Amid the city’s thrilling new bakery boom, from Australian-import Bourke Street to Swedish cult favorite Fabrique, it’s worth remembering that one of this generation’s great boulangeres is again plying her trade back in New York. Melissa Weller — the sticky bun maestro who put in major stints at Per Se, Roberta’s, Sadelle’s, and elsewhere — has been reshaping the breads and sweets at High Street on Hudson since earlier this year. One could go on about any number of her offerings, from cardamom cinnamon buns, scented like a fragrant sauna, to the black sesame kouign amanns, Breton pastries that boast a nutty, bitter complexity.
But today, let’s take a look at a Weller creation that could use a bit more attention, and one that riffs on a dish that’s as quintessentially New York as a hot pretzel: the salt bagel.
People like to use the word “challenging” for things like roasted kidneys or Michael Haneke films. A salt bagel is even more of a stretch, intellectually and physically. Elsewhere in the city, it is a dish so saline that it would make a glass of seawater taste like Evian. The sodium causes one’s tongue to feel pickled. Ever watch that web series that depicts celebrities answering questions while sampling hot wings? There should be a version where beautiful people try to get through one of these bagels while their tiny pores turn white and desiccated.
Here’s how I typically approach the delicacy: I order one, walk to the nearest street curb, scrape off the exterior, find a restroom, wash off my hands so the salt stops burning the skin under my fingernails, and then eat the delicious breakfast. I think of this as the boulangerie equivalent of baking a fish in salt, which is to say one doesn’t actually eat all the heart-stopping exterior. It’s simply there to season the fine bread.
But the Weller bagel, which is a salt and pepper bagel, obviates the need for all these antics. Instead of the standard-issue, coarse rock salt, Weller flecks her creation with a more delicate fleur de sel. It gently crunches without overwhelming one’s tongue, electrolyte balance, or cardiovascular system. And laced inside the bagel is a proper dose of cracked butcher’s grind black pepper.
Once upon a time at Sadelle’s, where Weller was once the marquee name, the pepper would warm up the palate with the power of a fiery Sichuan dish. It was breathtaking. Here, the heat is a more restrained. The duo of seasonings serve to gently amplify the beauty of the bagel itself, smaller than most, with a larger-than-normal hole. Weller writes in an email that she boils the bagels longer than she had in the past, “to get a shinier crust and proof the insides a little more.”
The texture is simultaneously soft yet markedly chewy. A mix of yeast and sourdough starter ensures the interior is thoroughly flavorful, with none of the generically dense white fluff that can plague lesser bagels. For those who care about taxonomy, I’d call the sizing halfway between a New York bagel and a Montreal one.
During an early visit this spring, shortly after Weller came on board, the kitchen sliced my bagel in half and smeared it with malted butter. The effect was extraordinary: The umami rich spread, with a touch of sugar and Vegemite-style tang, offset the salt and heat with the precision of a physics equation. High Street dropped that fascinating option last week, but the classic sweet butter option acts as a decent enough foil for all the flaky salt.
I’m calling the bagels ($2 apiece, or $4 with butter), along with the cardamom buns ($5) and black sesame kouign amanns ($5), a BUY. And let’s hope High Street brings back that malted butter.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).