127 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
For the past 100 years, a deli of sorts has existed on East Houston Street. Should you want smoked salmon or whitefish salad, pickled things or caviar, then Russ & Daughters was the place to schlep to. They weren't and aren't like Katz's or Ben's or the Second Avenue Deli. They focused very heavily on fish and not at all on pastrami sandwiches that could feed a family of four. Now that they hit the big three digits, Russ & Daughters opened a restaurant to complement the deli just a few blocks away and around the corner.
My dad, Dudeman, a boomer who remembers his parents' first apartment in an East Village tenement where the bathtub was in the kitchen, also remembers Russ & Daughters as a New York City institution. You want lox, you go there. You want dried figs, you go there. You want bialis... well for bialis you would go to Kossar's. But herring? Herring means Russ & Daughters. Naturally, the minute he read in the paper that they were starting their own cafe, he called me. Pretty soon we were walking downtown through the Lower East Side, where high end luxocondos share the blocks with city housing and meth clinics; where the young and tony neo-elites get haircuts at trendy, expensive salons outside of which destitute elderly men pass their remaining years sitting on the sidewalk on folding chairs. After turning left at the fourth old man, and on the right just beyond the second hipster barbershoppe, we entered the Russ & Daughters Cafe.
Immediately inside you notice that it's gleaming white with accents of chrome and stainless steel. The walls are lined with pickled things and the wait staff wear white butcher coats. There's a very olde tyme soda shop feel to the place. Or maybe it felt like a city morgue? Either way. Take the vintage photos that accompany the jars and add the soundtrack of peppy jazz that plays instead of the ever-present white noise that Rihanna and co. make, throw in an endless train of drinking carrying milk shakes, and you're in yesteryear. There's a full bar by the front door with the kind of hooch selection that would make a mixologist proud and, in the near future, they hope to open their rear patio space. For now, alas, indoors it was. And so, we were led to our table where a placemat menu greeted us along with a bottle of seltzer. Everyone gets seltzer.
The thing is, Dudeman and I didn't come to reminisce. For one, I wasn't alive yet, and the crime-ridden New York of Kojak's day reminded Dudeman why his parents they gave up the convenience of being able to shower and pan sear a keilbasa at the same time for the suburbs of Staten Island. No, we came for the food. We came because you don't don't survive for 100 years without doing something right. So right off the bat, I ordered the Smoked Whitefish Chowder. I know. Whitefish. If beige were a food, it would be whitefish. It couldn't be more bland if it tried. In fact, whitefish is so bland that it isn't even a fish. It's literally a generalization of fish. Fish that taste like nothing. But, when you some add cream and some butter and some pepper and someegetables... suddenly amazing things happen. Flavor is born. I was on the fence about whether to order this or their matzo ball soup, but a dozen delis make a good matzo ball soup. I went with something different. Now you should, too. Dudeman had considered trying the bread basket because another thing that R&D is known for is their rye bread. However, another table ordered the basket and when a selection as large as a small dog was places on their table, we knew that it would be too much. Instead, he got a malted egg cream.
After the soup, our mains arrived. Dudeman ordered from the "boards" menu. Boards are basically platters where you create an open-faced sandwich with the ingredients that are provided. He tried the Shtetl Board. Smoked sable - a fish similar to cod -, tomato, onions, capers, and a goat's milk cream cheese. Very, very good. When the board arrived, I felt like maybe we were getting a con. Not only does there appear to be a scant amount of food on the plate relative to the cost, but the kitchen couldn't even be bothered to build you the sandwich? I was wrong. It worked and there was more than enough food. I got the Pastrami Russ, pastrami-cured salmon on a pretzel roll with muenster cheese, sauerkraut, mustard, pickle, and some potato chips on the side. The chips were mediocre but the sandwich! Oh so good. Next time I'm here, I'm getting it again. Having all but licked the (wooden) plates clean, our waiter, doing his best Larry David, walked up and quipped, "what, you didn't like it?".
Russ & Daughters, which by the way is Jewish but not Kosher, is open from breakfast through dinner, but the menu never changes. Like a diner, you can order eggs, which they have, whenever you want. Unlike a diner, you can order caviar, which starts at $115 for a serving of their cheap stuff. It goes up to $1970 for a serving of their primo cracker topping. Smoked fish makes up the vast majority of the menu and while most everything isn't even close to the caviar price-point, we didn't spend a little money here. Our two sandwiches, two drinks, and a soup, plus tax and tip clocked in at $67.