Early Risers

Early Risers

If you’re a New Havener hoping to catch a good selection at Shef’s, you’d better set your alarm clock. This Cheshire bagelry opens at 6 a.m. most weekdays and 7 a.m. on weekends, and business is known to get frisky fast. I visited one recent Saturday at 7:30 and wasn’t too late to be captivated by the sights and scents of mountains of fresh-baked bagels in 13 varieties including salt, onion, sesame, whole wheat, blueberry, cranberry and French toast. Surely, I thought, there’s enough here to feed the whole town and then some.

I gave my order, grabbed a seat and loitered for a couple of hours, watching what seemed to be the entire population of Cheshire come and go, forming lines that reached the door. By 9:30, the place was full of customers and chatter and the bagel mountains had dwindled at least by half. “By 10, there won’t be much left,” one patron told me.

That struck me as an exaggeration, but only a slight one. I’d had my disappointments on previous visits to Shef’s. The shop closes at 2 p.m., and on a couple of occasions I’d stopped by later in the morning only to come out empty-handed. Of course, that’s testimony to just how successful the business is, and the regulars are obviously in love with the place. One raved to me, “Shef’s bagels are the best. This crowd is nothing; on a warm day, the line would be out the door and down the sidewalk. You should try his mini bagels; they’re just right. And the staff here great; they always smile.” He also noted that he’s sent his favorite bagels to his family in Virginia, as well as bringing three dozen when visiting for Thanksgiving weekend—“but,” of course, “the fresher they are, the better.”

I couldn’t find much to argue with in his assessment. Hand-rolled and boiled in-house, Shef’s bagels are chewy and hefty on the inside with a crispy shell and great yeasty flavor. In addition to ordering a baker’s dozen to take home ($13), I indulged in one of many sandwich possibilities: a poppyseed bagel with cream cheese, lox, tomatoes, capers and onion ($9). Both the schmear and the smoked salmon were generous, and the tomato juicy and fresh enough to make me forget it was February. Shef’s sells a variety of cream cheeses that are also blended in house ($3.50 per tub). I brought home the chive and continue to savor its creaminess and balance. I also enjoyed a smooth New England Gourmet Coffee ($1.60-$2.30 a cup), particularly the Amaretto blend.

I strongly agree that the staff is among the most accommodating and cheerful I’ve encountered. Composed of a crew that appears to be largely students, I never saw any frowns no matter how demanding or sour the customer. Not everyone seemed happy with the bagelry’s two-step payment process, where you order at one station and cash out at the second, but I found it smooth and efficient. I also liked the surprise hospitality that came my way in the form of a free cup of coffee.

Whether these are the “best” bagels in Cheshire or Connecticut, objectively speaking, is the subject of some debate on Yelp. Though Shef’s has earned a 4.5 out of 5 rating on the site, certain commenters have questioned whether the bagels are, legitimately, bagels—perhaps because Shef’s tend to close up in the middle. One self-described lover of NYC-style bagels claimed that Shef’s “are more like buns than a bagel.”

To each his own, and I’m no expert, but it appears to me that Shef’s uses the rope technique in shaping its famous breadstuffs. New York City’s Gotham Bagels describes this as the “proper way of making bagels,” involving “rolling out pieces of risen dough into snakes and then wrapping it around your hand to connect the ends.”

As for the owner—the “Shef” in question—his legal name is Estref Bekiroski, he hails from Waterbury and I found him to be the Greta Garbo of bagelry owners: All attempts I made to talk with him were either politely declined or ignored. Even his staff couldn’t be sure how to spell his last name or how long he’s been in business, and none was willing to estimate how many bagels he and his small bagel-making crew, apparently a couple of family members, turn out a day. He’s the mystery at the heart of a very demanding and in-demand small business, so it’s probably unreasonable to expect him to take time to chat.

I did have one lingering question that I decided to answer myself: Does the food Shef’s has left at the end of each day still taste as good as it does in the early morning? I made another trip one day after 1 p.m. to check out what was left and wound up with a BLT on one of the two last tomato wraps ($6.50) and chicken salad on one of six remaining cranberry bagels ($7.50). I demolished the BLT, made with bacon crumbles rather than strips (messy but delicious), and the chicken salad, flavorfully made with cranberries and walnuts, was a natural bagel match.

The answer to my question, then, was “yes,” meaning that even if you aren’t an early bird, you can still catch the worm.

Shef’s Bagels
1040 S Main St, Cheshire (map)
Tues-Fri 6am-2pm, Sat-Sun 7am-2pm
(203) 272-7229

Written and photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

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