Yes, this is a monthly column on fine dining in New York as seen through the eyes of a talented young pastry chef--and 'eater'--Camille Cogswell. So why is this month's post on a what could be described as an upscale deli? Well, for one thing this is not just any deli. It's the cafe recently opened by the 4th generation owners of the 100 year old 'Russ and Daughters'. More importantly, Camille has me convinced--once again and more than ever--that fine dining is not limited to just one type of experience. That doesn't mean that there isn't a common denominator. There is and it can be summed up in one word: 'excellence'. Read this snippet of Camille's post
'...thick, perfectly browned latkes are moist but not mushy inside and can come accompanied by crème fraiche and wild salmon roe. Tender pickled herring comes in an elegant sushi-like presentation on pumpernickel toast...'
and I think you will agree that by this criterion Russ and Daughters Cafe most definitely qualifies for NYC FINE/DINING.
Hungry for more? Well then, read on...
The Russ family has been schlepping smoked fish from
this storefront on East Houston Street since 1920
For 100 years Russ & Daughters has been preserving one of New York City's most defining food traditions. In 1914 Joel Russ opened his iconic Jewish deli in the Lower East Side after schlepping strings of Polish mushrooms from a street cart for seven years. The business has remained in family hands for a century of growth and increased recognition, though the popularity of the shop hasn't affected ego or quality at the friendly, quick-service institution. On one side of the narrow interior a long glass case displays mouthwatering working-class delicacies: whole smoked whitefish, fillets of cured, smoked, and kippered salmon, pickled herring, handmade bagels and house-whipped cream cheeses, not to mention an impressive array of caviars for those wanting to splurge a bit more. Opposite stands an equally tantalizing sweets counter that offers an assortment of halvahs, babka, chocolate-covered confections, rugelach, dried fruit, and nuts.
At Russ & Daughters Cafe you order at the table, not the counter, but those
who like to see their fish sliced a la minute won't be disappointed
In honor of their centennial anniversary, Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper, the fourth-generation owners of the business, have opened Russ & Daughters Cafe around the corner. Its inviting soda fountain-style bar is a new feature, where cocktails, egg creams, and refreshing homemade sodas are served. But the rest of the cafe is designed in an attempt to transfer some of the original shop's atmosphere into a diner setting, including a counter where you can see your fish being sliced to order from the beautifully stocked display case below. The service staff even wear the same white coats as the shop's employees, though in this slightly more modern and subdued environment it feels a little more like you are being served by med school students than food service professionals. But hopefully in time they'll settle into a more comfortable groove and start schmoozing like the seasoned veterans at the store.
Pickled herring on pumpernickel with: curry and fresh apple,
buttermilk and sliced onion, mustard and dill.
The Russ family knows better than to fix something that ain't broken, and at Russ & Daughters Cafe the food offered is, with few exceptions, the same fare that you can buy over the counter at the original location. But sometimes sitting down for your bagel and lox with a friend or a newspaper is miles more appealing than scarfing it down curbside or waiting until you get back to your kitchen table. Once you get comfy with a bowl of their hearty smoked whitefish chowder you'll never want to leave. The thick, perfectly browned latkes are moist but not mushy inside and can come accompanied by crème fraiche and wild salmon roe. Tender pickled herring comes in an elegant sushi-like presentation on pumpernickel toast.
The Queen of chopped salads is especially delicious with shissel rye bread, part of the bread basket, an assortment made in house.
Chopped salad lovers rejoice for the satisfying masterpiece of smoked whitefish, avocado, beets, egg, apple, matzo, and greens topped with a light buttermilk dressing. If you're looking for the simpler bagel and fish option, there are boards for one or platters to share with great variety, including salmon, sturgeon, trout, sable, and other expertly prepared fish. I will also put in a word for the Eggs Benny, two perfectly poached eggs over sauteed spinach and Scottish smoked salmon, served with hollandaise sauce on tender challah bread.
Halvah ice cream with sesame seeds, salted caramel and crumbled halvah bits
Don't you dare skip on dessert, as the malty halvah ice cream with sesame, salted caramel, and crumbled halvah is arguably one of the best churned sweets in the city.
But don't fret if you can't make it to The Big Apple. Russ & Daughters will ship their delicacies around the country. They also have a cookbook that is filled with as much light-hearted family storytelling as it is with recipes. And currently screening at events across the United States is “The Sturgeon Queens” (don't miss the trailer in this link...), a documentary film of the family business through the eyes of the two surviving daughters of Joel Russ, Hattie Russ Gold and Anne Russ Federman. But don't let any of that convince you that trekking to the store itself isn't worth the gastronomic pilgrimage. It is.
179 E. Houston St.
127 Orchard St.
$6 - $20 (with more expensive options for party platters and caviar service)