Saul’s Deli in Berkeley is now offering warm bagels with a serious crunch factor

If you have been looking for a reason to get out of bed in the morning, this might just be it.

Saul’s owner Peter Levitt shows off the restaurant’s homemade bagels. July 17, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

There hasn’t been much magic left in this pandemic world. Not much that crackled. Until now. Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen re-opened last week, and for the first time ever they are offering fresh, warm, straight-from-the-oven bagels. And these bagels crackle. They really do. If you sit in a quiet place — such as my car, where I intended to take just one bite — you will actually hear it. The sound is so distinct, so crisp, and the texture is so divinely calibrated, that long-dormant sense organs start to kick into gear. I mean, sure, blame it on Covid sensory/social deprivation. But still — this bagel is a revelation. 

I have never been a fan of plain bagels — especially un-toasted, especially devoid of any schmear — but reader, this bagel never made it out of my car. What was intended to be the starter bagel — the quality control bagel — became the love of my life. And the “everything” bagel — the one that had it all, the one I came for — went home alone in a brown paper bag.

“Sometimes, out of a really difficult environment, comes a little blessing.” That’s how Peter Levitt, executive chef and co-owner of Saul’s Deli, put it.

Levitt should know. After 30 years of running Saul’s with co-owner Karen Adelman, Levitt was finally getting ready to retire earlier this year. After a long, considered search, the deli had found a buyer, and Levitt was preparing to spend several months riding around India on his motorcycle, enjoying the local cuisine. Then the coronavirus hit, and the buyer’s loan fell through. After suffering what felt like a punch to the gut, Levitt realized his retirement was ruined, his restaurant needed saving, and he needed to get back to work.

In addition to renovating the restaurant from top to bottom, Levitt decided that what Saul’s really needed was a new class of bagel. “Before, our menu was too large and we were too busy: we didn’t have time to make bagels,” he said. 

For many years, Saul’s bagels had been made by Dan Graf, a former chemist from New Jersey who had started out at Saul’s as a sandwich maker. Eventually Graf perfected the art of bagel-making, and he delivered the bagels to Saul’s, already baked. But Levitt knew that baked and hardened bagels are a totally different experience from just-baked bagels, so now the bagels are delivered in their “retarded” (or fermented) stage, and they are boiled and baked throughout the day and served warm.

The recipe is “completely basic,” Levitt said. “Salt, flour, yeast and water. There’s a malt sweetener, and in the water where you bake them you use lye. It’s very traditional: nothing fancy, nothing extra. The big thing is the dough needs to go through retardation — fermentation in a refrigerated environment for anywhere from 15 hours to three days.”

Speaking of water … there are those who say that New York bagels are the best, and that perhaps the secret ingredient is the New York water. “The emperor has no clothes,” Levitt scoffs when presented with that theory. “The bagel is as good as the commitment of the actual people making the bagel. It’s got nothing to do with the water, and everything to do with size.”

Oh dear. 

“My experience of bagels in New York is very often indigestion.” — Peter Levitt

“Until the 1970s, a bagel was four ounces of dough,” Levitt said. “But then New York City supersized the bagel, like everything else, and it grew to seven or eight ounces of dough. That’s the wrong proportion of the crust versus the interior, and what you get is a big, doughy mess. My experience of bagels in New York is very often indigestion. New Yorkers walk a lot, so perhaps they don’t notice the indigestion.” 

A bagel needs a very distinct skin with a different texture than the inside of the bagel, Levitt said. It should have “a crispy, crusty, thin skin with a caramelized color and a really strong flavor profile. If you squeeze it near your ear, you should hear a crackly sound, like Rice Krispies.” And the inside texture should be really chewy, not like soft bread, he added. “I like to see air holes on the inside: it shows that the bagel had a long fermentation process. Also, those little cavities create their own internal walls, so they can better absorb the butter or cream cheese.”

As a general rule, Levitt said, you have to “work hard to get a good bagel in the Bay Area, just like you have to work hard to get a good croissant.” But Saul’s is working hard to make our  COVID-constricted lives just a little bit easier. 

Right now you can get warm bagels — plain, poppy, sesame and everything — by calling in or ordering online for pickup at Saul’s tent starting at 11:30 a.m. But in about a week, Saul’s will be installing a sliding window across from the deli-case area, so customers can walk up to the window and order bagels and coffee starting at 8 a.m. 

If you have been looking for a reason to get out of bed in the morning, this might just be it.