Like anyone with any kind of roots in New York, we have great affection for Russ & Daughters. From the neon façade to the lox behind the counter, it’s a slice of Lower East Side legend. Four generations of the Russ family have been flogging caviar, smoked salmon, herring, bagels and cream cheese in the city since 1914. As Anthony Bourdain says of the East Houston Street mothership and landmark: “Russ & Daughters occupies that rare and tiny place on the mountaintop reserved for those who are not just the oldest and the last — but also the best.”
It’s a rare beauty. We love the immaculate tiling, the gleaming white marble surfaces, the ribbed glass booth dividers and the duck egg blue benches and stools
The shiny new Russ & Daughters Café has been the talk of downtown since it opened in May. With good reason: in terms of design, it’s a rare beauty. We love the immaculate tiling, the gleaming white marble surfaces, the ribbed glass booth dividers and the duck egg blue benches and stools. We adore the lightboxes on the walls and the Milton Glaser-designed emblem of a fish swimming through a bagel. And the wallpaper in the toilets is a witty touch of genius: a huge photo assemblage of deli counter tickets. The food is pretty good too. Writer and wit Calvin Trillin visited recently and enjoyed most things on the menu, particularly a “wonderful” shissel rye bread, made by Gordie Weissman, a baker in Queens, from an 80-year-old starter.
We dropped by the other morning (after the current 10am opening time, although going by the “8am to…” that had been etched on the glass door and covered up, we suspect an earlier breakfast scene is imminent).
The food we had ranged from decent but bland to absolutely delicious. The soda list was seductive. We swooned at the ambience. Sure, we were a little disappointed that they are only serving drip coffee. But it was the prices in relation to portions that really got our goat.
There’s already been a debate about whether Russ & Daughters Café has been charging too much for its caviar. As Ryan Sutton of Eater NY pointed out: “The transmontanus roe is $175. That’s a lot of money, even for caviar. The same amount of the same roe is priced $55 lower in the Russ & Daughters retail store; the roe is also significantly more expensive than the entry-level sturgeon caviar at Le Bernardin ($140) or Marea ($110), Costata ($100), or The Dutch ($95).”
Caviar is never going to be cheap. But when it comes to fancy tins of tiny fish eggs, you pays your money and you makes your choice. What surprised us about Russ & Daughters Café was the price of the basics: we know this is table rather than counter service, and at fancy tables with slick typography all over the shop to boot, but $16 for a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese, before tax and tip, is definitely on the high side. And for the same sized board with sturgeon? $22. Two doughy potato knishes for $8 are, when spiced up with some mustard, a tasty and stodgy lead in to the “noshes” list. But they’re also gone in two bites. Platters of smoked fish range from $70 to $90, and claim to serve three to four. Sure. If those three or four diners have gastric bands going on.
The tastiest thing we’ve tried at Russ & Daughters Café to date is the Pastrami Russ, which consists of the perfect pretzel roll, stuffed with pastrami-cured salmon, muenster cheese, sauerkraut, mustard and pickle. It’s a thing of joy. But it’s $12 and tiny. It’s smaller than anything you’d find for gratis in an aperitivo bar in Italy. We can’t fathom what the mark-up must be on each serving. But all that Carrara marble and fancy pants graphic design doesn’t come cheap. C
Russ & Daughters Café, 127 Orchard Street, New York City, NY 10002
+212 475 4881; russanddaughterscafe.com