The newest culinary addition to Highland Park isn't so much an entire restaurant but a small bagel operation situated behind a nondescript window at the Hi Hat music venue, where they're slinging some expertly hand-rolled carb wheels.
The window, which is open Thursdays through Sundays for takeout orders, is a big deal for Belle's Bagels. It's been a while since co-owners and childhood friends Nick Schreiber and J.D. Rocchio have had a dedicated brick-and-mortar spot to call home. They last occupied a corner space inside La Perla Bakery in Highland Park for a few months before having to part ways with the shop. And more than two years ago, they hosted a backyard bagel brunch in Eagle Rock that started it all and led Schreiber to believe that this whole bagel business "wasn’t just a hobby thing but a life choice sort of thing," he says.
Schreiber is serious about his bagels, having spent the last four years researching and constantly tweaking his recipes like a food scientist. His doughy discs are dense and chewy, with a crisp, caramel-colored, bubbly crust. He says it's the kind "where you have to rip into it," something that he believes makes a good bagel.
The dough for the bagels is fermented for 48 hours, a much longer time in comparison with some bagel-makers who ferment them just overnight or day-of. Schreiber patiently gives his dough a little extra time so he can eventually get that signature dark and bubbly crust. He says he's proud that Belle's bagels are made with only seven ingredients. But those seven ingredients are really good ones, such as organic flour from Central Milling in Utah. You won't find any preservatives or dough conditioners in their products, and the bagels are vegan, down to the sugar they use, which isn't processed through animal bone char, as some factories do to remove impurities.
Then there's the hand-rolling of each bagel. Contrary to popular belief, Schreiber doesn't think hand-rolling the dough improves the flavor at all; instead he does it mostly for looks and to give the beautiful bagels character. As for now (though Schreiber plans to hire more help soon), he's the one hand-rolling each of the 400 bagels he makes daily when they're open. It's a labor of love. "My poor little bagel hands are keeping up as fast as they can, but a man can only roll out so many bagels before he goes insane ... or gets carpal tunnel syndrome," Schreiber jokes.
As much as you'd like to try to categorize his bagels — as New York– or Montreal-style — Schreiber isn't attempting to mimic anyone. While he says both styles are good, he's just trying to go with what his team believes is the best bagel. Some folks love his bagels and others find them too dense or chewy, but he's OK with that. "I've learned over the last few years that it's so incredibly subjective," he says. "You could ask a million people what a good bagel is and people will give you different answers."
The L.A. native is just trying to replicate what reminds him of his childhood. From Belle's bagels to cream cheese and sandwiches, they're small twists on the classics. They make their own schmears using the high-quality Sierra Nevada cream cheese as their base. One of their most unusual flavors is the lightly earthy beet schmear, consisting of roasted beets and a touch of lemon juice. Schreiber describes his fare as having "straightforward flavors." He says they're a nod to "what growing up Jewish is," and he couldn't think of a meal in his formative years without beets. The scallion schmear consists of charred grilled onions because "Jews just love everything onion," he says. "And I can say that because I'm one."
They get their lox from Michel Cordon Bleu, the it guy who smokes the fish in South L.A. They not only add it to their bagel sandwiches but also mix the fish into their lox schmear, along with the brine of capers. Last year, Schreiber started buying smoked salmon skin from Bleu's smokehouse, and had the great idea of crisping up the salty and smoky skin into what he dubs "fish bacon." The crispy salmon skin now accompanies the lox, beet cream cheese and dill in their Loxsmith sandwich.
Some of the other sandwiches you'll find are tuna salad with red onions and beet greens, and a smashed avocado with chives and radishes. Schreiber says the menu will keep changing, considerably, once everything settles down, with some possible new additions like a whitefish salad and bacon-egg-and-cheese bagel sandwiches. Even the bagels may keep on changing, as he can't help but keep refining his recipes.
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Schreiber says the sandwiches are prepared by kitchen manager and "Long Island Jew" Andrew Siskind, who has been an "immensely helpful" addition to the team, he says. They really take into account his positive opinions of their bagels. "If we can please the Long Island Jew, we can please anybody," Schreiber says.
Belle's Bagels' window at the Hi-Hat, 5043 York Blvd., Highland Park; (323) 208-9408, bellesbagels.com. The window is open Thursdays to Fridays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., or until they sell out.