Sad but true: The last really great bagel I’ve had in Knoxville was when Tomato Head made them in the mid-’90s.
There have certainly been other contenders over the years, but for someone who grew up eating real (and really fresh) bagels, they haven’t quite hit the spot. Hot Bagel Co. in Oak Ridge is pretty good, though by the time their bagels make the trip to Knoxville, some of the magic is lost. Perhaps I’m subconsciously reacting to their bumptious name, but the specimens from Best Bagels & Deli in West Knoxville don’t quite match my recollections of excellent bagels. Likewise, the new bagels being output by Tomato Head’s baking outpost, Flour Head, just seem “okay” to me.
Am I clinging to childhood memories of the piping hot bagels that would steam up my glasses when I cracked one open? Maybe so. I suppose it’s hard to compete with personal reminiscences of family and food: Every so often, when I was a kid, my dad would reward me with a trip to the bagel shop. We would jump into his Olds Cutlass (or, later, the anemic Chevy Cavalier, when he decided to become thrifty) and hit our local bagel emporium, which had been baking them for a few generations. He knew that, yes, I loved bagels, but I also secretly loved immersing myself in the bakery itself, to breathe in that warm, flour-scented air and to peer through the steamy glass cases and make our selections from the dozen or so freshly made options. The bagels would then be packed tightly into a plain brown paper bag, which I’d clutch for warmth on the ride home. Inevitably, one would meet its doom before we made it back.
What makes for a great bagel? A convergence of opposing textures. The outer crust is composed of two parts: on top, a thin, smooth shell that is firm yet grudgingly pliant; on the bottom, a thicker, altogether crunchier base that emits crumbs with each bite. Once you break through this crust, an entirely different mouthfeel experience reveals itself: soft, comforting dough that’s chewy and dense—yet neither spongy or dry. You are certainly permitted to customize your bagel via toasting and/or butter; some hedonists have been known to apply flavored cream cheeses in thick swaths. But if you have a true bagel in front of you, none of those embellishments are necessary; just eat it as is, whether it’s a poppy seed, egg, or plain. It stands on its own.
I can now report, with much thankfulness, that Knoxville has a new brick-and-mortar bakery to fulfill our (or my) need for authentic bagels: Paysan Bread & Bagels (804 Tyson St., next to Remedy Coffee and across from Old Gray Cemetery).
You may have purchased Paysan’s breads at the Market Square Farmers’ Market; if so, you are already aware that they’re the real deal. With its new storefront, Paysan should become a more permanent fixture in our culinary scene (or at least that’s my fervent hope). Inside, the scent of baking bread is like a warm blanket, and the day’s selections are ready and waiting for you atop the wood counter in open baskets: three varieties of bread, five different bagel flavors, and French canelé pastries.
(Side note: Paysan’s lack of pretension is a welcome change from the space’s previous occupant, Makers Donuts. My one and only visit there required waiting in a single-file line that ran out the door; once inside, customers were allowed to carefully scrutinize single examples of each donut, locked under the glass countertop like diamond rings at Tiffany’s. All the while, we were assailed by Dirty South rap; nothing against Dirty South music, but hearing a speaker system spit out the N-word every few seconds just kills my appetite for lard-infused sugar bombs.)
To achieve this unified dichotomy of textures, there is only one way to cook an authentic bagel: twice. First, after a suitable period of rest (preferably around 12 hours), the raw bagels must be boiled. Second, as you may suspect, they are baked. Shortcuts—either skipping the boiling step or steaming them instead—results in an unsatisfactory bagel. Period.
Paysan boils their bagels. And they taste—and feel—as they do in cities with bagel heritages.
Consider this food quest to be completed. Let’s hope it’s for a good, long while.
* The canelé pastry is definitely worth trying, though I think it’s an acquired taste. Outside, it’s got a chewy and charred-just-short-of-burnt crust. Inside, it’s got an eggy custard that’s a bit dry. (Or maybe mine was just a bit overcooked.) I’ll have to try a few more for research purposes.
* Run your bagel over to Remedy next door for some coffee and you’ll have a relaxing breakfast retreat. Unless it’s really crowded.
* If it is crowded, you’ll have to park further down Tyson Street; probably much further. But that’s not a detriment at all since you’ll be walking along Old Gray Cemetery, which I find provides a tranquil reminder of our impermanence and the importance of enjoying what we can while we can. Plus, it’s very pretty.
Worth a return visit?
My word, yes. (If you like bread.)