Pigs sometimes fly, snow sometimes falls in South Florida, and I sometimes wait for a restaurant table—about as frequently as the first two occurrences. Even so, I didn’t mind being stacked up for 45 minutes at the Russ and Daughters Café on the Lower East Side, on the hottest day of the summer.
Joel Russ emigrated to America from Germany in 1907. He began his new life by selling strings of Polish mushrooms that he carried on his back; eventually he became successful enough to purchase a pushcart, then a horse and wagon, and opened his first store on Orchard Street in 1914. He moved around the corner to East Houston in 1920, and his store became a legendary supplier of what Jewish people refer to as “appetizing”: salt cured salmon, schmaltz herring, sturgeon, whitefish, sable, and chubs, accompanied by bagels or bialys. His daughters Hattie, Anne and Ida come to work for him, and in 1935 his establishment was renamed Russ and Daughters.
The Café debuted last May and has been packed ever since. The building is long and narrow, like many spaces on the Lower East Side, and is faithfully decorated to resemble the store. White, bright and modern, the décor initially seems to conflict with the operation’s traditional aura—until you hear a female voice wailing plaintive Yiddish ballads over the sound system. The meaning of the lyrics is probably lost on the Millennials and Gen X-exers who crowd into the place, but the music is a reassuring reminder of the past.
When finally seated, lunch began with a stunning whitefish chowder: chunks of smoky fish resting in a pool of creamy broth, studded with celery, carrots and potatoes. Most people would choose lox in these surroundings, but we opted for sturgeon—the fish that seems to have migrated away from South Florida. Mine arrived sliced, served on a wooden board with butter, tomatoes, capers and red onion, accompanied by a warm, moist bialy. My wife’s Sturgeon, Eggs and Onions was served with dense pumpernickel bread that seemed to have materialized from another universe. It’s actually the creation of Gordon Weissman, the baker imported from Massachusetts by the fourth-generation Russ women after tasting his incomparable shissel rye.
If you’re craving smoked fish and planning a trip to Manhattan, don’t let those lines deter you: a second Café location, designed to catch the overflow, is planned for next year.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books in Spring 2016. For more information, go to amazon.com