I have a new thing–sitting on benches in front of world-famous stores and glaring at people as they pass by making asinine comments.
It’s a good thing (for us) that the Lower East Side requires several subway changes to get to it from where we live, mainly because the primary attraction for us is Katz’s Deli. Were it any closer than I’m pretty sure M would be dragging me there any time he had a craving for pastrami to the point where we’d require assistance in getting out of our doors on a daily basis. As it is, we save our trips down there for special treats, maybe only going a few times a year at most. But we now have an additional excuse to visit this neighborhood, which will test my limits of self-restraint whenever I’m craving some smoked nova salmon: Russ & Daughters. I had heard of it prior to going in on Saturday, of course, but never ventured inside because the timing never seemed conducive to shopping there. On Saturday I told Michael that we would be stopping there so I could get brunch provisions for the next day, and my resolve was to the end so steely that I even refrained from ordering my usual lox platter at Katz’s and went for the latkes.
For someone who has never met a salmon platter she didn’t like, this is a feat of admirable self-restraint.
Oh, was it worth the wait.
The store is pretty tiny, so on a busy Saturday afternoon it’s quite easy to get pushed around a bit while trying to get your bearings, but once you grab a number and muscle your way to the counter to take a look around, it becomes pretty easy to decide what you want to get. There are the smoked fishes, the cream cheeses, the lox varieties, and then some other specialties like chopped liver that I was too far away from to get a good look at them. Caviar is also abundant, both the good stuff and the comparatively cheaper options that sat next to the cream cheeses, so it should be no surprise that people are flinging Benjamins around as they pay for their orders. The experience here is not an inexpensive one (much like going to Katz’s is not like going to a low-key diner or deli) but it is an authentic one, and that I completely credit to the staff.
What elevates the store from “ugh, tourist trap/rich person enclave” to food paradise is the complete lack of pretension that the staff has. They clearly love developing relationships with locals and visitors alike; the gentleman who served me not only reinforced my choice of getting goat cream cheese for brunch the next day, but basically entered into a conversation about all the different foods he likes to pair with it. When I asked about their anchovy selection, he managed to find an open jar of the one kind they carried and gave me a taste.
I ended up staying at that counter for quite a while, leaving Michael to spend a good amount of time on the bench outside the store people-watching and likely wondering if I would ever leave the store. But that service is the crux of the Russ & Daughters experience: since you can’t really browse because the store is so crowded, the counter staff bring their store’s selection to you, and if they can give you a sample they will.
One of the foods I didn’t sample in the store was the lox; after all, I had waited this long to enjoy it, I might as well wait until I was on my couch and biting into a toasted bagel smeared with cheese, topped with fish and sweet onions. That didn’t quite happen either as I had to sneak in a bit as I was assembling our platters…and oh my. The salt and the smoke were perfectly balanced, and the fish simply melted in my mouth as I savored it. The goat cream cheese was also the right choice because its lightness meant there were no lingering sensations of having consumed way too much food that often happens to me after eating normal cream cheese.
It’s a good thing this store is so far away from us to go regularly, right?