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It’s now a truism that you can get great bagels in the Bay Area. Joining the crowd are three new bagel-making operations that have come to our attention, and all are worth trying — that is, if you can get your hands on the goods.
Midnite is the project of Nick Beitcher, a Jewish chef and baker who was born in San Francisco, grew up in New York and spent his teen years in Santa Monica.
“Bagels were always around,” he said, recalling his father returning from the gym with a fresh bag of bagels and all the schmears. “It was the closest thing I had to an ethnic staple.”
Beitcher cooked professionally for many years, working at Thomas Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se and Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse. At some point he decided to follow his interests and take a yearlong detour into artisan bread baking. But the detour lasted much longer than that.
Most recently, he worked at San Francisco’s famed Tartine Bakery. By the time he left in April, he was running its bread program and had been there for eight years.
Beitcher launched Midnite Bagel out of Tartine in June 2019. Because the bagels were available only on Wednesday nights, I never found a good time to get into the city and try one. But given Tartine’s global influence on the artisan bread world, when the head of its bread program starts making bagels, you pretty much have to take notice.
“I’m taking what I learned at Tartine about naturally leavened bread and applying it to bagels,” Beitcher said.
He starts with high-quality flour, and the bagels undergo a treatment similar to the bread at Tartine — except, of course, that they’re also boiled.
“I’m aiming for a balanced acidity. They’re not New York and they’re not Montreal, but the goal is to create a San Francisco take on a bagel,” he said. “I love bagels, obviously, but I want something a little different from what I grew up eating. I want something closer to the bread I can get in the city right now than to a traditional New York bagel.”
Schmears aren’t available yet but he plans to have them in the future. He’s also eyeing his own shop when the time is right. In the meantime, his bagels and rye bread can be found at the Ferry Building farmers market on Tuesdays, and soon Saturdays, and preorders can be placed on his website and picked up at the market.
Reesa Kashuk was born and raised in Lower Manhattan, where “bagels were a pretty big deal,” she said. “They were definitely one of my favorite foods, and we were a Russ & Daughters family.” No matter where they got their bagels, she said, they were always good.
On the one hand, she said “bagels were a run-of-the-mill food, but on the other, they also had a bit of emotional significance.”
Kashuk moved to the Bay Area to work in advertising six years ago and started experimenting in her kitchen when she couldn’t find bagels that satisfied her craving for a taste of home.
“I think I made my first bagel about five years ago, but had no intention of turning it into a business,” she said.
It was only when she began bringing the bagels to the office and got great feedback from her coworkers that she began to think about starting a business. For about a year, Kashuk was juggling her full-time advertising job with baking crazy hours in the early mornings.
Then came the coronavirus. Working at home gave her time to do deliveries, and that gave her the momentum she needed to move ahead with the business.
Kashuk hand-rolls each bagel. “My process is pretty traditional,” she said.
She cold-ferments the bagels for a minimum of 36 hours, which brings out their flavor and creates the small bubbles on the exterior. Then they are boiled with a bit of lye, which gives them the browned and hardened exterior.
She’s a purist with her flavors, but if you’re ordering a seeded bagel, you’ll get it seeded on both sides. Why? Because Kashuk prefers them that way.
She takes more creative liberty with her schmears. In addition to traditional flavors, such as scallion, some schmears are a bit more out there, including jalapeño, sun-dried tomato and a seasonal offering. When I tried her bagels recently, the seasonal schmear was beet poppy seed.
“The schmears give me more room to be playful and bring in that California sensibility,” Kashuk said.
The chew and flavor of a Poppy Bagel are indeed more reminiscent of a New York bagel than most of the local ones I’ve tried. The beet schmear is a bubble-gum pink, which is a bit odd to look at but definitely delicious.
Poppy Bagels aren’t so easy to get; the city’s Noe Café — that’s where Kashuk got her start — sells them on Saturdays only, and they can be ordered for delivery or pickup at her kitchen in Oakland, but she always sells out in seconds online. Following her on Instagram is your best bet until she scales up.
Schlok’s Bagels & Lox
Schlok’s is a project of Zack Schwab, a Bay Area native (born in the city, he grew up in Berkeley, Menlo Park and San Jose) and partial owner of The Snug, an S.F. restaurant and bar, and his partner chef James Lok, who has worked in the kitchens of destination restaurants like the Restaurant at Meadowood, Jardiniere and most recently Benu.
The name Schlok combines both of their names, and Schwab gets the irony. “It was too perfect, as it means garbage in Yiddish,” he said, “and we’re trying to make the best bagels.” If anyone wonders whether the name reflects the quality of the product, just look to the website’s FAQs for the answer: “Oy vey… just eat a bagel and stop kvetching.”
Schwab grew up in a family where the lack of good Bay Area bagels was a frequent topic of conversation. Furthermore, he noticed that with Covid, people were wanting comfort food. At least, he was.
Schwab started trying to put the bagel bug in Lok’s ear, but at the same time, “I wondered whether a chef of James’ caliber is really going to want to make bagels,” he said.
To his great surprise, it wasn’t that hard to convince him. Lok understood the appeal and saw it as a challenge.
“Even though I don’t have the cultural background and I haven’t lived in New York, I love a good bagel and I think it’s such a simple product, and yet it doesn’t get as much credit as it should as it’s a fairly intricate process,” said Lok.
The two make an ideal team, with Schwab bringing the nostalgic connection and Lok acting as “more of a scientist, trying to achieve more of an objective goal.”
Lok and Schwab are not trying to copy a New York bagel, as they believe food has a sense of place.
“New York bagels are more like white bread, and that’s misaligned with what the Bay Area consumer is looking for,” said Schwab. “While the New York bagel is a kind of holy grail, it didn’t feel right to copy them entirely.”
One area in which they are aspiring is size. These are some of the largest bagels I’ve seen, anywhere. They may even outdo New York’s Ess-a-Bagel.
Schwab wants Shlock bagels to be a meal in themselves. They are seeded on the bottom instead of the top, which Lok said he decided to do after watching lots of how-to videos and liked how they turned out.
Although the bagels don’t use sourdough starter, they have a distinct sourdough flavor.
The schmears are particularly cheffy, with scallions and other mix-ins resting on top. Not only do the toppings stay fresher that way, but it’s easier to tell quickly what the flavor is, something that streamlines the process with everyone now ordering takeout. I especially loved the salmon cream cheese, which has finely chopped pieces of smoked salmon, and one that offers a pastrami experience with onion, sauerkraut and a pastrami-like spice rub.
They are also doing their own lox, which comes in tissue paper-like slices, as it should.
Schwab said they hope to open a shop but for now are just doing pop-ups on weekends; bagels can be picked up at The Snug. See the website for details.