I made a fast run to New York City the other day, and took advantage of the brief visit to go to a place I'd been reading about. Since it was a weekday morning, I thought it wouldn't be impossible to get a seat for breakfast at Russ & Daughters Cafe.
The cafe is an outgrowth of an old New York appetizing store - that's the phrase there, "appetizing" referring to appetizers - that began in the early years of the Twentieth Century on the Lower East Side. Joel Russ had no sons, but he had three daughters who joined him in his business. They were the first business in the country to have " & Daughters" in its name. They sold - and still sell - smoked fish, salads, bagels and bialys, the traditional Jewish foods. Eventually they added caviar. Lines still run out the door at their retail store two blocks from the cafe, which they opened in 2014, the hundredth anniversary of the store.
When the doors opened at 10 a.m., a half-dozen of us were in line. (They open at 8 on Saturday and Sunday.) I sat at the counter, the best place to watch the action. It's a menu full of temptations. Lots of kinds of smoked fish in variations, including platters to serve several people. Three kinds of herring, and I'm hard-core enough that the sampler called to me. Smoked whitefish chowder. Salads. Blintzes, of course. French toast made with babka, the Eastern European filled sweet bread that's having such a revival. Eggs with all kinds of things, scrambled with lox and onions, the same with sturgeon, a "Benedict" with smoked salmon and spinach. I tell you, it was agony.
My decision process was lost in the haze, but I ended up with something called the Lower Sunny Side. Two eggs, sunny side up, Gaspe nova smoked salmon and latkes. And a bialy, please, toasted with butter. A bialy? Yes. Unlike bagels, bialys are not boiled first, and there's only a depression in the center, not a hole. Often the depression contains chopped cooked onions or poppy seeds, or (these days) other things, but this one was plain. They're more tender than a bagel, and they're flatter.
The salmon was paper thin, which is how the really experienced fish guys at New York deli counters do it. The texture was somewhere between silk and velvet, as tender as the egg white on the sunny-sides. But it was the latkes that stopped me in my tracks.
They were not - quite - the size of hockey pucks. Their shape and even the color brought the comparison to mind. Very thick, almost an inch, and dark brown from a trip through a deep-fryer. Deep-frying a latke? What heresy is this? I'm sure I must have glared at them.
Don't judge a latke by its looks. These were wonderful. Plenty of onion in with the potato, something that's always been a sore point with me on latkes. There may have even been a little garlic. The insides were creamy but not mashed-potato-like, with shreds of potato both distinct and disintegrating. Latkes are not part of my culinary heritage, so I can't address the authenticity question, but these were utterly beguiling.
By the time I left, cameras were rolling - the woman who made the film about the Russ daughters, "The Sturgeon Queens", was working on another project there. No wonder she came back for seconds. I certainly will.
They do take reservations. They've just opened a branch in The Jewish Museum uptown, too.
And a bonus recommendation: The Tenement Museum is a half block south on Orchard Street at the corner of Delancey. Even if you don't go to the museum, which is fascinating, it's got one of the best shops in the city.
Russ & Daughters Cafe
127 Orchard St., New York City
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes