Rushing at Russ & Daughters

If you had told me last night that within a three hour period the next day I would read the Sunday Times, rush down to the Lower East Side, visit Russ & Daughters for the first time and then grab tickets for the matinee of “Oedipus at Palm Springs” (by The Five Lesbian Brothers (who are also bloggers); it closed today and it was great, sorry you missed it) I would’ve called you a liar. A dirty bald-faced liar. (Bald faced? Did I make up that expression?)

But all these things did happen today. I woke up, made coffee, read the Times in bed (a new favorite ritual) and then, noticing in the Arts section that today was the last day for “Oedipus” I rushed out to catch the F Train down to 2nd Ave only the F train didn’t come on the F-train track. The D train came instead so I got on that, figuring the D train was acting like the F train today. But it took me pretty far down on Grand and as I rushed up towards Houston I realized I’d be really close to Russ & Daughters (also Katz’s, but that was out of the question timewise.) It was like 1:33 and the show started at 2. I could grab a bagel at Russ’s—this would be my first time, but now’s a better time than ever.

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I first learned of Russ & Daughters in the very first food book I ever read (and still one of my favorites) the not-so-long-ago published “Feeding a Yen” by Calvin Trillin. Have you read Calvin Trillin yet? You really should. He’s the best. (Though, did anyone try to get tickets to his walking tour of Chinatown in this year’s New Yorker festival? I was online precisely at 12 pm, right when they went on sale, and they were immediately gone at 12:01. Who got these tickets? Can I please please please have one?)

The first chapter of “Feeding A Yen” is called “Magic Bagel” and it’s totally endearing. It’s about him trying to lure his daughter back to New York (she lives in California) with the promise of tracking down a pumpernickel bagel she loved in her childhood. Here’s what Calvin writes about Russ’s:

“After spending years listening to customers tell him that he ought to move Russ & Daughters uptown, Mark Federman–the grandson of Joel Russ, the founder–was renovating the apartments above the store and expressing gratitude that his grandfather had held on to the building.

Ben’s Dairy had closed and Moishe’s Bakery had moved to a tiny place around the corner. But Russ & Daughters has been carefully preserved to look pretty much the way it did when Joel Russ himself still had his arms deep into the herring barrel.”

It’s strange because if I hadn’t known anything about Russ & Daughters and I went in there and you told me this place was built last year, I’d have believed you. But at the same time, I can believe it looks the same way it did years and years ago. Maybe that’s because the focus there isn’t the atmosphere or the decor: it’s the fish, specifically smoked fish. Men and women behind the counter slice smoked fish with long sharp knives and everything else falls into the background.

Funny enough, when I went in I think Mark Felderman (mentioned above) was there because I observed a bearded Jewish man talking to someone else and he said, “Someone’s doing a story about this place saying the smell in here is one of the best smells in New York.” (Actually, I think I’m getting that quote wrong but it had something to do with smell and New York. But the way he said it, it sounded like he owned the store.)

Besides smoked fish, though, there’s an exciting array of cream cheese:

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Check out the ones on the top and the bottom: caviar cream cheese! Horseradish cream cheese! I totally have to come back and try those.

I also noticed wasabi infused fish roe and I remembered I ate that exact same thing at Le Bernardin. This place means business.

I meant business, both in a speed sense and a hunger sense, and I asked a man behind the counter for an onion bagel with smoked salmon and tomato. This is the traditional Sunday bagel combo (maybe throw in some raw onions too, if stinky breath’s your game) and I awaited it greedily. Time passed and I kept looking at my watch but the man making my bagel wasn’t dawdling. He was sharpening his knife, then he was choosing the fish, and then he was cutting thick slices, and then he found a fresh tomato and cut slices from that, and then he slowly spread cream cheese on a soft looking onion bagel. He did everythign with great care and focus and that was great. I grabbed a fresh squeezed orange juice and the grand total was $10.25. That’s almost the same as it would be at Murray’s where I go all the time.

Here’s the bagel as it appeared on my lap as I sat on a bench outside, ready to scarf it down:

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Now let me tell you something. That bagel? It was pretty good. Soft, oniony, very nice. And the cream cheese? Creamy and fresh, just right. But that fish? Oh, that fish.

I’ve never had fresher smoked fish in my life. It really seemed like a salmon had crawled out of the sea, walked through a smoker like a car might go through a car wash, and then laid itself down on Russ’s slicing board ready for my guy to slice big thick slices. If the bagel in my lap were a Broadway show, that fish was Ethel Merman. It was fantastic.

But speaking of shows, I was late. I ate that bagel faster than you can say “You’ll be swell! You’ll be great!” I ran to the New York Theater Workshop (4th Street and 2nd Ave., so not terribly far) and got there just in time. And as I watched those lesbians act out their version of Oedipus, I knew deep down inside of me a happy salmon was swimming. Another jam-packed Sunday in New York.

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