Friday afternoon I took the subway down to New York’s Lower East Side to visit the newly opened Russ and Daughter Cafe. Getting off on Essex Street, the neighborhood has been so gentrified that it took me some time to recognize how to find this old world/new world deli on Orchard Street. Oy! I didn’t grow up in this area but I did grow up on deli food, first in Germany and then coming to this country. Later, I watched as my brother learned the delicatessen business at Gold’s, the premier deli in Westport, Connecticut, the suburban town where my family lived for a few years.
I was introduced to Russ and Daughter by my friend Stephane (aka-Zenchef) who consulted for Niki Russ Federman and her cousin Joshua Russ Tupper, two savvy smoked fish purveyors whose family business is a hold-out from a seemingly dying Jewish food scene in New York.
My memories of the Lower East Side is a neighborhood famous for pastrami, rye bread, and pickles -- Ashkanazi Jewish nosh food that I love but seems to have in recent years disappeared from New York City. It seems this cuisine has failed to inspire younger food professionals to carry the torch. Russ & Daughters has picked up that torch, even if their paper-place menus also include dishes infused with worldy influences (e.g. a Basque-like chowder sporting spices like espellette).
Sitting at the counter, I ordered their “Classic board,” which included Nova lox (from Gaspe), served with a perfect amount of sliced salmon, tomatoes, onion and capers. Offered either a bagel or biayali, I took the latter. While Russ & Daughters may have the best smoked fish on the market, I was disappointed by the biyali, which was stale and lacked even some poppy seed or onion, which is typical addition to this Jewish staple. The lesser bread threatened to subvert their gorgeous plate of lox. That didn’t happen, as the fish was first-rate.
That said, I still have one kvetch (aka - gripe), the cafe's bread. Trying a bit of shissel loaf, which is the holy grail of Jewish rye, it was as mediocre as the bialy. While Russ & Daughters is rectifying the Jewish deli tradition, their breads neglect an equally important legacy and craft, Jewish baking. This slice featured undermixed dough, with caraway seeds unevenly dispersed and undissolved bits of salt. Considering the fine frame work and quality of smoked fish, they should get a better baker.
On my next vist, there is a whole litany of things I want to try, including the café’s pickled herring tray that a fellow diner across from me was eating. It looked amazing, like a cross between a sushi board and a tapas tray, served with some nice Albarino! Or dip into their halvah ice cream, with crumbled halvah sesame seeds and salted caramel.
I left Russ and Daughters more than satisfied with the food, the service and even the restaurant’s jazz soundtrack. Go try it, yourself. It’ll leave you “verklempt,” Yiddish for overwhelmed – with delight!