Pickled Herring Goes Back to the Future at New Russ & DaughtersPaul M. Barrett
Manhattan’s too-cool-for-school Lower East Side has one more reason to boast. Forget Williamsburg over the bridge with its pork-pie hat hipsters. The Lower East Side now lays claim to a sit-down Russ & Daughters Cafe. All that’s old is new again on historic Orchard Street.
Russ & Daughters Appetizers, a retail store on nearby East Houston Street, is the city’s last continuously family-owned Jewish smoked-fish emporium. (“Appetizers” is old-time immigrant Jewish lingo for pickled herring, nova, sable, and all the other fishy delights that form the core of any real New York Sunday brunch.) Members of the fourth generation of American Russes still enthusiastically supervise the store and cater to a fanatically loyal clientele—people who will wait an hour or more, if that’s what it takes, to get the tender attention of Herman “the Artistic Slicer” Vargas and his colleagues behind the counter. A native of the Dominican Republic and a Russ employee for decades, Vargas trades quips in fluent Spanish-accented Yiddish, if you can keep up with him.
Now the Russes have opened cozy, delightful cafe around the corner on Orchard Street. I was fortunate to attend a private debut the other evening, as were such slightly more prominent guests, including Martha Stewart, Calvin Trillin, and Jake Gyllenhaal, who arrived with his mother, Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal. Contemplating Russ & Daughters fish—without the wait and augmented by an eclectic menu of eggs, salads, egg cream sodas, cocktails, wine, and desserts—this is going to be a monster hit.
Industrial-strength disclaimer: I have conflicts of interest out the wazoo. I already loved the retail store. I know members of the Russ family (good people). And my wife, Julie Cohen, a filmmaker, has made a documentary called The Sturgeon Queens about the Russ legacy, a century old this year. So yes, I’m in the tank for the Russes and for Gaspe nova smoked salmon on a pumpernickel bagel. Then again, so is Calvin Trillin, and he really knows from food.
I brought an appetite. The matzo ball soup with shredded chicken was perfect, and not too salty. The borscht was unlike any borscht I’ve ever tasted: creamy-velvety, delicate, a meal unto itself. The herring sampler? Who knows herring like the Russes? No one, that’s who.
The specialty “boards” have funny names: the Mensch, Yum Kippered, and so forth. A little too cute, maybe, but so what? I had the Shtetl: smoked sable, goat cheese cream cheese, toasted bialy, tomato, onion, capers. They never ate like that in the old country.
The Russes have integrated visual and architectural elements from the store, making the cafe a feast for the eyes and senses, as well as the palate. The waiters displayed a cheerful demeanor without being cloying. None of the traditional Ratners-style sarcasm or impatience. I shouldn’t have, but the Halvah ice cream (Halvah candy, sesame, salted caramel) capped a meal that can only be described as comprehensively satisfying.
Look, maybe you and your spouse won’t get quite as much attention as we did— your spouse, after all, hasn’t made a charming, memorable, much-acclaimed documentary about this inspiring family and their fabulous immigrant success story. But I guarantee you’ll get warm attention and savory eats.
As my grandparents said, “Ess gezinter hayt.” Eat in good health. Or at least until you’re full. (Russ & Daughters Cafe is at 127 Orchard Street, north of Delancey Street.)