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DC Battle of the Bagels: Rating Three Area Bagel Shops

What’s it like to have baked onion bits on your face, stuck to your fingers, down your shirt and all over your kitchen counter?  If you’re an onion bagel fan like myself, it’s glorious. And, well, that’s the price to pay for conducting a thorough bagel taste test.

In an attempt to find a few of DC’s best bagels, I traveled far and wide (okay, not that far or wide) to four stops. Unfortunately, Palena Cafe was sold out of bagels on this particular morning, so that left three: Bethesda Bagels, So’s Your Mom, and Pumpernickels.

To make a fair comparison, I ordered onion bagels across the board. Here are my thoughts, and a rating — a “five bagel” rating being the best.

Bethesda Bagels
1718 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC
202-299-9399

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One of the best in the area, but also the toughest stop on the tour, only because it has by far the longest wait.  Expect long lines; the place gets extremely crowded, so you need to know that going in.  And this being Dupont Circle, you’ll see plenty of ladies in yoga pants. Not that I’m complaining.

Bagels are $1.10 apiece. There’s a wide selection of flavors to select from, including “sport-energy,” whatever that means.

Size-wise they’re the biggest of the three I tried, with the familiar puffed-up shape resembling an inner tube. The crust has a nice sheen with a decent crunch, and a generous sprinkling of onion bits dot both sides.

Good chewiness and bite. Toasts up nicely. Of the bagels I’ve tried in DC, I’d say Bethesda Bagels gets the closest to the New York standard.

Rating: 4 out of 5 bagels

 

So’s Your Mom
1831 Columbia Rd. NW
Washington, DC
202-462-3666

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Adams Morgan’s bagel and sandwich shop is family-run with fast, efficient and friendly service. Compared to the 15 minute wait at Bethesda Bagels, I was in and out of So’s Your Mom in about three minutes. That’s hard to beat.

Bagels run $.95 apiece. They’re fat like Bethesda’s, but slightly smaller. Again, a substantial heaping of tasty onion bits cling to both sides.

The crust isn’t quite as crispy as Bethesda’s, and there’s a little less overall chewiness, but still a very solid bagel.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5 bagels

 

Pumpernickels Bagelry & Delicatessen
5504 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC
202-244-9505

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An employee at my neighborhood running store made a strong statement: “Pumpernickels makes by FAR the best bagels in DC.”

Whoa now, that got my attention. She said it with such conviction that either she was right, or her family owned the place.

$.95 per bagel here. As you can see, it’s smaller, flatter and denser than the first two. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I prefer a fuller shape. Not much crust to speak of, and the inside’s not especially chewy. This was the saltiest bagel of the three, and here’s the rub: onions on one side only. The bottom was onion-free.

The Pumpernickels bagel also fared the worst after toasting. It just didn’t have the volume or crunch/chew of the other two.

Rating: 3 out of 5 bagels

The overall winner of this round of taste tasting: Bethesda Bagels.

What to do with your extra bagels? Throw them in a Ziploc gallon bag, press the air out and toss the bag in the freezer. When you want to eat one, microwave it for about 20 seconds and it’s ready to be toasted or thrown in the oven.

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Hi, I’m Doug, and I Ate the Swamp Thing for Lunch

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The levels of self-consciousness progress from the feet up.

For example, least embarrassing is to wear mismatched socks. Chances are no one will notice. An unzipped fly is worse, but you can get away with it if you’re dealing with people who are fairly unobservant, or choose not to look down at your crotch.

At the mortifying end of the spectrum: the dreaded food-stuck-in-the-teeth. There’s no getting out of that one. When you talk to people, they’re staring right at your face. Any remnants from lunch stuck in those pearly whites are gonna stand out.

I know this reality all too well, which is why I’ve made friends promise to always tell me if I have a bat in the cave or food in my teeth; I also use the camera on my phone to inspect my teeth after any meal with green, leafy vegetables.

The other day at a conference I bolted off to Taylor Gourmet at lunchtime and picked up my favorite sandwich — the Pattison Avenue with roast pork, sharp provolone and broccoli rabe.  Broccoli rabe is my nemesis — as much as I adore it, it ALWAYS gets stuck in the teeth on the left side of my mouth. I made a mental note to check myself in the mirror when I got back to the conference.

Then I forgot.

Cut to three hours later at the networking happy hour at Cities Restaurant & Lounge. Good times — drinking red wine, meeting interesting people, making conversation, exchanging business cards. I excused myself to use the restroom, happened to catch my mug in the mirror and…

SWEET MOTHER OF GOD.

I practically jumped backwards in horror. Stuck between my teeth in THREE places were dark green pieces of Taylor Gourmet broccoli rabe.  To make matters worse, the red wine had turned my tongue purple and stained my teeth. It dawned on me that I’d spent the last 45 minutes smiling and chatting with my mouth looking somewhere between ‘creepy’ and ‘revolting.’

There’s no doubt in my mind that anyone I spoke with at the happy hour noticed my oral disaster. Let this be a lesson to everyone — never, ever, forget to check your teeth after a meal. And always carry dental floss.

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Did I Order Le Diplomate’s Worst Dish?

If Le Diplomate were a movie on Rotten Tomatoes, it would boast an almost 100% fresh rating.  Its staff would be putting the final touches on their Vera Wang gowns and prepping acceptance speeches for next week’s Oscars. That’s how much DC folks love Le Diplomate.

Which is why I’m feeling disappointed about my recent meal there.  It’s like I missed out on something.

Let’s start with the positives.  Le Diplomate draws raves about its bread, for good reason. My friend Amanda and I tore through this basket; we were all over the cranberry bread, especially.

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No complaints about the ricotta ravioli either.

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I’m usually quite good at selecting one of the more interesting entrees on a menu.  But  I may have brain cramped this time, because with duck confit, braised lamb and grilled loup de mer among the options, I went with the steak frites, probably the most mundane dish among the bunch.

What happened? Well, I hadn’t eaten a steak in years, and it sounded so appealing to me at this particular moment. I also figured if any place was going to prepare a steak to remember, it’d be Le Diplomate.

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It was good; it just wasn’t GOOD.  Surprisingly, the steak was overcooked; my medium-well request had become well done.  The meat was tough in places, especially near the ends.

I’d been hoping for more. With all the hype surrounding Le Diplomate, I expected a hangar steak so divine that the memory of it would burn into my brain.

Amanda and I shared a dark chocolate Napoleon for dessert.

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Not the type of Napoleon I thought it would be. I prefer layers of thin puff pastry over this harder, thicker almond layer on the bottom.

All in all, kind of underwhelming. It’s possible Le Diplomate was having an off night. This was the eve of a huge snowstorm, so maybe the chefs were rushing and just hoping to get home.

My prevailing thought is that I ordered one of the weaker dishes.  Friends and colleagues wax poetic about the duck, lamb and branzino; I’m kicking myself for not going that route.

So either I screwed up, or the place is like Jared Leto’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” — critically acclaimed, with me scratching my head trying to understand what the fuss is about.

Le Diplomate
1601 14th St. NW
Washington, DC
202-332-3333

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Afghan Grill’s Mantoo (Meat-Filled Dumplings)

A few years ago I produced a TV food segment about manti — tiny, meat-filled Turkish dumplings.  As the chef herself said, “It is not easy making the manti. This is occasional food.”

She wasn’t kidding.  After making the dough, she rolled it out and cut out squares the size of a postage stamp. Each square was dabbed with the meat filling, and the four corners of the dough were pinched together to form a star shape. The process was laborious, to say the least; she had to crimp dozens of manti just to make enough for a few servings.

It was right then that I realized I would never, ever, under any circumstance, be making manti at home.

(They were a marvel, incidentally.  We ate a full meal after shooting, and I’ll always remember those delicate, little dumplings.)

I hadn’t eaten manti since that day, until a recent dinner at Woodley Park’s Afghan Grill.

In Afghan cuisine, the dumplings are called mantoo. They’re basically the same idea, only larger, the size of ravioli.

Afghan Grill knocks them out of the park.

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Everything is working here; the lightness of the meat filling, and the red sauce with a drizzle of garlicky yogurt sauce. But it’s really all about the bite of that dough — soft and pillowy, yet 100% al dente. You can taste the care that goes into making each one.

I imagine mantoo are slightly easier to make than manti, since they’re about five times bigger. Nevertheless, I’m leaving these dumplings to the professionals. When a chef says they are “occasional food,” I’m taking her word for it.

One last thing: when you’re at Afghan Grill, try the dessert of vanilla ice cream with cardamom, almonds and rose water. Trust me.

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Afghan Grill
2309 Calvert St. NW
Washington, DC
202-234-5095