Food critic Andrew Lipstein reviews the offerings at five local bagel shops.
When bagels were invented in 16th century Krakow, they were not the doughy donut they are today. They weren't a production either. Cream cheese, lox, capers and beefsteak tomatoes were absent. The roll wasn't even sliced.
It originally competed with the much more popular obwarzanek: a twisted, hole-y bread very similar to the bagel. But today, half a millennium later, the bagel competes not with its weirdo Polish cousin, but with itself. Ladies and gentlemen, the Bagel Showdown.
At each spot, I tested one plain bagel with plain cream cheese and one out-of-the-ordinary bagel. This meant something like a blueberry bagel and pumpkin cream cheese (or a pumpkin bagel with walnut raisin cream cheese). The bagels were rated on "bagelness" (doughy vs. bready), taste, substantiality and freshness (the bagels were tried around the same time in the morning to be judicious). A "doughy" bagel is one that pulls rather than crumbles when it's ripped – like a warm, eggy loaf, rather than a slice of cold whole wheat bread.
This battle royale features five warriors. To hit all of these spots, all you need to do drive along South Avenue, from downtown Fanwood to the end of Westfield. There's the two local titans: the 30-year-old, award-winning Bagel Chateau of Westfield and the beloved Fanwood Bagels & Deli. There's the two chains: Dunkin' Donuts in Fanwood and Manhattan Bagels in Westfield. And, there's the underdog, Westfield Bagels & Café – new to the scene and positioned in a locale with less than stellar luck.
Fanwood Bagels & Deli
Scotch Plains and Fanwood residents swear by Fanwood Bagels (Martine Avenue, right off South Avenue), and for good reason. You always get the same doughy goodness with a more than generous slab of cream cheese. The plain bagel with cream cheese had a remarkable crust, achieved a perfect texture and was fresh. The taste was clean and, well, like a bagel should taste.
I also ordered the pumpkin bagel with walnut raisin cream cheese. It had great bagelness (bagebility? bagelitude? bagelition?), although it tasted somewhat plain. It was extremely substantial and the cream cheese had more spice (nutmeg, cinnamon and perhaps allspice) than expected, in a good way.
Total price: $4.65
Bagel Chateau lies on the other end of South Avenue and on the other end of the menu spectrum. Serving a whole range of deli offerings, it was hard to just order the two bagels. The bagel was solid and substantial but a bit tough, which detracted from the feeling of freshness. The texture and the taste, however, were both very doughy. Unfortunately, the cream cheese was a bit like butter, both in texture and taste. It's possible you enjoy such a taste, but this reviewer does not.
I ordered a blueberry bagel with pumpkin cream cheese. I know the combination sounds out there, but it blended well (most likely because the cream cheese didn't have a strong flavor). The blueberry bagel tasted more like its advertised flavor than most, and the cream cheese could have been labeled as walnut maple and I wouldn't have noticed the difference. The flavored bagel also came with a side of chips and a slice of pickle.
Total price: $5.01
Over the past few years, D&D has worked to expand its menu to include items such as flatbreads, Italian sandwiches and Caesar salads. From the quality of bagels, however, it seems they should have spent more time on the classics. The plain bagel was bready, not very fresh and tasted artificial. They skimped on the cream cheese, which separated from the bagel.
When I visited, they didn't offer any interesting bagels; I settled on the multigrain with strawberry cream cheese. The bagel was more crumbly than any involved in the competition, unfortunately bland and stale tasting. The strawberry cream cheese was a bit much in terms of sweetness.
Total price: $4.26
It's no wonder a bagel chain named themselves after the (debatably) Mecca of bagels: Manhattan. But Manhattan Bagel is in Westfield and the bagels don't taste like they're from the Big Apple. The plain bagel had a great crust but was not doughy at all. It wasn't very fresh, the taste was bland and it had a mediocre level of substantiality. Lastly, the cream cheese had an unpleasant buttery flavor.
I couldn't help but order the French toast bagel, which tasted exactly like its namesake. I also got the honey almond cream cheese, which unfortunately took the place of the store's walnut raisin cream cheese years ago. It was very sweet, not viscous enough and didn't taste of almond.
Total price: $5.11
Westfield Bagels & Café
Westfield Bagel lies right before traffic circle on South Avenue, a spot that's been hard for business because of its location and minimal parking. The plain bagel was more bready than I usually like, but it had a nice flavor. Also, although it's less traditional, a breadier bagel makes for a better sandwich. Like at bagel chateau, the cream cheese tasted too strongly of butter. It also separated from the bagel too easily. Overall, Westfield Bagel had the product with the most substantiality.
I ordered the cinnamon raisin bagel with its corresponding walnut raisin cream cheese. The bagel was full of raisins, but nothing compared to the chockfull spread. The cream cheese was strong, thick and powerful. It tasted a little stale at different parts, but really overtook the bagel with a unique flavor.
Total price: $4.25
The easiest conclusion to reach is that the local joints won out over the chains in almost every category. Besides the authentic French toast bagel at Manhattan Bagels, the chains' bagels tasted (predictably) manufactured and bready. Westfield Bagel had some startlingly tasty offerings; the walnut raisin cream cheese was a kick in the mouth. However, the regular cream cheese and breadiness of the plain bagel held it back. That leaves Bagel Chateau and Fanwood Bagels. While Bagel Chateau's bagel came with chips and a pickle, the cream cheeses were too buttery or bland to fully complement the bagel. Fanwood Bagel achieved the perfect bagel without going overboard. When you need to hit the bagel spot, the best place to go is undoubtedly Fanwood Bagel.
The Bagel Showdown winner is: Fanwood Bagels & Deli.
Let the debate begin.