Now let me get this straight – I don’t want any of this to come across as mean, because I understand that these folks are new. Not just new to a Carytown storefront, but new to bagel baking as well. But I’m not going to sugar-coat my review for the sake of politeness either. This is a business, and they want people to spend money on their wares.
I went in on Saturday morning with my wife. She had one bagel with cream cheese, and I had two different bagels, each with butter. Rather than a long, draw-out narrative, here are a few long, drawn-out points:
1. Service was terribly slow and inefficient from the start, with the people ahead of us already having ordered. The woman who took my wife’s order was having some serious issues cutting the bagel with the knife and nearly mangled it in the process. There should be a better bread knife, or a drop-in slicer, I think. If a knife, I’m hoping a week of customers has been enough practice to speed that up.
They were also using a 4-slot consumer toaster. This is less than ideal for more uniform, commercially-produced bagels, but for Jaks, it was worse. These bagels were more amorphous and, having been cut unevenly, had to be shoved into the toaster slots. After the slow toasting time I watched as another server had to dislodge half of a bagel with the slicing knife.
Also curious was the storage of the butter and the cream cheese. The servers used individually packed condiment cups even for our eat-in bagels. I can understand keeping those around for take-out, but pulling little cups out of the bottom of the fridge case meant extra firm, barely-spreadable condiments that added more time to the order as our sever struggled to coat the surface of the bagels (the second of my two bagels was missing butter entirely).
I’m going to cut a lot of slack on these service issues – I understand they only opened on 2/2 and I visited on 2/5. I wish they had better prepared for customers, but these problems can be ironed out.
2. The bagels. Oy. Where to start? The outside, of course. I had a salt bagel and an asiago cheese bagel. The mention of salt bagels on their website had me excited about the place prior to their opening. It was a sign that, perhaps, the owners were familiar with proper bagels from Up North. But this salt bagel seemed to have only a light dusting of…kosher salt? Yeah, I think it was kosher salt flakes. The outer skin of the bagel was rough and uneven, as if it had been stretched but not rolled afterward. There was no faintly crisp skin, no shine to its surface. The asiago, on the other hand, was just so covered in the cheese that the skin/crust/whatever was less of a factor.
Taking a bite out of the bagel highlighted the real problems, though. The dough was too dense, so instead of the expected slight, tender chewiness it felt more like the bagel simply tore apart. The density wasn’t uniform, though, so each bite varied slightly, and you could see some darker spots inside on my wife’s bagel and mine where it seemed too much moisture had prevented part of the bagel from cooking all the way through. It wasn’t un-cooked or doughy, but perhaps not as cooked as it could have been.
The flavor really wasn’t there, either. I’m no baker myself, but It seemed to me that the floury taste hadn’t fully cooked out of the bagels. But there may have been something else, too; if they par-boil their bagels – as any proper shop should – perhaps they are using baking soda in the water (some shops do this instead of honey or malt)? If so, maybe they’re being a bit heavy handed with it? Not sure. I only ate the top half of each of my bagels.
I give a lot less slack for the food than I do for the service. I feel like something as simple in concept (though certainly not simple in execution) as a bagel should be all set before you open to the public. This reminds me of Pie in The Fan, a restaurant where the branding appeared more fully-formed than the dough recipe when they opened. People have strong opinions about pizza and bagels, so it’s risky to serve something that isn’t ready for prime time.
I want Jaks to succeed for selfish reasons. I want good bagels closer to my house. But I cannot tell my friends to go eat bagels that I don’t like just to keep a restaurant alive. I may not have to, though. Plenty of people might love Jaks. They may very well survive on the palates of Richmonders, and that’s fine, I suppose. Most folks in my fair city did not, after all, grow up in the Tri-state Area, so they have different tastes and that’s okay. But if other people feel the same way I do, it could be a rough road for the new shop. One of the most important parts of a brand is what you’re actually selling, and no website or clever slogans can hide that.
For the time being, I can only hope the new Cupertino’s location (now open on Main between 12th and 13th) is open on weekends so I can get a serviceable bagel without having to drive out to the West End. If anybody DOES repeatedly eat at Jaks Bagels, however, and notices improvement over time (and consistency is established), I’d love to give it a second try. But I’m not going to pay to be a test subject.