Scratching That Itch

Homesickness happens.  Sometimes we miss family and friends, sometimes we miss places that evoke a feeling or bring back a particularly fond memory.  Other times, we miss simpler things, like that sandwich that you can only get where you grew up (we’re looking at you, Schmitter at McNally’s Tavern!).

Recently, we’ve been missing good old New York bagels.  And we’re not talking about the rubbish you get from the cart guy outside Grand Central.  We’re talking the real deal, like the pinnacle of bagel divinity Ess-a-Bagel.  We don’t delude ourselves though – we know we ‘re not going to find a bagel of THAT calibre in London, much like we won’t find a true New York style pizza here.  That’s fine – there are other things that London offers than we won’t find in New York.  But can we get close?  Close enough to scratch that itch?

We did a lot of research, trying to identify a few places where we might find a decent bagel.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the list isn’t a long one: Beigel Bake on Brick Lane, and the Happening Bagel Bakery in Finsbury Park.  We took to the streets (and tube) to check them out, visiting each on consecutive Saturday at about the same time (around midday).

In each place, we tried the same 3 variations: a plain bagel with cream cheese, with smoked salmon, and with salt beef.

Beigel Bake was up first.  We arrived late morning/early afternoon, and found a short queue of about 15 people inside, which took just a few minutes to clear.  We’ve been by before, and this queue can be MAD – clear out the door (particularly on Sundays when the Up Market is in full swing).  The cream cheese and salmon bagels are pre-made, while the salt beef is served right off the grill near the front of the shop.

The bagels – erm, beigels – aren’t large, but they are plump.  Soft on the inside, with a decent amount of chew and a bit of resistance on the outside (not a thick crust, but an enjoyable bit of bite).  The cream cheese was quite good, better than we’d expected.  The salmon seemed like super market quality – perfectly fine, but nothing special (nor is it particularly pricey).  The salt beef was delicious though, and piled high, with a bit of mustard and onion.  It makes for a filling lunch.  This is certainly no Ess-a-Bagel, but it is considerably better than what you’d find from a generic New York cart or local diner.  We left satisfied!

Next up was Happening Bagel.  We walked up from Islington and Highbury tube, to get the lay of the land, though the shop is right across from the Finsbury Park tube, near the southern entrance to the park itself.  Along the way, we walked past a naan bakery called Baban’s Naan (Blackstock Road) – this one is on mental file for another day!

We got to Happening Bagel and found it largely empty.  No queue, and not much bustle.  We spied a rack of bagels on the far wall (multiple varieties), along with some pre-made combinations behind the counter.  We ordered the same lineup as we did from Beigel Bake, ran across the street, and grabbed a bench in Finsbury Park to chow down.

Result? Largely unremarkable.  The bagels themselves were rather doughy and bland, and about the same size as what we found at Beigel Bake.  The cream cheese was good, as it was at Beigel Bake, while the smoked salmon was of better quality, actually quite good.  The salt beef was rather horrible though: bland, cold, slathered in an unpleasantly mayonnaise-y mustard.  Blah.

Sadly, the bagels here just aren’t up to snuff, and more reminiscent of what you’d get from that NY cart seller.  Perhaps the pre-made combinations had been sitting for too long, or perhaps the turnover at Beigel Bake is higher, giving you a better shot a fresher bagel whenever you arrive, where Happening’s are from earlier in the day?  We can’t say.  We’ll continue our search, but for now, Biegel Bake will be the go-to stop, crowds be damned!

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