Best Bagel in London

Happening caraway seed bagelMy search for a great London bagel took me to bagel bakeries on Brick Lane and in areas of north London – Golders Green, Hendon, Finchley, Stamford Hill – with large Jewish communities.

I was not seeking something as tough, doughy and bloated as a New York bagel, nor was I expecting a lighter ring of dough with the old-world character of a Montréal bagel. If a London bagel meant middling size, sweetness, chewiness and crispness, so be it. But to be truly great a London bagel needed to have something more at its core than a hole. It needed to show a baker’s pride and craft. 

I failed to find a great London bagel. I didn’t even manage to track down a great London beigel. But I did locate a superior one at Happening Bagel Bakery in Finsbury Park (284A Seven Sisters Road, N4). 

Happening Bagel Bakery

Happening was opened in 1994 by Isaac Cohen, an Israeli who learned the bagel business at various bakeries in north London and through bagel reconnaissance missions in the US.  His hand-rolled, boiled-and-baked bagels are plump but not airy, with just enough tug to the chew.

Isaac Cohen of the Happening Bagel Bakery

The Happening edge is due to two factors: freshness and two-sided seeding. Rather than bake in large batches overnight, when electricity is cheapest, the Happening crew bakes in small batches during the day. No bagel (other than perhaps those stuffed as sandwiches) sits for long. Instead of saving money by coating only one side of its bagels with sesame seeds or poppy seeds, Happening covers both sides with a thick layer. I need reading glasses to make out the spaces between the seeds.

I like the sesame, poppy and onion bagels, but it’s the caraway seed variety that really gets me excited. I know them as kimmel (Yiddish for caraway) bagels from my days in Montréal and I love how the seeds add a sweet, tangy flavour and a gritty crunch to the bagel shell.

So why isn’t a Happening bagel a great bagel?  One big reason is that it’s slightly under-baked, a bit raw in the middle. Isaac agrees. He says his clientele won’t accept harder, darker bagels and so they’re removed from the oven when they’re still pale and before they’re cooked through. They need to be halved and toasted to completion.

I have a glimmer of an idea how to go about baking artisan London bagels in an old-world style and Isaac is willing to give it a try. Because the Finsbury Park faithful seem to be resistant to darker bagels, we may need volunteers for our experiment.  If you’re intrigued and might like to participate, be sure to send in a comment.

About Daniel

Food critic and events leader Daniel Young is the "Young" behind young&foodish

Comments

  1. robertolov says:

    You needed reading glasses to see the seeds? You didn’t need reading glasses New York. Don’t rhapsodize about Montreal bagels, they are dry, need salt, and better winter wheat. A good bagel should make your jaw ache slightly after eating.

  2. FoodStories says:

    OK! So here it is! I would very much like to get involved in the quest for the perfect bagel :)

  3. Dan says:

    robertolov – I wrote that I need reading glasses to see the SPACE BETWEEN the seeds. It was another way of saying that the bagels are thickly coated, more so than typical. Regarding your thoughts about jaw-aching bagels I appreciate you are speaking for many. Thanks.

  4. nylondiner says:

    In my mind New York and Montreal bagels are two distinct species, both great in their own right. I would love to participate in the quest for a great London bagel, count me in! I bought a bagel and a bialy in Stamford Hill the other day; decent and satisfying, but nothing I would travel there for. A great bagel would be worth a bus journey at least.

  5. Dan says:

    @nylondiner No holes at all in your argument about NY and Montreal bagels being distinct species. They are SO different.
    Your understanding of the bagels in those cities as well as in London will be a tremendous asset as we support Isaac in his quest.

  6. Dan says:

    @foodstories Thrilled you’ll be joining our “great” London bagel project. “Perfect” might be asking a bit much.

  7. Polas says:

    Forget baqels. Bialys, bialys, bialys (and, sometimes, a pletzel)

  8. kristainlondon says:

    I’m curious about the quest for a perfect bagel. A year or two ago, I went to all the places in Golders Green and decided Carmellis was the best. Haven’t been to Daniels yet. Or this place. Am desperate for a salt bagel!!!

  9. Dan says:

    @kristainlondon – Hope you have a chance to try a Happening bagel soon, as I am eager to hear how you think it compares to a Carmelli bagel. Your evoking salt bagels adds a new dimension to our quest for a great London bagel. Just imagine what a bagel coated with the crunch of Maldon sea salt crystals might be like.

  10. Ruth says:

    I ate there few times, the perfect bagel. I went to all the places around because I love bagel but I decided The Happenning Bagel is the best bagel in London. If you want to enjoy a good bagel it’s worth to go there.

  11. Felicity says:

    I would love to take part in the bagel experiment. I cart pumpernickel bagels back from Murrays in NYC whenever I go along with whitefish salad – why can’t you get those in the UK? I personally love the doughy texture of the Happening bagels but the cinnamon raisin ones at Carmellis are the best sweet kind.

  12. Dan says:

    For the sake of your fellow passengers I’m glad it’s Murray’s pumpernickel and not onion bagels you’re taking back to the UK, Felicity. The onion bagels could “perfume” the entire cabin of an Airbus A380. It will be great to have you taking part in our bagel project. Meanwhile, I will work on a smoked fish salad recipe that will approximate New York whitefish salad. But the pleasure of succeeding will be diminished by the absence of toasted bialys upon which to sample it.

  13. Felicity says:

    Any moves on the great bagel project? This year I brought back a multigrain Murrays bagel which kept surprisingly well on the overnight flight and was fantastic with PBJ for lunch when I arrived home. I also managed to take home 2 boxes of whitefish salad from Chelsea Market which kept for 4 weeks in the fridge. Do you have an approximate recipe for anything similar?
    By the way – Banksy’s Bagel bar on Roseberry Ave, on my way to work looks like a hole in the wall but has really decent bagels – not a great range of fillings but they are very generous with what there is.

  14. John says:

    Having lived in Manhattan for several months I’d have to say the best bagels were from Essa Bagel…

  15. David says:

    Having been born and raised in Montreal for 22 years, I now find myself without any real bagel options in London. Happening is a 5 minute bus ride from my flat and on my way to work so I will give it a try this morning and let you guys know.

    Fresh in my mind is the sweet taste of St-Viateur’s bagels as I have just come from a visit to Montreal. St. Viateur’s, possibly the best bagel in the world?

  16. Daniel Young says:

    David – As a graduate of McGill University who nourished his studies with Montreal bagels for four happy years I feel your pain. If St-Viateur does not, as you speculate, bake the best bagel in the world, then Fairmount seems the only possible alternative titleholder. And that’s coming from a native New Yorker.

  17. David says:

    Daniel, I too graduated from McGill. Finished up in 2008 and moved to London weeks later!

    Tried The Happening the other day and was pleasantly surprised. Loving the fact that it’s on my way home from work too. Would have to agree with you though that they are not ready to eat straight away. The lack of oven-to-mouth experience is the only real let down to be fair.

    Your New York upbringing and Montreal university experience surely make you front runner for world bagel expert. You can’t buy a pedigree like that. Anyway, enjoyed your article very much. Glad to see I’m not the only crazy who takes his bagels seriously!

  18. Brendan says:

    I too am desperate for a salt bagel, used to eat two a day in the US (with jalapeno spread). Does Happening do a salt bagel? I’ve basically resigned to waiting for occasional trip to NY.

  19. Brendan says:

    I beg of you Dan — should you have any sway with Happening — implore them to produce the Maldon sea crystal bagel. I would consider moving to Finsbury Park.

  20. Daniel Young says:

    Brendan – Brilliant and I say that not only because I’ve had more or less than same thought. Also considered the fantasy of a bagel coated in Halen Mon smoked sea salt.

  21. Marian says:

    Based on the comments here, I ventured to Finsbury Park on Sunday and bought a dozen bagels…they did not disappoint! They are slightly better toasted than not and I loved the rye one with caraway seeds. Also liked the rye bread, again with caraway seeds – perfect for a tuna melt sandwich and it made me slightly homesick for NY. Count me in on any bagel hunt and the thought of a Maldon Sea Salt bagel is intoxicating! Thanks for the comments, happily munching on a rye one now with my morning coffee.

  22. snowbright says:

    only just seen this so bit out of date, but if not too late, count me in on future bagel hunt! btw, have you tried the 24 hr Bagel Bake in Brick Lane? bagels there are the best i’ve tasted in London.

  23. snowbright says:

    p.s. have since trekked to Happening Bakery; more dense , crispy bottom, good size & less sweet than Beigel Bake, Brick Lane, agree this is a superior & satisfying beigel. liked both plain & carraway. btw, their large range of cakes didn’t appeal in the least, but they are not what i came for!

  24. MattT says:

    I was violently ill 15 mins after eating a bagel from there the other day. Wasn’t fun.

  25. Joshua says:

    Went to Happening Bagel today and agree — best bagel in London so far. I’ve tried all the GG and Temple Fortune (Daniels and the place down the road), and favour Happening to all.

    Haven’t tried Hendon Bagel Bake which is supposed to be good as well.

    Brick Lane bagels are poor quality crap — they’re ok toasted but have zero substance, are over risen, and are sickly sweet for a bagel. They may satisfy the hoxton massive, but not this alterkaker!

  26. heather says:

    “best bagel in london”? i suppose out of what there is to choose from here, happening bagel is probably up there

    but here’s the thing that all non american bagel establishments fail to realize.

    bagels are boiled, not baked.
    BOILED, NOT BAKED.

  27. Daniel Young says:

    Heather – You’re half right: Authentic bagels are boiled AND baked. It’s a two-step process.

  28. Rachel says:

    I wish De Gustibus would start making bagels, especially rye ones. They have a ton of rye bread already. They also have some pumpernickel bread! Anyone try the bagel bakery on Cricklewood Broadway?

    Still need to get to Happening Bagels……….

  29. Dan says:

    Rachel, funny you say that…I am playing with the idea to re-introduce my bagels I did when I started baking 22 years ago. Maybe one day :)

  30. Tony Goldstein says:

    Daniel … you missed a trick at Daniels in Temple Fortune. Very good bagels next door in Platters deli. Dynamite chopped liver. Fab smoked salmon … different grades of fattiness and saltiness / fishiness. The fluffiest sweetest ungrittiest fish balls EVER. strudel as it should be. Sorry … got distracted. We were focussing on the bagel. If you want properly crunchy on the outside, beautifully chewy but delicate on the inside, they’re here. Come back to NW11. Paul … can I have my fiver now? But seriously … very very good deli indeed.

  31. Nosila says:

    Montreal bagels are the ONLY bagels.

  32. Daniel Young says:

    Nosila – St Viateur or Fairmount?

  33. Us lads down in Cornwall are light years behind variety of bread selection for salt beef I’m trying to perfect, cockney style memoryless of my youth, must be an enormous market down this way. love to get involved in the Bagel Hunt, or work for free to learn the trade, although I’m retired, I cant sit still for my love of old kitchen recipes.

  34. RM12 says:

    Hi, so, what’s the latest on the best bagel in London please?

    Have been going to the Beigel Bake in spite of their notorious service for the past several years. Okay at first but they dry out pretty quickly and just not satisfying, light and chewy enough. I too have lived in NY and I would love to be able to find something similar in London or outside London.

    Supermarket bagels are still not good.

    Did you not manage to persuade Happening Bagels to bake some of the bagels all the way? Customer can decide which ones he/she wants to buy.

  35. review says:

    I was curious if you ever considered changing the page layout of your site?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect
    with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one
    or 2 pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

  36. Matt Pomroy says:

    Fairmount bagel in Montreal is the best I’ve ever had. Also, Schwarz in Montreal does one of the greatest salt beef sandwiches anywhere.

  37. Daniel Young says:

    Matt – You’re a smart cookie. You’ll not find a better bagel than Fairmount’s anywhere, with possible exception of its close competitors in Montréal.

  38. Kim says:

    Coming into this forum real late but having moved to London from Montreal 2 years ago, I have finally broken down and am willing to try and find a decent bagel in London. Please, please, please, do NOT give me bread with a hole in it! Yes, I do bring back a dozen or 2 when I go back to visit! Fairmount sesame, hot, straight from the wood burning ovens. Ahhh! St. Viateur, a trailing second! Checking out Brick Lane…is the Beigel Bakery even worth a visit?

  39. Daniel Young says:

    Kim – Yes, Brick Lane Beigel Bake is a London institution and well worth a visit. No, I don’t think you will care much for its beigels.

  40. Michael Sanders says:

    Personally I find Brick Lane the best in London.. There’s a couple of other ones in Gants Hill. But definitely beats Grodzinskis.

    In fact I prefer them to katzs of NY.

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