Living overseas (and by overseas I mean anywhere outside of New York City) there’s one thing I miss the most. A bagel. With cream cheese. And lox. But not just any bagel — I want one with heft, with chew, with a crust that almost crackles between my teeth. I want the schmear to be plain, creamy and a little tangy, unless I’m foregoing the salmon in which case I’ll take vegetable or scallion. And speaking of salmon, I want it lightly smoked, not too salty, and hand cut into slices so thin they’re transparent.
Alas, even in Bagel Mecca you can find bad specimens — I’ve eaten my share. So imagine my excitement when, on the brink of a week-long visit to NYC, I read a review of a new book, Russ & Daughters, by Mark Russ Federman, which waxed poetic about this family-owned shop on the Lower East Side, the delectable nosh that you can purchase there, the friendly schmooze practiced by the countermen. Reading it, I could practically taste the schmear.
I used to live in Alphabet City, so of course I’d walked by the shop many times though I’d never been inside. (I blame my meager editorial assistant budget at the time.) But now I came armed with plenty of cash and a new vocabulary word gleaned from the store’s website: appetizing. When used as a noun, the word refers to the food you eat with bagels — the cold cured and/or smoked salmon, the filets of pickled herring, the spread of whitefish salad, the cream cheese. You know, a snack. Or, as my husband’s grandmother used to call it, a nosh. “You wanna nosh? Let’s have a nosh.”
My nosh that first morning was a sesame bagel, plain cream cheese, and three slices of silky Scottish salmon that melted on my tongue into a wisp of smoke. The counterman cut them right in front of me, sliding his knife across the filet so effortlessly I gaped when I saw their delicate translucency. The bagel had a chewy heft, the cream cheese was spread on both sides, not too thickly. The salmon had not even a hint of fishiness. It was a meal so perfect, I nearly wept when it was over.
Instead of weeping, I went back the next day, dragging my husband through a freak snowstorm, down thirteen blocks to Houston Street. That morning my bagel was pumpernickel, the cream cheese vegetable. He got sesame, plain schmear, and slices of nova lox reminiscent of butter. Visit #3 (oh, yes, there was a third visit) involved poppy seeds and scallion cream cheese (me), pumpernickel, plain and more nova (him). That morning, as we waited amongst a crowd of appetizing aficionados, I eavesdropped on the chatter all around me. I’m not sure if it was the counterman’s schmooze, but most people ordered with abandon, loading up on bagels, cream cheese, salmon and orange juice as if for an end-of-the-world Saturday morning nosh party, spending up to $100 or more. Russ & Daughters ain’t cheap but New Yorkers know the good stuff when they see it.
There used to be more than 20 or 30 appetizing shops on the Lower East Side, but now there’s just this one, open since 1914, a little living piece of New York history that still gleams shiny, fresh and bright. For those who live overseas (that is, outside NYC), Russ & Daughters offers mail order nationwide (continental US only) and their wares are equally delicious when shipped. If you don’t trust me, perhaps you’ll believe my in-laws — when we sent them some Russ & Daughters smoked salmon for the holidays, they told me it was the best they’d ever tasted.
Russ & Daughters
179 East Houston Street (at 1st Avenue)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 475 4880