bagel in new york and i have been eating them for 65 years and a little longer and my folks have been eating them forever..don’t miss trying this. so long folks, and every one have a good year in “13” bye.
P.S.—- Did i mention that the bagel also has to have poppy seeds on it.
Adam, when you’re in L.A. next, try Bagel Broker– on Beverly at Fairfax (across from CBS Television City, behind the Chase bank). Deeeelicious!
Thank you for featuring this bagel mecca! I invented a weekly ritual called “bagel run,” which involves me running 3 miles from the W 50s to Absolute every weekend to score a (well deserved) bagel. It is so worth it!
Hi, I really enjoyed this story. I moved around quite a bit as a child, Jewish New Yorker parents always complained of not being able to get good fresh bagels wherever we were. My father used bring a dozen or two back with him after business trips to NY and we kept whatever we didn’t eat immediately in the freezer. I’ve lived in NY for about 8 years now, and have cherished my many Sunday bagel experiences, not unlike the one you described above! Here’s my take on the “deluxe” bagel order:
-Everything bagel LIGHTLY toasted (even though its fresh from the oven you still want a little carmelization on the inner halves. It adds a little more crunch but still keeps the inside chewy and soft)
-Scallion cream cheese (because people you talk to up close later that day need to be able to bask in the glory of that bagel).
-Swiss Cheese (sounds glutenous I know, but it’s amazing. I Learned this one from my grandfather. I believe it harkens back to the days of Eastern European immagrants coming from nothing and finally making it in America. My grandmother actually buttered the bagel before adding cream cheese and swiss).
-thick cut lox, piled high
-capers (something about the pickled quality goes so well with the saltiness of the lox)
-I’m not a huge fan of the tomato slice on the bagel, it always slips out the back when you bite into it and the juices don’t blend well with everything else.
-I usually go ‘lots of pulp’ with my OJ, a personal preference, to each his own!