LESSONS WERE LEARNED in The Great Seattle-Area Bagel Taste Test of 2018. If you live around here and have undertaken any significant amount of bagel-sampling, Lesson 1 will not surprise you: Seattle-area bagels are, overall, not very good. The intensive research I conducted mostly caused me sorrow — the doughiness, the pallor, the from-a-plastic-bag-at-an-endless-conference-room-meeting-existential-despair quality — and my colleagues who helped with the taste-testing grew to dread my arrival in the newsroom during those difficult days.
Lesson 2: Eltana bagels are good, but they are Montreal-style, so they make some people angry.
Lesson 3: New-at-the-time Westman’s bagels are also good, but they had some issues with inconsistency (in bagel size and doughiness) and with capacity (i.e., they often ran out of bagels). The operation is now expanding, so we may hope for amelioration rather than deterioration.
Lesson 4: It is possible, very possible, to get sick of bagels, especially if you’re eating a lot of pretty terrible ones every day for a week.
Lesson 5: One can sample all the bagels in an entire city, sacrificing oneself and becoming sick of bagels in the process, then nobly, helpfully share one’s findings, and many, many people will disagree, because …
Lesson 6: Bagel beauty is in the eye — and the mouth — of the beholder. (Unless you’re from New York, in which case you are definitely right and the rest of us are so, so wrong.) People will email, at length, in defense of their favorite bagel. People will also be sure to let you know that you failed to realize that Italian grocer Little Lago makes bagels, and that you should’ve taste-tested them, too; ditto that you should’ve gone to Bellingham to include The Bagelry.
The big take-away: Considering the forceful feelings that they inspire, judging bagels is fairly futile. My best bagel might not be yours, and vice versa; who am I to impose my bagel worldview upon you? So I’m just going to say that if you like bagels and have found yourself troubled by the majority of Seattle’s options, you should go try brand-new Rubinstein Bagels. (You should probably also go try also-brand-new Zylberschtein’s and pop-up LoxSmith, but we’re going to take these one bagel at a time.)
Andrew Rubinstein lives in Sammamish and is an artist, father of three and a consultant to Seattle’s (great) nonprofit Tilth Alliance as well as a bagel-maker. He himself is opinionated about bagels — as adamant as any self-respecting New Yorker, even though he’s from Milwaukee. To give a sense of where he lies along the bagel spectrum, he holds New York’s H&H up as exemplary, while he finds Ess-A-Bagel’s popularity “astounding” — “gut bombs,” he calls them, “gigantic, ugly bellybutton things.”
When it comes to Seattle’s bagels, Rubinstein starts out semi-diplomatic. “I think there are people who are doing some OK things,” he says. “I think there’s a little bit of a zeitgeist happening.” But: “I’m super underwhelmed by the bagels.” Nobody’s properly “developing the structure of the dough,” he elaborates. Finally, he wholly damns with faint praise: “They’re better than Einstein.”
After eating a disappointing local bagel — he claims to not remember the name of the purveyor — Rubinstein decided to try making his own. He didn’t believe what he calls “the myth of the water,” the idea that West Coast bagels can never be as good because of the different qualities of our H2O. He worked on his recipe for a year — “with a ton of advice from my father, my cousin, friends and books, and many, many iterations.” When he got fired from his job in sales at a brand marketing firm, he decided to pursue what made him truly happy: making bagels.
Rubinstein bagels are made out of organic flour, with half the grain sourced from the great state of Washington. Rubinstein uses a 10-year-old sourdough starter that he got from a friend; the bagels get a 24-hour slow ferment, boiled in lye, and baked on a stone hearth. “I lit upon what I think is truly a delight,” Rubinstein says. “A bagel that has a crust. A bagel that has a chew. A bagel that the dough tastes like something.” He’s careful to not claim New York style. “I’m just making a bagel,” he says — “one you want to keep coming back for.”
In order to see about that, you’ll need to get yourself to Ethan Stowell’s new Cortina Cafe in downtown Seattle. That’s not quite as easy as it sounds: It’s on the second floor of the Two Union Square office building at Seventh and Union, in the very posh, spacious lobby beyond the elevators. (Enter near the original Cortina, a ground-floor restaurant, go up two escalators, then keep going straight, or find your way from the labyrinthine parking garage to the lobby.) Rubinstein says the Stowell connection is a lucky one, through a mutual friend; he fed Stowell bagels, and now Cortina Cafe is functioning as a sort of bagel-business incubator. (“He makes a good bagel,” Stowell says. “There’s no doubt about that.”)
So at 3 o’clock in the morning every weekday, Rubinstein brings his sourdough starter to Cortina, where he makes more dough, then boils and bakes today’s bagels for the upstairs cafe. The restaurant’s kitchen is not at all specially set up for the job, which has its challenges — for instance, the bagels get boiled in a tilt skillet, not in a bagel kettle. “My arms are scarred with burns,” Rubinstein says, “and the adjustment to being a morning person is kind of cuckoo.
“I love what I’m doing, however.”
He wants to fill what he still sees as a bagel-shaped void in the city, as well as in Bellevue — he hopes to be making bagels on both sides of the lake, in shops that aren’t oddly lodged in an office building’s second-floor lobby, by sometime next year.
Are his bagels worthy? Only you can be the judge of that.