NO. 1: SCRATCH BAKING CO.
416 Preble St.
Price per half dozen: $9
Scratch won our bagel contest hands down. There was just a single dissent. Though Lisa Dewey had pronounced Scratch her favorite bagel in Maine before the tasting started, during the tasting she found the interior “a little too doughy,” and she named Maple’s as her top pick.
As for the other judges, Alison Pray praised the “thin, crispy exterior and moist interior,” the “contrast in textures” and the fact that Scratch’s bagel was “well-fermented.” Michael Jubinsky liked the flavor of the crust, while David Levi liked the flavor all around: “There’s a noticeable sourdough element to this,” he said. He praised the quality of the sesame seeds, too, which he said had “a nice level of toast.”
Nonetheless, Scratch bagels were criticized for being oversized and bready, and lacking the chew factor (Jubinsky) – and still not a New York bagel.
“It doesn’t come off as a New York bagel experience eating it,” Pray said, “but it’s definitely delicious and appealing, and you want to eat more of it.”
NO. 2: THE PURPLE HOUSE
378 Walnut Hill Road
Price per half dozen: $10.50
Chef Krista Desjarlais’ Purple House bagels trailed Scratch bagels, but not by much; one judge tied it for first place. Their Montreal-style made them an identifiably – and controversially – different bagel from the others in this tasting.
Levi guessed almost right away that Desjarlais was behind these bagels, and while their sweetness was, he said, a little off-putting, “to me, it has the best texture of the six.” He gave it a tie for first place with the Scratch bagel.
None of the other die-hard New Yorkers liked the slight sweetness of the Montreal bagels, either, Levine going so far as to call it “a turn-off.” Several judges also demoted the bagel for its lack of salt.
Despite those quibbles, Purple House bagel won high praise for its appearance, texture and light char. The bagels are the only one among our group that is baked in a wood-fired oven.
NO. 3: MAPLE’S
881 U.S. Route 1
Price per half dozen: $12
This bagel was Dewey’s favorite, and Schechtman’s runner-up, following Scratch. (Incidentally, Central Provisions proprietor/chef Chris Gould recently told the Portland Press Herald Maple’s bagels are “the best bagels I’ve had since I was in New York City.“)
“It’s airy,” Dewey said. “It’s crispy on the outside, and the sesames have flavor.”
But several other panelists thought while it looked good, the flavor failed to deliver.
“The only flavor I get off of No. 3 (its assigned number in our blind tasting) is on the crust,” Jubinsky said.
Some judges also found Maple’s bagel too big and airy, rather than dense and chewy inside as a bagel should be. “This just isn’t what I think of as a bagel,” Pray summed up, “but it was not unpleasant.”
NO. 4: 158 PICKETT STREET CAFE
158 Benjamin W. Pickett St.
Price per half dozen: $8
The café, known as One Fifty Ate, is a sweet, funky spot, loved for its charming outdoor courtyard and its breakfast sandwiches. The bagel got a little less love, at least from our judges. This was among the selections that some judges declared “not a bagel.” They faulted the 158 Pickett Street Café bagels as bready, stale and dry. Jay Levine didn’t like its appearance and declared it tasted “as awful as it looked.”
Harsh? Very, but then Levine backpedaled. He told a story about going to the opera in Portland, and a friend leaned over to him and apologetically commented: “It’s not the Met.”
“No, and it’s not meant to be the Met,” Levine replied. “It’s Portland, and it’s wonderful.”
(It’s often said by New Yorkers that their bagels are tops because they’re made with New York water. Blame it on South Portland’s water??)
NO. 5: ROSEMONT MARKET & BAKERY
580 Brighton Ave.
$9 per half dozen
Rosemont market has five stores in Portland and Yarmouth, but all of its bagels and other breads are made in its Portland bakery. For our bagel tasting, we picked them up from the market on Brighton Avenue. The markets are beloved for their fabulous local produce, terrific sandwiches, excellent wine selection and popular baked goods, but the bagels just didn’t make the grade in our tasting.
The judges didn’t mince words, either. Rosemont’s bagel’s overarching sin was that it was underbaked, so had no caramelization, and was therefore tasteless.
“It’s got to be dense and chewy,” Levi said. “This is way, way, way too light. This is profoundly undercooked and just doesn’t have any flavor. This, to me, is not a bagel. Even the sesame tastes raw.”
NO. 6: UNION BAGEL CO.
147 Cumberland Ave.
Price per half dozen: $9
Union Bagel has many fans around town – including Levine – so when the bagel was judged “least satisfying” of the bunch, there was a lot of speculation around the judges’ table as to whether the baker was simply having an off day. (“The people at Union, they’re lovely,” Levine said before discovering that Union was part of the tasting, “and they make a very good bagel.”)
The blind tasting told a different story, unfortunately for Union. Judges deemed the bagel variously “not good,” “awful,” “like a brick” and “pedestrian.”
“There was no fermentation at all,” Jubinsky said. “Nothing.”
Levine squeezed a piece of a Union bagel between the fingers of one hand while simultaneously squeezing a piece of a Scratch bagel in the other. The Scratch bagel had a little spring to it, the Union bagel did not.
Pray found the Union bagel “really dry,” adding “The balance of flavors is off. It’s really salty to me, and it’s hard. It’s chewy, but it’s the wrong chew. It’s a tough chew.”