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The NYC Blizzard Bagel Challenge, 2016

Senior critic Robert Sietsema embarks on a bagel taste test during the great blizzard

The snow was already falling thick and fast by the time we left our respective homes to gather the bagels. Cars careered across the damp and icy streets, and buses were running a half hour late, though on the West Side most businesses had decide it was better to open up, no matter for how long. On the avenues of Manhattan, a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Dogs romped in the growing drifts as children pulled makeshift sleds.

The week before, five friends and I had decided to stage a bagel challenge. We’d been arguing about which establishment makes the best lox and cream cheese sandwich on a bagel – an icon of Jewish-American cuisine if ever there were one. We first decided that such a sandwich should also contain raw onions and tomatoes, the first for a sharp flavor that could stand up to the salty and smoky salmon, the second for sweetness and added moisture. We also determined to use sesame bagels for nutty nuance.

We’d also agreed to make a quest and a contest of it. Each of us would gather examples of the sandwich from our corners of the island, and then meet at a central point to make a quasi-scientific comparison. And we concluded that, for the sake of do-ability, we’d limit our acquisitions to seven or so examples, including some of the most famous in the city.

But then Jonas struck. Would we give up our plans? Hell, no! The blizzard only made us more determined. And so we gathered around 1 p.m. at a West Village townhouse, bagels and prepared charts in hand. We sniffed the bagel sandwiches. Then we weighed, described, and sliced them into quarters for easy passing around. We vowed to judge the specimens impartially, no matter from what neighborhood we’d come from or prejudices we’d already developed.

Tasting Notes

Barney Greengrass ($14, 14 ounces) – Of this venerable Upper West Side institution, everyone agreed the tomatoes on the sandwich were sweet and juicy, though "the lox were slightly less flavorful" than some others. The bagel itself was particularly good, with a decent amount of cream cheese spread above and below, and "more assertive" white onions instead of the usual sweet purples. Scores: 8, 8.5, 7.5, 9, 6

Ess-A-Bagel ($11.60, 14 ounces) – This place, which moved from Stuyvesant Town up to the East Side not long ago, is famous for its big bagels. "Too much cream cheese" groused one judge, so that "it’s difficult to taste the lox." The bagel was judged great, but the overall sandwich rather mediocre. "This tastes Tex-Mex to me," said one participant. Scores: 6, 6, 6, 5, 5

Brooklyn Bagel ($12.15, 16.5 ounces) – This Queens-based bagel bakery boasts four locations, none in Brooklyn. The bagel was a whopper, and had more sesame seeds than any other, leading to an enhanced fragrance. The bagel is "big but not heavy," noted one judge, while another noted that the lox had a "very smoky flavor." Scores: 8, 8, 8, 8, 6.5

Zabar’s ($12.95, no tax charged, 10.25 ounces) – The sandwich at the famous grocery was more compact that usual, and the lox oily as all get out, which isn’t a bad thing, though it left a grease trail everywhere it went. "I like the dense fishiness," said one, while another complained, "this bagel is too damn sweet," leading to comparisons with H & H, once the UWS’s most famous bagelry. Scores: 5, 6.5, 7.5, 7, 5.5

Hudson Bagel ($8.50, 11.25 ounces) – Hudson is a small independent bagel shop in the West Village, and though its product was the cheapest (that’s good, right?), both the bagel and the pallid preserved fish were low on flavor, and the entire package received a resounding "meh" among all participants. One judge exclaimed, "It tastes funny!" Scores: 3.5, 4.5, 4.5, 3, 2

Davidovich ($8.14, 10.75 ounces) – This Queens bagel bakery has lately gotten into the retail game, first at Essex Market and most recently at Chelsea Market. It also produces bagels for Barney Greengrass (see above). Its bagels are kosher and compact, and one judge noted that "the sandwich stays nicely intact." It featured the smokiest lox, but was also heavy on cream cheese, which sadly dominated the assemblage. Scores: 5, 7.5, 6.5, 7, 6

Russ & Daughters ($12.75, 11 ounces) – Poor Russ & Daughters! Even though it went into the competition a sentimental favorite, and was predicted to have a good chance of winning, the bagel felt "stale," said one participant, while noting that the tomato was especially good and sweet. The lox were up to par, though one judge had to resort to Yiddish to describe our disappointment with the package: "This bagel is a shonda," meaning "shame." Scores: 6, 7.5, 7, 5, 4

The Final Rankings

1. Barney Greengrass, 39 points total

2. Brooklyn Bagel, 38.5 points total

3. Davidovich, 32 points total

4. Zabar’s, 31.5 points total

5. Russ & Daughters, 29.5 points total

6. Ess-A-Bagel, 28 points total

7. Hudson Bagels, 17.5 points total

Longest Wait for a Bagel: Ess-A-Bagel, 1 hour and 20 minutes

Address and Phone Numbers:

Barney Greengrass (541 Amsterdam Ave, 212-724-4707)

Brooklyn Bagel (286 8th Ave, 212-924-2824)

Davidovich (Chelsea Market, 75 9th Ave)

Zabar’s (2245 Broadway, 212-787-2000)

Russ & Daughters (179 E Houston St, 212-475-4880)

Ess-A-Bagel (831 3rd Ave, 212-980-1010)

Hudson Bagels (502 Hudson St, 212-367-8809)

The Participants: Melody Brandston, Sara Brandston, Ted Brandston, Sheila Fay, Robert Sietsema, Kat Siti

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