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March 8, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Eltana wood-fired bagels rise and shine on Capitol Hill

Stephen Brown, the visionary behind Eltana Wood-Fired Bagel Cafe on Capitol Hill, grew up in Toronto, where a vibrant Jewish community supported dozens of independent bagel bakeries. But Toronto bagels were nothing like the orbs that rocked his world when he arrived in Montreal as a college student. There, he feasted his eyes on the original Montreal bagelry, founded in 1919.

“There was room for four or five people to stand up” at Fairmount Bagel, Brown remembers decades later, describing a “hole in the wall” dominated by a wood-fired oven where bagels came out “skinny and irregular, with large holes in them, less like a hunk of bread and more like a chewy pastry.”

Daniel Levin grew up in Ravenna a block from Seattle’s premier bagel bakery, New York-styled Bagel Oasis. As a bagel-loving bar mitzvah boy in a city known for its puffy supermarket bagels, he worked at Madison Park Cafe, helping with catering, and later worked his way through college bussing tables there. Until last spring, Levin knew nothing about Montreal’s bagel culture. He was about to learn fast.

Four days after signing on as co-founder and No. 1 employee at Eltana, Levin, 25, flew to Montreal to begin a monthlong internship at St.-Viateur Bagel — Fairmount’s top-notch competition. There he worked side-by-side with two lead bakers from Colombia and Poland. “Combined, they had over 50 years bagel-baking experience,” says Levin, who today leads an international crew at Eltana — a made-up name meant to evoke something warm, mysterious and Middle Eastern.

Wood-fired bagels on display at Eltana, located at 1538 12th Ave, on Capitol Hill [Seattle Times/Mike Siegel]

Though Brown insists Montreal bagels are “more of a treat than any bagel I’ve ever had,” he and Levin emphatically do not define their bagels using the M-word. They did not attempt to recreate the Montreal bagel-experience at their sleek, spacious cafe in the Packard Building off 12th and Pike. Nor are they delivering the bagel-deli experience one might encounter in New York City. Which explains why, for now at least, you can’t get lox with your bagels, or a pastrami sandwich.

Eltana, in the redeveloped Packard Building, is open daily from 6 a.m.-4 p.m.

You will find friendly counter-help, dressed in T-shirts lettered with the name Eltana in Hebrew, dishing up a vegetarian menu. Spreads are made with the likes of smoky eggplant and pomegranate and salads built with roasted cauliflower and tahini. They’re also brewing Biowilly’s Beans, coffee roasted in small batches by Daniel’s father, Bill Levin.

Sure you can have a plain cream cheese schmear, but why not try the fava bean and mint version? Salads include lentil bulgar and feta (left), crispy chickpea and leek (right) and roasted cauliflower tahini (rear). [Seattle Times/Mike Siegel]

“The word ‘Montreal’ is nowhere in our concept, on our website or our literature,” Brown says. Instead, they view — and market — their bagels, sold for a buck a piece ($11.50 for a baker’s dozen), as something “deliciously different.” Having eaten my fair share, I heartily agree. These are a far cry from the chewy, saltier bagels I was raised on in Philadelphia. “The sexy difference” is the wood-firing, Brown explains. “But the biggest difference is the hand-rolling, which allows us to use a denser dough,” ensuring a more delicate crumb.

Eltana’s bagels are boiled in honey-sweetened water (“technically, it’s kept under a simmer,” Levin says). Seeded bagels (poppy and sesame) are sent to a table where they’re completely covered, top and bottom. Next the rounds are arranged on lengthy pine planks, placed in the oven till the tops are no longer sticky, then flipped onto the oven floor. A special handcrafted wooden tool is used for rearranging, rotating and removal.

“The important thing,” says Levin, “is when they’re properly baked, there’s no bottom. They’re round on both sides; it’s like getting two tops of a muffin.” That’s great news for bagel-lovers like me who prefer the top. Eltana’s bagels are apparently also great news for expats from Montreal, who’ll be pleased to know dinner hours and a 24-hour bagel window are in the offing.

“I’ve lived in Seattle for over 20 years, and I’ve never met a single person from Montreal,” Levin says. Since opening two months ago, he’s met scores of them. “I make a point of asking what they think.” And? They think they’ve found their hole-y grail.

I’ll take a baker’s dozen, please. [Seattle Times/Mike Siegel]

Check out the Seattle Times Eltana photo gallery right here.

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