Russ & Daughters Cafe (http://www.russanddaughterscafe.com/) opened for business in 2014, but it still feels like a time capsule of old-school Jewish New York, particularly representative of the early 20th Century Lower East Side. And it should, because the original Russ & Daughters “appetizing store” is still going strong after opening over 100 years ago, in 1914. The sit-down cafe appropriately opened a full century later, with gleaming retro interiors, luxurious booths, and tantalizing displays, reminiscent of the original.
This was another pilgrimage for me. My wife and I have been to New York more than once before and even hung out in the Lower East Side, but never made it to the original Russ & Daughters storefront. The more accessible and comfortable Cafe didn’t even exist when we were last there for our honeymoon in 2009. So I studied the menu in advance, determined to do it right.
I started us out with two mini potato knishes, which came with some good deli mustard. I’m much more of a knish guy than my wife, and since I didn’t indulge in knishes at Ess-A-Bagel or Junior’s, I figured it was now or never. They did not disappoint. They were very soft, with a nice oniony flavor in the potato filling and a soft, yielding dough shell I could cut with the side of my fork. If you don’t know from knishes, those baked (or occasionally fried) pockets of dough stuffed with potatoes or other fillings, I highly recommend them, especially if you’re anything like me and sometimes crave a mustard delivery device. Publix has started carrying the Gabila’s brand in the frozen food section, and those are some of my favorites. But these were no slouches.
My wife ordered the Shtetl platter: an everything bagel with smoked sable, after I turned her onto it at Ess-A-Bagel. While she said it was all very good, the bagel was smaller than Ess-A, and they skimped on the sable. You can see the thin slices they served her, whereas Ess-A packed their much larger bagel with thicker slices and chunks of the good stuff. I ended up with all her tomatoes and onions, as well as the goat cream cheese, which was a little funky for her tastes, despite how much she loves goats. It wasn’t baaaaaaaaad.
As the self-proclaimed Dean of Sardines, I am also a lifelong fan of pickled herring. My family used to bring in bagels on Sunday mornings at our suburban Miami home, always with cream cheese, nova salmon, and a jar of Vita or Skansen brand pickled herring, and I have loved it ever since. The most common kinds that you can even buy at Publix are boneless herring fillets, shiny and silvery, either in a wine and vinegar sauce or a sour cream sauce, both sweetened and packed with onions. Definitely not something to serve or eat on a hot date, but way more delicious than they sound. I guess they would have to be, right?
I was overjoyed to order a sampler platter with four different kinds of pickled herring to try: regular pickled (along the top), roll-mops (two long, thin fillets wrapped around pickled onions), schmaltz (fat) herring on the bottom left (cured in salt and sugar), and matjes herring on the bottom right (mature schmaltz herring cured for a longer period of time, tinted red by sandalwood). The matjes herring was juicy but incredibly salty, sour, and tangy, even by pickled fish standards, and even by my own standards. It was a bit much — still worth trying, but I definitely wouldn’t order it again.
Anyway, the platter came with a mound of sweet, vinegary pickled onions, surprisingly tasty pickled beets, and a sprig of fresh dill.
But wait, there’s more! My herring platter also came with slices of soft, fresh-baked pumpernickel bread and three different dipping sauces: a creamy mustard sauce with dill (top), a thicker and sweeter mustard (left), and a sweet cream sauce (right). I cleaned my plate, eating everything as a careful ritual: tear off a piece of pump, dip one side lightly in one of the sauces, add a piece of fish (never mixing the different kinds), top with pickled onions, repeat. I think they brought just enough bread to cycle through all the different possible combinations and permutations. It was good pumpernickel, and I have been craving more ever since. In fact, I bought some upon returning home, but wouldn’t ya know it? It was better in New York. (Must be the water!)
We left with these delightful little coffee-flavored hard candies from the Netherlands, a nice alternative to a mint (although after eating all that fish, a mint might have been better for my breath).
Oh, here’s a bonus shot of the original Russ & Daughters appetizing store, the one that opened in 1914. It was a short walk from the much newer Cafe, and an even shorter walk from the equally legendary Katz’s Delicatessen (which is coming, Saboscrivnerinos!). I went inside just so I could have the experience, but it was a mad mob scene. I took a number — 446 — but they had only just called 404. There are no tables to eat anything there, and whatever I would have wanted to buy was perishable and would never have survived the voyage home, so I left empty-handed.
I was very sad that the timing of our New York adventure occurred before June 12th, the start of the New Catch Holland Herring season at Russ & Daughters. These are supposedly the best herrings in the world, and you eat them standing up, holding them by the tail and lowering them down into your mouth, like cartoon cats. Back in that more innocent time when it was cool to like Louis C.K., he brought Parker Posey to Russ & Daughters on a date in an episode of Louie, and they ate the New Catch Herrings together. Just like when he showcased Veselka on another episode of the show, I have wanted to go to there ever since. Mission accomplished!