Russ and Daughters (179 E Houston, New York City) has been a lower east side fixture since 1914, and is one of New York City’s (and the country’s) best traditional Jewish delis. It is also one of the few business that has “And Daughters” as opposed to “Sons” in the name. We had been meaning to go to Russ and Daughters for probably a decade, but due to a series of circumstances, never made it there on all of trips to NYC. But finally, in October 2019, we did make it! You can recognize the store from down the block due to its original, vintage neon “appetizers” sign emblazoned with fish. What Russ and Daughters sells used to be called “appetizings,” and were considered places to get accompaniments to bagels. Inside and out, we appreciated that the store was reflective of the company’s long heritage: from the painted signs to the glass cases and the vintage-modern packaging.
The inside of the shop is TINY, as you can see below. You take a number and are served in order. You may have to wait a while, as we did, even at the off time of 3pm on Monday. There are two sides to the store, the sweet/bakery and the savory. On the sweet side you can get bagels, rye bread, challah, black and white cookies, babkas (chocolate or cinnamon), halvah, dried fruit, nuts and chocolate-covered sweets by the pound. In the cooler, there are sodas, pickles, and packages of blini ready to go, among other things.
While waiting, we decided to partake in some of the items from the sweet side, since you don’t need a number to buy items. If you are a previous reader of the blog, you may know that we are big fans of babka, an enriched sweet bread with a swirl of flavor, and are always looking out for a new variety. We opted for a slice of chocolate babka ($3 for a slice/ $14 for a whole) and our dining mates got some chocolate orange peel by the pound. The babka, while good, was no match for our favorite babka in the city. It was still very good, and a much needed snack while we waited our turn.
The savory side is the more impressive of the two, and the line belies this fact. Within the immaculate glass cases is a wonderland of cured and smoked fishes available by the pound. I must confess that my knowledge of smoked/cured fish is somewhat limited, though I do like the smoked offerings from Calumet Fisheries. There are no less than a dozen varieties of salmon alone, differing in origin (Norwegian, Irish and Scottish) and preparation (wet-smoked, cured, pastrami-cured, and dry-smoked, between $34 and 54 a pound). We are clueless about the qualities and characteristics of the different types of salmon, so we relied on the clerks for their expert advice. This Bon Appetit article with input by Josh Russ Tupper of Russ and Daughters, also helps break it down. One important distinction we did know, though, is that gravlax/lox is traditionally cured, NOT smoked, as many people think when they hear “lox.” There were other types of smoked fish on offer including: sable, sturgeon, whitefish and tuna ($15 to 56 a pound).
Though the fish are the stars of the show, you can also get other savories by the pound: pickled herring, egg salad, chopped liver, gefilte fish, latkes, caviar and roe of varying types, whitefish salad and knishes (many among other options, ranging between $9 and 25 a lb). We were already fantasizing about the amazing appetizer spread we could make with the endless options. However, if you are feeling like eating your fish right then instead of bringing it home (as we ultimately were), you can get a bagel sandwich, by selecting your individual fillings, or choosing a pre-picked combination. You first select a bagel (plain, sesame, everything, etc.), choose a cream cheese (goat cheese, plain, tofu, etc.), and finally a filling (many fish varieties or egg salad), plus capers and tomatoes for 50 cents extra each. The classic sandwich fillings are freshly sliced from the fish counter: Gaspe Nova, Norwegian smoked salmon, Salt-Cured belly lox, gravlax and more.
M got the Fancy Delancey ($12) which was a smoked tuna sandwich with horseradish dill cream cheese and wasabi flying fish roe, and I got a choose-your-own classic dill-brined gravlax with cream cheese ($13), both sandwiches on sesame bagels. Though the prices may seem a little steep, the bagel sandwiches are stuffed to the brim. The man at the counter sliced the fish with surgical expertise. We appreciated the attention to detail: everything was done in an exacting way, and was not rushed. The fish was superlative, of the highest quality, and melt-in-the-mouth tender. Having cured fish this good really makes you know what you are missing every other time. We could eat this stuff every day! We washed everything down with a classic Dr. Brown’s cream soda, the essential deli accompaniment (Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray is good too). We are so glad that we finally got to Russ and Daughters after all these years. It lived up to the hype, AND it is worth the wait (not often that we say both of those things).