I’ve always been a big fan of Russ & Daughters the antediluvian appetizing shop that is one of the last vestiges of New York City’s Jewish Lower East Side. So I was particularly excited when the Russ & Daughters Cafe opened. I haven’t had a chance to fress there yet. My good friend Noah Arenstein beat me to the schmaltz and was kind enough to file this dispatch. Take it away Noah . . .
Entering the new Russ & Daughters Cafe, I can’t help but feel a dizzy gratification by the fact that one of the most anticipated openings of 2014 in New York City is a full-service restaurant from a 100-year-old purveyor of the type of smoked fish most easily associated with my grandparents’ generation.
The cafe is a faithful recreation of the feel of the shop around the corner on Houston, but with softer lighting and booths, lots of booths. Your waiter wears the same spotless white lab coat as at the shop, conveying a potentially unearned smoked fish authority and soothing any mild nervousness. While the cafe hasn’t been relentlessly crowded on both of my visits, it’s always been full, so be prepared.
Solo diners are well rewarded with a choice seat at the low counter where you can oversee the makings of shrubs—classic fruity, flavored vinegars (opt for pineapple)—and multiple variations of the egg cream. It’s a very specific experience, but one that pairs incongruously well with a platter of fish.
The noshes, not surprisingly, are too small for a meal, especially for those with an appetite (but don’t be afraid to order multiple rounds of food). The winner of the bunch is Hot Smoke/Cold Smoke—a luxuriously rich combination of baked salmon and Scottish smoked salmon spread—the Russ & Daughters version of salmon rillettes. Served with crisp waffle potato chips, they are immensely satisfying. Though excellent, I’d recommend leaving the Nosh versions of famous sandwiches like the Super Heebster and Pastrami Russ for take-away at the shop, where they constitute a full meal.
Better yet, try a “board.” The Shtetl, a fan of paprika-crusted smoked sable with your choice of Kossar’s bialy or Bagel Hole bagel arrives on a wooden board along with traditional accompaniments: a startlingly red tomato, capers, red onions, and a sprig of dill.
More menu categories abound. Soups contain a unique take on chowder, creamy smoked whitefish with just enough of a sprinkling of espelette pepper for those seeking something exotic. I have yet to sample the platters or caviar, but I’ve learned that the Eggs section contains some of the strongest items on the menu. Here, they are lightly scrambled and folded with lox, sturgeon or even caviar—perfect for an elegant breakfast.
Rather than finishing with something sweet (besides, of course, an egg cream), skip dessert and opt for “Schmaltz & a Shot.” Boiled potatoes pair perfectly with fatty herring muted by a chaser of vodka. It’s the best way to experience the cafe, leaving you slightly dreamy, buzzed and proud that such an experience not only can still be found in New York City, but is lately among the most popular.
Russ & Daughters Cafe, 127 Orchard St, Manhattan, 212-475-4881
About the author: Noah Arenstein is a practicing lawyer, freelance writer, and co-founder and managing editor of Real Cheap Eats, a site dedicated to finding the best dishes under $10 throughout NYC. He can also be found making “Global Jewish Sandwiches” for Scharf & Zoyer and running Crow Hill Supper Club. Follow him on Twitter @ChiefHDB.