This past Saturday I attended Yom Kippur "break fast" at my boyfriend’s house. It’s my favorite of the Jewish holidays mainly because it equates to eating delectably-topped bagels and drinking champagne and, quite frankly, how much better does it get? It is, after all, hard to go wrong when it comes to family and food.
In his house, the long dining room table was lined with the creamiest cream cheese, a variety of salads, a basket of bagels, and of course, a selection of fish for DIY sandwiches. I quickly got after it, building myself a cream-cheese laden Nova sandwich. Yes, that’s right, Nova. Not lox, my friends. Nova lox. There’s a difference, as my boyfriend’s 89 year-old Jewish Nani taught me, and it’s remarkable. Nova lox is significantly less salty and tends to have a smoother texture to it as well, making it much more delightful to nosh on than its normal lox counterpart.
Anyway, I wasted no time dressing up half of a bagel and taking a satisfying chomp into my creation. Somewhere within my first bite into Nova heaven, I briefly blacked out due to deliciousness, only to come to a moment later to Matt asking me if I wanted my other half toasted. Naturally, I agreed. Without hesitation, Matt stood up and took his and my bagels to the convection oven. And, so, the debate began. Around the table, each person chimed in with his or her thoughts.
The question at hand: to toast or not to toast?
In die-hard bagel communities (see: Jersey, New York, Jewish), toasting bagels is – well, it’s not exactly kosher. It is believed by bagel traditionalists that the wonder-bread is meant to be enjoyed as is. To toast a bagel is to scoff at the art that went into making it. As such, many of the so-called “artisan” variations are generally rejected. E.G. Blueberry bagel with cinnamon-walnut cream cheese: apologies, but there is simply no place for you here.
Don’t mistake this as me casting judgment, though. My typical order is a whole-wheat everything bagel, scooped and toasted, with jalepeno-cheddar cream cheese, extra crunchy lettuce and two juicy slices of tomato. I know, I know; it’s a bit racy. But, it wasn’t always this way.
Growing up in Jersey, I have a definite appreciation for what a good bagel is comprised of: a rounded rise, a crispy shell, not too large or small, and just the right density of dough inside. In fact, I would argue that New Jersey tops New York in the best bagel category, hands down. Sure, New York’s bagels are competitive (and a NY pizza certainly reigns supreme) but Hot Bagel Bakery in Oakhurst, NJ: you rock my world… which is interesting because, to this day, the Hot Bagel Bakery’s toaster, that at one time did not even exist, now always seems to be mysteriously broken.
And so it goes.
The sentiments, while light-hearted, are valid, which makes one wonder: where is the best bagel & Nova sandwich in NYC? To this point, we go back to our 89 year-old Jewish Nani, because guess what? She’s the boss.
Nani maintains that Barney Greengrass on 86th and Amsterdam on the Upper West Side has her favorite and most authentic Nova sandwich in town. When speaking of the restaurant, she becomes lively in the way a person does only when sharing their fondest memories. Needless to say, Matt and I i had to pay the place a visit.
Coincidentally enough, Barney Greengrass lies smack dab in between our two apartments. When we sauntered in, it was 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, opening time that is, and the regulars were filtering in. The place is separated into two sections; the first, a narrow hall flanked by racks of potato chips on one side and a deli counter full of the most vibrant staples of nova, sturgeon and whitefish on the other; the second, a small dining room with simple table-scapes, old wall paper and direct-yet-kind waiters.
Upon receiving my coffee, I immediately regretted not ordering the fresh orange juice that all the other patrons seemed to have decided on. I will admit: the coffee is not Barney Greengrass' strong point. Then again, perhaps coffee and fish is not the best pairing, anyway.
Nonetheless, when the nova platter came out, all was well again. A pile of perfect nova was complemented by red onion, pickles, a slice of the brightest tomato, a few kalamata olives and a thick slab of delicious cream cheese. The bagel is light enough to not overwhelm its toppings, but dense enough not to be confused with some other flour-made treat.
In other words, it was perfect.
While the debate will never end, a number of other long-standing champions of the "perfect bagel & lox" also deserve some credit. So, if a trip to the Upper West isn't in the near future for you, allow me to suggest Lower East Side legend Russ and Daughters, Brooklyn new-comer Mile End or perhaps West Village/Chelsea dominator Murray's Bagels - who, by the way, have a strict "no toasting" rule.
But if you want to come to the oldest place in town, and more importantly, if you want to visit a place so charming as to receive Nani's stamp of approval? Well, then, you've gotta come to Barney Greengrass.