Food versus Food: O come, all ye Bagels.

That's right, it's Friday! Time for Happy Hour.  The Weekend. And (most importantly) Food versus Food!

Last week I sidelined my plans in favor of the Battle of the Beef, which was quite tasty! Now is the promised Bagel Edition of FvF.

First, a word about bagels.  I heart them.

They are delicious, but they're also the perfect breakfast food (for me). When I work out, it's usually in the morning.  And while I do have something before I hit the road, after 90 minutes of activity, I want need calories.  Bagels - though some might call them junk food or a luxury - clearly provide that.  And they're satisfying enough to get me through the morning and to lunch.

I know that people carry strong feelings about what a bagel should be.  My needs are few: 

  1. It should toast well
  2. It should be chewy on the inside
  3. It should have a nice, crisp crust
  4. It should not require toppings to be edible

There are three places in the Columbia area where I regularly get bagels.  Most often I go to one of the Bagel Bins (mostly the Wilde Lake and River Hill Bins, which are conveniently located close to my early morning workout locations. There are also shops in Kings Contrivance and Savage Mill... and maybe one in Ellicott City?).  

The next bakery-spot-of-choice is Panera Bread - a 'big box' chain that still serves pretty good food.  And free wifi (although outlets are sparse).  Yes, I know that they're not exactly 'local'... but this is a popular spot for my writing group, a blogging meetup, and a couple other things. I spend more time here than any normal person probably should. 

Finally, sometimes on the way to work I'll visit Cafe Bagel in Elkridge.  They usually have a good selection of coffee, and it's quiet enough that I can sit and do a little work (email, some reading) before actually getting to the lab. Cafe Bagel reminds me a lot of Bagel Bin, although I'm pretty sure they're under different ownership. 

A Panera-induced craving for a festive bagel kicked off this edition of FvF, but sadly, when I went to Cafe Bagel (twice) they had nothing but the usual choices.  That knocked them out of the running for this week.  Which brings us to the challengers...

Challenger #1: The Cranberry Walnut bagel at Panera Bread (with Honey Walnut cream cheese, reduced fat).

I have to admit, when I started this challenge, I was curious how Panera would fare against a smaller, local bagel shop.  I tried really hard to clear my mind of preconceptions before I began each breakfast.

The Cranberry walnut bagel from Panera just looks healthy sitting on the plate.  It's a nice size, and there are visible chunks of dried cranberry and walnut. Panera's flavored cream cheeses are all reduced fat and come on the side, in a little sealed cup.  A specialty bagel with flavored cream cheese retailed for $2.49.  A cup of coffee brought that to just under $4.50 for breakfast.

Freshly toasted cranberry walnut bagel from Panera, with a side of Honey Walnut cream cheese.
At first look, this bagel really could have benefited from another pass through the toaster, but the counter was pretty busy so I just rolled with it.  It was nice and warm, however. I applied the cream cheese.  Nothing to see here.

Well, yes there is:

Mmm. Bagel.
I really liked this bagel.  It was fairly crispy and chewy, dense and satisfying.  Alone, there was a slightly salty note to the bread that complimented the sweet-tart cranberry.  The cream cheese was disappointing.  I found it to be a little cloying, and there were only a few small pieces of walnut in my container.  Fortunately, the chunks of walnut in the bagel made up for the lack.  

I was eager to see how the sometimes-bagel-of-the-month at the Bagel Bin would hold up, which brings us to....

Challenger #2: The Cranberry-Apple bagel at Bagel Bin in Wilde Lake (with Honey Walnut cream cheese).

This option has been around Bagel Bin for a while, actually - sometimes featured as a 'Bagel of the Month' and sometimes just sitting quietly in the basket.  I've never actually tried it.  A bagel with flavored cream cheese is $3.39 at the Bagel Bin in Wilde Lake, but their coffee was cheaper than Panera's, so the meal total was approximately the same.

Toasted and already slathered with honey walnut cream cheese, the cranberry apple bagel at the WL Bagel Bin says... "Bring it!"
The bagel was of comparable size to Challenger #1, although I did see that there was some significant size variation in the bin itself - a hazard, maybe, of handmade bagels?

I liked the amount of toastiness on this bagel, and that there were large bits of cranberry visible right away.  When I tasted the bagel alone, I was surprised by the subtle sweetness of apple - it went a step farther than the cranberry did, and balanced the overall taste, which included the same hint of salt I noticed in #1.  

I did find myself wishing that the bagel was whole grain, but otherwise the texture was perfect: there was a nice crust that gave a little resistance when I bit through, and then I hit the soft, doughy interior.  Awesome.

The biggest surprise was that I liked the Bagel Bin's cream cheese much better.  It was the perfect mix of tangy and sweet, and featured large chunks of walnut.  It reminded me of sandwiches I used to make as a kid - cream cheese slathered on cinnamon raisin bread, studded with walnut halves.  

I don't actually think that this difference is a function of low-fat versus normal.  The flavor was simply better balanced in the BB spread, which I believe is house-mixed.

The Decision: I've already mentioned that I spend a lot of time at both of these places, and that I tried to base my decision solely on this meal.  Based on that... the superior cream cheese spread at Bagel Bin, and the interesting combination of cranberry and apple in the bagel itself, I declare Bagel Bin the winner.

A few final notes.

This challenge surprised me, because I enjoy Panera Bagels immensely.  What I realized when I did a direct comparison, though, is how good the bagels are at my locally owned spot - something I had honestly taken for granted for a long time.  I've eaten at Bagel Bins as many as four or five times in a week, which I suppose made it less 'special.'  I'm really glad to see that a local chain is turning out a product that can directly compete with a bigger company's.

Thanks to HowChow Blog for giving me a shoutout this week.  I highly encourage anyone in the HoCo area to regularly visit this blog - it's a great resource for food gems in the area, and other interesting features like an interview with Top Chef's Spike Mendelsson.

Food Versus Food will be on vacation for the next two Fridays - Christmas eve and New Year's eve.  But fear not, the food challenges will return with a vengeance on Friday, January 7!

What's your go-to Bagel or Breakfast spot in HoCo (hocoblogs@@@)?  Do you have a favorite at Panera Bread or Bagel Bin?  Tell me in the comments below!

1 comment:

  1. I agree I am a fan of the cranberry apple bagel at BB. I don't like nuts in my bread items so even though I haven't had the Panera one I know it wouldn't be for me.