The bialy at Nopa Kitchen and Bar puts a new twist on a Polish classic.
Nopa Kitchen and Bar opened in D.C.'s Penn Quarter in May, but just started serving brunch this week. And the menu features a type of treat you don't see much of in the District: the crispy, crusty, chewy, doughy bialy.
"It's from Poland: Bialystok," explains Nopa's executive chef Greg McCarty. "It's very similar to a bagel [but] it doesn't have the traditional hole that goes all the way through in the center. It's got onions and the poppyseeds in the center. Sometimes is comes with toasted garlic as well, which we played around with. But the onions with the fresh thyme and poppy seeds just won over."
Now, chef Greg McCarty is fairly new in town; he just moved from New York to open Nopa Kitchen and Bar. And back in Manhattan, he was pretty much a bialy fiend.
"The bialy was my pick," he says. "If I couldn't get to Kossar's on the Lower East Side, I went to Tal Bagels on the Upper East Side where my apartment was and got them there."
But once he moved to Washington, he wanted bialys here. And, ever the culinary adventurer, he wanted to make them himself. So he enlisted the help of pastry chef Jemil Gadea, who — truth be told — had never eaten a bialy before.
"Talking to Chef about making bialys, [I thought] 'Oh my God; that's such a New York thing!' Everybody in the restaurant was excited about it. And I was like, 'Oh my God, the pressure's on! I have to nail this!'"
The first step, says Greg McCarty, was to give his pastry chef a first-hand taste of those New York bialys.
"I FedEx'd a bunch from Kossar's in New York on the Lower East Side so we could try to mimic them as best we could," he says.
The key was to capture that same crusty-on-the-outside/chewy-on-the-inside je ne sais quoi that makes a bialy, well, a bialy. "Because, let's be honest, a bialy is about history," McCarty says. "So we wanted to pay respect."
But at the same time, they were also trying to make their bialys very much theirs.
"We played around with leeks, garlic, a lot of different flavorings," McCarty recounts. "We also wanted some of that onion and herb flavor to go throughout the bialy, whereas sometimes, a lot of bailys that you get, it's just in the center that you get the onion filling, I thought it would be great if we could have a little bit of that onion filling dispersed throughout the bialy itself."
So Jemil Gadea would tinker together one recipe, and then another, until finally, Greg McCarty says: "I think we're probably 99 percent of the way there. You're never going to reach perfection, but it's pretty close."
The recipe Jemil Gadea eventually lit upon is actually pretty simple — though, like a bialy with its onions and poppy seeds, it's also filled... with nuance.
"We start out with our pre-ferment, which we use a natural starter, and just build that up to a polish," he explains. "The 'poolish' refers to the typical type of starter from Poland. So it's equal parts water, flour and starter."
You mix those three together and leave the mixture to ferment for four hours, until it's developed a nice volume and lightness. Then you add in more flour, some salt, and a smattering of poppy seeds, with sweated onions and chives. You combine it all, and after a few minutes, you remove the dough from the mixer and portion out however many bialys you want to make. Then you begin the shaping process.
"Which it is: a process," says Gadea. "It's kind of like stretching pizza dough. It's tough to do it all in one shot. You're going to do it a little bit, then let it rest five, 10 minutes, stretch it a little bit more. Otherwise when you put them in the oven, all that beautiful onion and poppy seed filling just gets swallowed up; the center just disappears."
After the stretching, you dab on that filling, and bake the bialys in the oven. Though traditionally, says Greg McCarty, you'd use an actual "bialy oven," which Nopa does not have.
"We don't have 100 percent of the tools you need," he says. "But with our cast-iron pans, and the ovens we do have, we come pretty close."
And again, it's all part of the Nopa crew putting their own spin on things, while paying respect to the past. And as a D.C. newcomer, McCarty says it's been a delicious nod to his own past, back in New York.
"Because everybody wants a little piece of home," he says. "No matter where you are."
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