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The Joan Miró of Bagel Bakeries

A Cream Cheese Revelation

By now we’re accustomed to artisanal craftsmanship and savvy marketing elevating no-brainers like hot dogs and ice cream to exquisite—and expensive—heights. Seattle, and especially Capitol Hill, craves exactly this sort of conscientious conspicuous consumption.

Since 2010, Eltana Wood-Fired Bagel Café has offered the Hill a neo-traditional take on the humble bagel. Raw, hand-rolled dough is first boiled, as per old world tradition, then finished in a massive wood-burning oven, the fuel for which is stacked head-high beneath the two-storey rafters of the impressive industrial-chic space at 12th and Pine.

Eltana’s bagels are addictive—toothsome, tightly wound morsels redolent of flame and flour in an appealingly rustic way (bialy-like, for those steeped in Jewish baked-good esoterica). Part of their seduction is their use of negative space: They’re frustratingly small and cute, about palm-sized, and surrender a disproportionately large part of their circumference to their holes. This is why, when you order a bagel combo with one of Eltana’s house-made spreads, you should spend $1 more for an extra half-bagel and spread.

Smallness and wood-firedness are endemic to the city of Montréal’s century-old style of bagel, which Eltana aspires to produce. This style is distinct from the New York style of big and boiled, a standard that was adopted by the entire international bagel community except, apparently, Canada. New York bagels are impervious to trendy reconsideration and rebranding, so Eltana’s embrace of the Montréal style makes sense not only from a flavor standpoint (wood-firing tastes better) but a branding one as well (wood-firing is hip).

But get this: Eltana’s most major breakthrough is not its bagels. It’s its precious, peerless lox spread.

Surprisingly, lox—aka brined and cold-smoked salmon—is a recent addition to Eltana’s array of otherwise unconventional spreads, which include sweets like honey almond and date walnut and savories like fava bean mint and caramelized onion hummus. These are all very good, if a bit theatric. But a proper bagel calls for lox, dignified yet lusty. Finally, Eltana has it, and it’s a revelation.

You’ve had lox spread before; it’s the best. Hell, in the salmon-happy Northwest, lox spread should be standard on everything from burgers to burritos. Eltana’s stroke of genius is in adding chromatically appropriate pink peppercorns. Their herby, piquant tang spars with the sumptuously oily fishiness of the lox; both are refereed by pragmatically smooth cream cheese. There’s something almost miraculous in this dance of flavors, presented together here like some daring work of abstract impressionism, familiar elements merging in an unprecedented, elucidating whole.

Like its bagels, Eltana’s lox spread twists a beloved standby into a more beloved original with a simple, inspired maneuver. Similarly, a billboard-sized crossword puzzle hangs on the wall near the entrance; rotated weekly, it corresponds to the ones offered as tear-off sheets at the counter. This, then, makes for an artisanal Sunday morning: a crossword puzzle, a cup of Eltana’s portentous, house-roasted coffee, three half-bagels with lox spread.

Your move, New York.

Photo by Nate Watters.

 

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