Bagel Battle: St-Viateur vs Essa Bagel

Justin Cox

Bagels are the breakfast bread of choice for office gatherings. In the various offices I’ve worked in over the years, they just short of appear out of thin air from time to time, ready to be consumed. If I’m being honest, I’m not a huge fan. They are typically chewy and hard to rip with my teeth. I eat them only because they are available and I have zero willpower. And I’m a sucker for honey-nut cream cheese.

I understand that my idea of a bagel — the grocery store or bagel chain variety — aren’t exactly the best options available in the bagel world. Since I’m not a huge fan of the genre I just play with the hand dealt. My wife, on the other hand, is a bagel fan. She loves a good bagel. Put a quality lox and cream cheese on it and she’s a happy camper. This is why, on recent trips to Montreal and New York, she sought out quality bagels.

Both of the places we hunted down were recommended by Anthony Bourdain on his various travels. Both were amazing. And both helped redefine bagels in my mind.

Cooked by Fire: St-Viateur Bagel in Montreal in Montreal (photo by the author’s wife)

Last fall we were in Montreal for a weekend. One of our destinations was St-Viateur Bagel, a small store front that has been open for over fifty years. The bagels were very cheap, less than a dollar each. They were cooked fresh in a fire-burning oven right behind the counter. And they sold out almost as fast as they could be made.

These bagels were delicious. They rank as the best bagel I have ever consumed — so long as I ate them within minutes of them coming out of the fire. The bagels at St-Viateur must have had zero preservatives because within just a few hours, the uneaten bagels were as hard as stone. And not in that cliche way, but as hard as actual stone. When eaten hot and fresh, though, they’re wonderful.

St-Viateur was so good, we had to make a second visit to the tiny shop before heading out of town to Vermont. And this was no small feat. I dropped my wife off at the small stall while circling the Hassidic neighborhood which lacked parking.

Were the bagels worth a visit to Montreal? Yes. And at just about $1 a pop, I’d eat them daily if I lived anywhere nearby.

Serious Spread: Ess-a-Bagel in New York City Seed Ess-a-Bagel with Lox Cream Cheese (photo by the author)

Our trip to Ess-a-Bagel took 45 minutes walking across Manhattan and another 45 minutes waiting on line in the store itself. At nine am. On a Thursday. In April.

While St. Viateur is a tiny little counter, Ess-a-Bagel is an empire. Tons of bagel flavors and dozens of house-made spreads. These bagels are massive. Thick and doughy with a good amount of bite. But the star of the show was the spreads. Hands down. Why bother putting lox and cream cheese on a bagel, when you can add lox to cream cheese and make it spreadable? I also highly enjoyed the raisin walnut.

Were the bagels worth an hour and a half journey across town? Yes. Though at about $5 a piece after spread, this is more of a destination treat than a daily breakfast contender.

While I can say that my bagel palate has been expanded, I still don’t think they’re going to enter my daily breakfast routine anytime soon. That said, I dare anyone to tell me they’ve found a bagel in this hemisphere better than St-Viateur in Montreal. If you find yourself nearby, make a trip. You’ll be glad you did.

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Freelance content writer. Founder of The Writing Cooperative.

Orlando, FL

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