On a recent visit to Manhattan, I had a lunchtime craving only one place could satisfy, so I stopped at Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side. The narrow, brightly lit storefront on East Houston Street is a pilgrimage site for us lovers of smoked fish. Gleaming glass and chrome cases display row upon row of golden, silver, orange and ivory whole fish and filets whose shapes have a streamlined elegance that invite tasting. Fortunately, smiling countermen answer questions with a savory slice. I find sturgeon has a meaty, almost turkey-like flavor. Sable is soft and buttery. It melts in my mouth.
There’s quite a bit of bustle around noon with a regular rhythm to the comings and goings of customers and the deft movements of countermen busily slicing fish and building sandwiches. Lacking seating, the shop processes a crackling energy as people grab their orders and go.
In addition to sturgeon and sable, whitefish, trout, mackerel and yellow fin tuna are arrayed behind glass. Over a dozen kinds of salmon are available, including wild Baltic, kippered, pastrami cured, and double smoked Danish. Of herring, there are ten styles ranging from selyodka to smoked French, schmaltz to pickled with onions or smothered in cream sauce. There are also various caviars as well as salmon, flying fish, and trout roe.
Clutching a bialy stuffed with sable and Scottish salmon and smeared with caviar cream cheese, I leave the cool, spicy atmosphere salted with the light odor of fish for a bench just beyond the plate glass. Sitting below the pretzled neon sign with its fanciful piscine images, I watch a parade of humanity even more diverse—in age, skin tone, dress, gait and other ways—than the variety of fish displayed in the store.
Run by the same family since 1914, Russ & Daughters has been justly lauded in guidebooks and magazines for the quality of its offerings, and as a last bastion of the traditional Jewish appetizing shop selling smoked fish, salads and other foods that go with bagels. The Sunday Times of London called it “the Louvre of Lox,” and The Smithsonian Institution considers it “part of New York’s cultural heritage.”
Biting into a sandwich exploding with flavor, I’m suddenly transported to my childhood of Sunday mornings with lox, bagels, and family. World renowned publications and famous restaurant reviewers may have their reasons for extra helpings of accolades. As for me, I know that my long gone immigrant grandmother would have been comfortable here. She’d have known exactly what she wanted and relished every morsel.