Bagel trash-talking: Seattle throws it down

Eating on the Edge: Eltana cafe on Capitol Hill has the perfect formula and new evening hours. Just don't mention Montreal while you're there.

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Eating on the Edge: Eltana cafe on Capitol Hill has the perfect formula and new evening hours. Just don't mention Montreal while you're there.

Pedestrian as 99 percent of all bagels are — the typical grocery counter/deli bagel is rubbery, listless, and puffy — it is difficult to convey how special, how transcendent a good one can be. And by some fluke, some of that rare 1 percent now happens to be made here, more than 100 dozen each day, at the Eltana café in Capitol Hill.

The luck involved, the likelihood of a bagel of this caliber somehow landing here, is hard to figure. For anyone who lives within five miles of this place and loves carbs, this is a seismic shift in the quality of life. This is one more reason to live here. The bagel is that good. And that rare.

To my understanding, even in the bagel capital of the country, New York City, you cannot (yet) get the kind of goods produced at Eltana, which opened earlier this year for breakfast and lunch. Tonight (Thursday, May 12), Eltana will stay open at night for the first time.

Although the café (decorated in a style I’d describe as rustic industrial chic) is clearly presented for an upmarket crowd, the bagels are dirt cheap for what they are: $1 each or $11.50 for a baker’s dozen (13).

Eltana’s bagels are dense, gently sweet, soft and chewy on the inside but a little hard on the outside. Because they are baked in a gas-wood hybrid oven, the bagels have a little bit of smoke and char to them. They are slightly irregular in shape and smaller than what most of us are used to.

For those who read my last article on the subject, Eltana makes bagels in the Montreal tradition, a fact its founders neither tout nor encourage. The word Montreal goes unmentioned on its menu, its signage, and its website, and only grudgingly slips past the lips of Stephen Brown, the lifelong entrepreneur responsible for bringing the Montreal-style bagel to Seattle. The word “Montreal” is Brown’s Voldemort, that which must not be mentioned. He prefers to call it a “deliciously different bagel.”

“We did encounter a bagel in a certain city that we enjoyed,” Brown said. “We don’t say we don’t know what you’re talking about, that would be insincere…they are made in the Montreal style.”

And while he said he is “not interested in replicating” the Montreal bagel in Seattle, he did exactly that. Eltana stands apart in its presentation.

“We’re trying to put it in a different context,” Brown said, indicating his café is not a deli as most bagel shops in Montreal and elsewhere are.

The word Eltana is made-up and means nothing in particular. It does not sound French. It does not evoke images of Montreal or of bagels. The concept behind Eltana’s menu is “Mediterranean street food,” Brown said — hummus and other zesty spreads made of fava bean, eggplant, and dates. There is couscous, tangy lentil soup, a Turkish interpretation of moussaka.

Of all the reasons Brown gives for not using the word “Montreal” when speaking of Eltana and its bagels, the most simple and logical is this one: “Most people wouldn’t know what we’re talking about.”

Good point. Few Americans are familiar with the Montreal version of the bagel because that version is virtually nonexistent in the U.S. Even in Canada, they are not easy to find outside of Montreal, although Siegel’s in Vancouver (which I wrote about last year) sells them.

Eltana's are better. I’ll go even further and say that Eltana’s bagels are the best-made, most delicious bagel anywhere in the U.S., including New York City (where I lived, off and on, for most of a decade). To the extent they can be compared, the Canadian bagel is superior to the American bagel.

American bagels are bred to be vehicles for sandwiches. They are getting so plump, they are starting to lose their holes, metaphors for our super-size, SUV culture. By comparison, the Canadian bagel is trim and quirky, with a hole far too big to be suitable for a sandwich.

Eltana bagels are rolled by hand and simmered in honey-sweetened water (which renders them slightly sticky out of the oven). They are baked on a plank, then flipped over so that when done the bagels have no flat bottom but two rounded, symmetrical halves. Eltana’s hybrid oven (custom-made in Bellingham) burns apple wood, cut from dead orchards in eastern Washington. The wood on display behind the counter, incidentally, is fir and is never used in the ovens. It simply looks good.

Daniel Levin, employee No. 1 and the head baker at Eltana, learned his craft in a one-month immersion course at Montreal’s legendary St. Viateur bagel bakery. Brown paid St. Viateur’s owner to teach Levin. Although the bagel tradition in Montreal was started by Canadian Jews, St. Viateur is owned by an Italian-Canadian family and employs two bakers from Poland and Colombia, Levin’s mentors for a month.

“We were not the first to approach him,” said Levin, 25, who grew up in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. “The owner was not eager to share anything.”

Luckily for Eltana, St. Viateur’s bakers, who had 50 years of combined experience, were much more generous with their knowledge. Growing up in Seattle around a general dearth of superior bagels, Levin sensed there was pent-up demand.

“All my life, I’d never met a single person from Montreal,” Levin said. “Since we opened, I’ve met a hundred.”

New Yorkers, too, have flocked to Eltana. They might be unfamiliar with the Montreal bagel, but they know how to appreciate a bagel with “heart,” Brown said.

It’s no accident that Seattle created teriyaki, or that Houston has great Vietnamese food, or that Brooklyn has a ton of Ukrainian restaurants. Revolutions, wars, labor shortages, and other geo-political forces made all that inevitable. But there was no particular reason the Montreal bagel should have happened in Seattle. If Brown’s plans succeed, he will open more stores in the city and eventually open Eltana in other cities.

Brown grew up in Toronto and attended McGill University in Montreal. He moved to the Bay Area to attend Stanford’s business school, where he met his wife, and with his college roommate opened his first restaurant in Palo Alto: an oyster bar.

He and his wife moved to Hong Kong for a few years to work. When they went about deciding where to live next, they settled on Seattle for no special reason except that it seemed a pleasant place to live, and, as a Pacific Rim city, suited his Taiwanese-born wife.

Brown and a business partner opened Entros in 1993, a restaurant that featured interactive social games. Eltana is Brown’s third venture, one inspired by his experience as a college student eating at the Fairmount Bagel shop in Montreal. Fairmount and St. Viateur are the two bagel giants in that city.

His first recruit was Levin, who had no real experience baking, but had the spirit Brown was looking for. Brown wanted someone young, so he spent eight months asking his older friends if they knew of anyone who fit the bill, thinking they would have children about the right age.

Levin grew up working in his aunt’s catering business, prepping ingredients as young as age 13. After college, he worked in the auto parts industry — he was laid off in 2008 — sold bio-degradable cleaning solvents, worked at a golf course, and even did some day-trading before joining Brown.

Levin, who grew up on bagels from Bagel Oasis, might just be the only person in the country who makes Montreal-style bagels for a living, although he won’t be alone much longer.

The Mile End Deli in Brooklyn is the only other place in the U.S. that currently sells Montreal bagels (for $2.50). Its owner orders them from St. Viateur and has them driven in from Montreal every night. It will soon get some competition. This month, the B&B Empire café, also in Brooklyn, is expected to open and, like Eltana, promises to bake, on premises, a deliciously different bagel uncannily similar to those found in Montreal.

The magic of a bagel, bakers say, is in the water they are boiled in, which is why a bagel made in New York is different from the same bagel made in Los Angeles. As it happens, Levin said, Montreal’s supply of drinking water has a nearly identical mineral content to the drinking water in Seattle.

If you go: Eltana, 1538 12th Ave., Seattle, 206-724-0660, Open 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at