Few breakfast foods inspire more emotion and regional loyalty than the bagel. So brace yourself for the latest contender: the Cleveland bagel. Yes, Cleveland. In Ohio. The gauntlet throwers? Geoff Hardman and Dan Herbst of Cleveland Bagel Co. For the last three years, they’ve gone from novice bakers to local heroes by making what they describe as a Cleveland-style bagel, an “old world” variety boiled in malt syrup and water that’s distinct from the voluptuous New York standard-bearer, as well as the smaller, sweeter, Montreal variety. It took them a year to perfect the Cleveland bagel style, they told the Wall Street Journal, and they think it can rival some of the best New York has to offer.
“You won’t find a bagel like ours anywhere else,” Herbst said.
Customers, including some pretty high profile ones, agree.
“There are many shops that claim to be phenomenal that aren’t even playing the same game as Cleveland Bagels,” James Beard Award-winning chef and Clevelander Jonathon Sawyer told the Journal.
Oh, hell no, says Evan Giniger, owner of Kossar’s Bakery & Deli, a Lower East Side institution that’s been selling bagels and bialys from an old-school Polish recipe since 1936. “Anybody can take a piece of bread and shape it into a circle and call it a bagel,” he says. But the Cleveland bagel is always going to stand in the shadow of the New York variety, with its fluffy and chewy inside and crispy exterior, the bagel that, according to Giniger, has defined the product for more than a century.
"I’m never one to stifle innovation or competition, but I think that it’s a little gimmicky in a way to say that Cleveland is now going to somehow miraculously evolve as an epicenter,” he adds. “Anybody can make a sparkling bubbly wine and call it Champagne, but real Champagne only comes from a certain region in France. You can call it Champagne and people might drink it, but does that make it Champagne? I think not.”
Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, thinks New Yorkers should be more open-minded.
“I understand why New Yorkers are very loyal to their bagel, but I also think to dismiss bagels from anywhere else is silly because it really depends on the quality of the product,” she says.
Balinska’s favorite bagels are made in London, where she lived for a time. And while she affirms that some excellent artisanal bagels are made in New York, she’s disappointed that bagels there have generally gotten bigger and less flavorful than their European ancestors. She hasn’t tried Cleveland-style bagels, but she’s open to the idea that another city could give New York a run for its money.
“I think there’s room for everybody.”