The recently opened Russ & Daughters Cafe on Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side is the younger sister of the 100-year-old carry-out shop specializing in traditional Ashkenazic fare, like smoked fish, caviar and “appetizing.” The history of the shop, which opened in 1914, and the pushcart days that preceded it, is chronicled in a recently released documentary, “The Sturgeon Queens.”
I shared some reflections on the shop on my blog: “Russ & Daughters gives you a sense of time of place of a bygone era and belonging. A throwback into a sepia-toned movie, from the pushcart days of Lower East Side Manhattan.”
Russ & Daughters Cafe evokes images carried over from the historic shop while simultaneously creating an identity of its own. As much as I adore the shop, for tourists like us, the sit-down space is a much-anticipated and welcome addition, and just a hop, skip and a jump from the original location.
Since our visit to New York to celebrate our anniversary was short, I called the café, which doesn’t take reservations, twice over the weekend to check how long the wait would be—an hour and a half both times. The third time was the charm. Monday is a good day to breeze into the walk-in Russ & Daughters Cafe without waiting in a mile-long, exhaustive line.
The only available seats in the retro, diner-like pod were at the bar by the entrance. It was a perfect spot for our 21-year-old companions and us. Light streamed through the front window, illuminating the carefully designed menu, counter and other thoughtfully curated touches.
Our grown-up “kid” ordered a double order of the beautiful “Classic” board: a Gaspe Nova smoked salmon, cream cheese, bagel or bialy—no tomato—onion and capers. His friend followed suit, but with tomatoes. They polished off their double-order boards. I had the single order of the “Classic” and Jonathan had a picture-perfect “Lower Sunny Side”—sunny-side-up eggs, Gaspe Nova smoked salmon and latkes.
The chunky latke pucks on Jonathan’s oval plate sparked my curiosity, so I ordered an extra order as a side. They were deeply brown, with a crisp char to the exterior, which made it more pleasantly surprising to bite into the creamy white, beautifully cooked and well-seasoned interior.
When I spotted the Holland herring on the menu, I jumped at the opportunity to order it. It was not in season the last time I visited. The young bartender, clad in a white, pharmacist-like coat, walked us through the ceremonial way to eat it. Jonathan surprisingly took the leap, and our son’s friend jumped in with some coaxing right behind him. They held the Holland herring by its tail, dabbed it in the diced onions and capers on the plate, then dangled it by the tail up in the air, head tilted back, to bite into it. It was a memorable herring—and not hair-raising—mini adventure.
None of us had ever tasted a cream soda, so we ordered a chocolate one to experience this classic American, cream-less, beverage. Those of you with a super sweet tooth, order the halvah ice cream with the salted caramel drizzle.
As I wrote on my blog, the slicing of the cured salmon at the shop is a spectacle: “The gentlemen behind the counter’s skills at slicing smoked salmon paper thin are comparable only to the best of the sushi masters in the world.” At the café, while the open kitchen in the middle begs a look, to us, the main act was at the bar, which I’m sure we’ll be back to.
Russ & Daughters Café, 212-475-4881, 127 Orchard St, New York, NY; Open 8 am-10 pm; closed Tuesdays.
Russ & Daughters (retail shop), 212-475-4880, 179 E. Houston St, New York, NY; Monday-Friday, 8 am-8 pm; Saturday, 8 am-7 pm; Sunday, 8 am-5:30 pm.
Top photo credit: Kelli Anderson/Jen Snow – Courtesy of Russ & Daughters