All bagels are not created equal. If you've ever travelled to Montreal, you'll know that while bagels are an important contribution to the city's gastronomic identity, those on offer there differ deliciously from most store-bought versions found across the globe.
Montreal-style bagels, as opposed to their famous New York cousins, are smaller, denser and sweeter. They've got a subtle, satisfying crunch, thanks to a thin, crispy exterior, while also being light and chewy in the middle. American bagels, more universal and commonplace, are softer, chewier and doughier. Both are boiled before being baked in a wood-fired oven, but Montreal bagels, importantly, are boiled in water sweetened with honey – it's a defining characteristic of the baked good specific to this Canadian city.
Making the perfect one is a complicated and arduous task, as Talal Fandi and Bader Aziz discovered prior to the opening of their bakery, Bagel Yard. This home-grown gem, which sits on the corner of Dubai’s Al Thanya and Al Wasl in Umm Al Sheif, offers an authentic take on the Quebecois delicacy that’s not found anywhere else in the UAE. Their curated menu of nostalgic favourites, tweaked with regional flavours and local ingredients, has become a firm favourite with foodies in the know since opening in November 2018.
Prior to that, Dubai’s holey offerings were limited to the typical doughy bagel that has been frozen and shipped from afar. “Dubai’s diverse food scene has so much to offer, so it was shocking to us that you couldn’t get a good, authentic Montreal bagel here,” says Aziz.
Baking in Montreal at St-Viateur Bagel
It's the duo's attention to detail and commitment to authenticity that sets Bagel Yard apart in a culinary landscape that's currently rife with bagel franchises and fewer subtleties and niche nuances. Fandi, a former international civil servant, born and raised in Liberia, and Saudi IT consultant Aziz, decided that if they were going to offer authenticity, then they would first have to go to the motherland and learn how to make them properly. So, in the autumn of 2016, Fandi went to Canada to train at St-Viateur Bagel, one of Montreal's oldest bakeries and an institution that has been hand-rolling bagels for more than 60 years.
For three weeks, Fandi (the sixth person to ever train there, as they'd only recently started opening up the kitchen to train enthusiasts) was up at 4am working alongside two of the bakery's oldest hands before coming back to Dubai armed with the knowledge and secrets of perfecting the doughy breakfast treat. "What surprised me most was how physically demanding making bagels was," he admits. "Rolling and cutting the dough by hand all day was hard work, but absolutely necessary if you want authenticity. We immediately dismissed the idea of any machinery that would make life easier."
The beginner baker also learnt that an important aspect of perfecting bagels was the oven: learning how to manage and cook with a wood-fired oven is the key to bagel success. The men shipped a speciality three-tonne wood-fired oven over from Seattle, hired a baker who had years of experience working a similar pizza oven ("similar, but not 100 per cent the same," explains Fandi) and began practising.
Battling with Dubai distribution and humidity
The first challenge came with sourcing the perfect flour. While St-Viateur has its own production line that supplies flour specifically for baking bagels, Dubai has no such equivalent. Bagel flour is different from normal bread flour in that is has to be high-gluten. It’s gluten proteins that give bagel dough its strength, elasticity and chewiness and the flour used will typically contain about two to four per cent more gluten than bread flour. Without the right recipe, you’re at risk of making bagels that are either too light and fluffy or too crumbly. The men spent weeks testing and trying different flours from local suppliers before concocting their own blend that produced the perfect bagel.
After weeks of churning out hundreds every day, they planned their grand opening for June 2018. Then, a mysterious hurdle hit. Just days before the launch, they woke up to find that their tried-and-tested method had failed. The bagels coming out of the oven – the same that had been perfect the day before – were now splitting and they had no idea why.
After a few days they discovered that it was the Dubai weather. The humidity had suddenly soared. While the bakery was in an AC-controlled climate, the hot weather outside was affecting their recipe for success. The duo then spent the next five months experimenting and tweaking their recipe and process.
“I can’t say that was an easy time, but we were adamant that if we were going to offer authentic Montreal bagels, then we had to be serving the very best quality every time,” says Fandi. “We spent months tweaking and adjusting our method, and we worked out that we have to continuously be reactive to the weather outside. As soon as it cools down, we adjust our recipe and oven temperature and, as the weather heats up, we adjust again. It’s a continuous process so that we produce the perfect bagel every time.”
Transforming the breakfast scene
Now, Bagel Yard produces more than 1,000 fresh, wood-fired bagels throughout the day, so even if you’re coming in for a late lunch, you’ll still be served with one fresh from the oven. The breakfast bagel scene in Montreal is typically grab-and-go – it’s about tearing chunks of warm dough straight from the bag with your hands – yet Bagel Yard has adapted to Dubai’s cafe culture of sitting down to dine when it comes to the first meal of the day.
You can still nip in for one, a half-dozen or even a bakers’ dozen to take away, and their menu offers six different bagels (plain, wholewheat, rosemary and sea salt, all dressed, sesame, and cinnamon and raisin), which are served with the typical toppings of cream cheese, smoked salmon or home-made nut butters.
Those with a bigger appetite can opt for more hearty fillings such as lemon avocado smash, scrambled egg or sumac chicken, or try the tangy labneh and za'atar topping, which is a nod to the region. If you're feeling particularly indecisive, you can even order by the half bagel. Coffee, Aziz's passion, has also been carefully considered with beans imported from Fernwood Coffee Company, a speciality roaster from Canada.
The UAE doesn’t have a strong breakfast-on-the-go scene like Canada does, so grab a seat among the exposed brick and Scandi-inspired decor and take your time. You might not be able to make it to Montreal, but the Bagel Yard has made sure its most famous delicacy is brought to you.