Russ and Daughters Cafe – The Best Bagel of My Life

I mean, I really had a great eating weekend over July 4th.

And it didn’t involve any grills.

It did, however, involve this:

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Yep, the venerable Russ and Daughters Cafe.

The world-famous, decades old smoked fish emporium recently opened up a cafe around the corner from its teensy, temptation filled store. The cafe is open all day, offers the sandwiches that it always offered from the store, but now includes an expanded menu (including a full liquor list and a MEAN looking Bloody Mary), and ample seating.

It doesn’t take reservations but it is worth. the. wait.

20140705_112459 The cafe is done like an old-fashioned soda shop – a white counter in front with tables in the back, very comfortable stools with low backs so you don;t have to hunch over, and soda jerks in white jackets offering homemade egg creams (Fox’s U-Bet is the superior chocolate syrup on offer).

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LEO

This lox, eggs, and onions isn’t my favorite version in town, but it is excellent. Of particular note, the eggs are extremely creamy – no burnt or rubbery edges here. The eggs might be done by Daniel Boulud in the back – that’s how delicate and buttery they are. The lox isn’t super salty, but it is smokier than I prefer. The eggs ar sweet and soft and the brightly dressed salad alongside is a zingy counterpart. If you like a smokier lox, this would be your ideal version of the dish!

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Super Heebster

So good that I immediately texted the newest dad on the block and told him that when his son is ready for whitefish salad, he must have this iteration first. This is the single best bagel I have ever had. Creamy, mild whitefish salad mixed with baked salmon salad, spread atop horseradish cream cheese and topped with wasabi infused fish roe, all on a thin slice of toasted bagel. This is creamy, spicy, verdant, and hearty. The cream cheese really makes it – without it, this might seem too fishy. With it, it’s a perfect amalgam of everything Jewish comfort food. I’m not usually a fan of fish roe, but this is incredibly light and not at all bitter just a small, pleasant sting of wasabi. This is just perfect. Please get 2 of them.

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Chopped salad with whitefish and buttermilk dressing

The perfect way to round out your somewhat heavy and indulgent meal. Flaky, mild whitefish, lemony avocado, super sweet beets (those are really the standouts), and even some cruncy matzo. The apples and eggs are almost unnecessary, but the hit of fragrant dill really brings this salad to another level. This salad is excellent and I would order it again in a heartbeat.

20140705_120521 Blintzes with sour cream and compote

Mhm. Mhm, mhm, mhm. Get these for SURE. They simply must be deep fried – how else could they get so golden and crispy outside while remaining creamy inside? They are like cheesecake – sweet, rich, super creamy…paired with tangy sour cream and that sweet compote, it is great for either dessert or breakfast. I love dishes like that – sweet enough to end a meal but not a total sugar bomb.  20140705_120525

 Bread pudding

The best I have ever had. Others need not apply. This is the now and future king of bread puddings. Studded with sweet, sticky, juicy apricots, the top layer tastes deep fried and sugary. The inside is almost soft enough to eat with a straw, but isn’t at all liquidy. It’s just super soft and vanilla-y and creamy, and delicious.

Russ and Daughters is AWESOME! The staff couldn’t be more delightful or attentive (one server actually tried to replace one dish that we didn’t like – we told him that it was our fault, not theirs – it just wasn’t our cup of tea – and he was terribly distraught. Love him), the prices are high but fair, and the food is the best. Updated versions of all your favorite deli classics.

I’ll see ya around a Super Heebster.

Stuff Yourself Silly at Harold’s New York Deli

I know deli food.

I love the aroma of garlicky pastrami, the noisy clatter of knives being dropped as knishes as big as footballs crowd them off plates, and the sight of sweet grandmothers stuffing crackers into purses “for a bite later.”

Please don’t tell me it was just mine who did that when I was a kid.

more pix 062 Harold’s New York Deli in Edison, NJ, is a first rate deli. 
more pix 063 Harold Jaffe, who opened this, spent years managing Carnegie Deli and took everything he learned and applied it to his own namesake deli…
more pix 064 starting with cakes the height and weight of a toddler.

A very tall, chubby toddler.

more pix 067 The space is pure family – plastic chairs, laminated menus, and paper napkins. Once the server takes your drink order, feel free to help yourself to the pickle bar while you mull over your dining choices.

What pickle bar, you ask?
more pix 071 Why, this pickle bar, of course. The world’s largest. Take a look, why don’t you? You are allowed to eat as much as you want.

more pix 072 Sour pickles, half sours, garlic, and dill.

more pix 073 Pickle chips, pickled tomatoes, hot pickled peppers, and sauerkraut.

more pix 074 Rye bread, butter, and a wonderful oil and vinegar salad called health salad.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how crunchy the pickles are, how tangy the kraut is, or how wonderfully caraway flecked the rye bread is.

Be careful of those cherry peppers – they pack a really lip-tingling punch.

more pix 075 Chicken salad sandwich

This is the small order. It feeds between one and three very hungry people who have already embarrassed themselves by stuffing their faces at the salad bar. The chicken salad is almost as good as my mom’s. Mild, creamy but not mushy with juicy chicken, crunchy celery, and enough pepper to make the tiny dices of onion pop. It’s homestyle to be sure and not for a dieter, but it is the chicken salad of every kid’s dreams.

You will definitely need that extra rye bread from the pickle bar for this one.
more pix 076 Corned beef with coleslaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing

I wasn’t gonna try the pastrami, because why would I cheat on Katz’s like that? The corned beef, though a little dry, fits the bill. It has that uniquely hearty corned flavor and is thickly sliced. It is bolstered by the exceptionally tangy Swiss cheese and the thick, relish flecked Russian dressing. The slaw is crisp and piquant, dotted with poppy seeds, and if you are smart you will layer some of the slaw on the sandwich.

I’m obviously quite smart.

more pix 077 No matter how much food you order at Harold’s, you will always be left with this site at the end of your visit. The food is served in enormous portions, but it’s also really tasty. If you order like we did, you will eat for $15 per person until you are full to bursting. The service is so sweet (NOT always the case in a classic deli), the value is good, and the food is up to my discerning standards.

Now, turn away while I pocket some rye bread for later. 

Harold's New York Deli on Urbanspoon

2nd Avenue Deli

2nd Avenue Deli isn’t somewhere I normally frequent…it is on the Upper East Side, it is  expensive, and (let’s be honest), the pastrami can’t hold a candle to Katz’s. But, when I found myself up there for an assignment, I thought that I might as well make a meal out of it.

The deli is classic old school NYC – dark, cavernous, with a lengthy menu and servers who are either gruff , old, sassy, or some combo of the three. And awesome in their own ways. For example, if you don’t order enough, you are likely to get told that there will be a mandatory order of  fries tacked onto your meal. And you will eat them, too…you don’t want to get yelled at.

Pickles

LIke any good deli, you get a plate of pickles and a plate of coleslaw. The vinegary slaw is a bit more sweet than I like, but the pickles are pitch perfect. Tangy dill pickles, crunchy new pickles, and delightfully sour pickled tomatoes. A plate of these will drive your blood pressure through the roof, but are heaven when paired with a Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda.

The #6: Turkey, Chopped Liver, cole slaw and Russian dressing

Now this…THIS is a sandwich. Fresh roasted turkey is juicy and flavorful, a good match for classic, mayonnaise-based slaw. The chopped liver is almost as good as mine – rich, minerally, a little sweet, and filled with the pungent crunch of finely diced onions. Served on musky rye bread with tangy Russian dressing, it is all good things that Jewish food is: heavy, comforting, and guilt laden.

Stuffed Derma

This Jewish version of stuffing is fantastic. Moist and soft, with texture of polenta, it is filled not only with garlic and onion, but with the liquid gold that is chicken stock. This makes it fatty but not greasy, rich but not overwhelming.

Served with  thick gravy, this is comfort food at its finest.

Instant Heart Attack Sandwich

Click here to see my opinions on this monstrosity.

Spoiler alert: I love it.

Egg Cream

Each meal here ends with a tiny shot of a chocolate egg cream. There is neither egg nor cream in this old fashioned drink – just seltzer, milk, and a little chocolate syrup. The bubbly drink here is incredibly rich and chocolatey, which must be due to using the best chocolate syrup of all time, Fox’s U-Bet.

The 2nd Avenue Deli is a great representation of a classic NYC Jewish Deli. While it lacks the fantastic pastrami and old school atmosphere of Katz’s, it still has some delicious and traditional food, including that wonderful stuffed derma. The prices are high, but come on…you can easily share a sandwich and a side and be full for hours.

Or at least until your server pressures you into ordering dessert.

Gotta love that Jewish guilt.

2nd Ave. Deli (UES) on Urbanspoon

Katz’s Pastrami – In a Class of its Own

Sometimes you want to get a bunch of dishes to try everything at a restaurant. Sometimes you want to get a tasting menu so the chef can show off his/her technique. And sometimes, you go to a place where there is really just one thing to order, and to add too many supplements to it would just be slapping a masterpiece in the face. 
Katz’s is that place.
Made popular to the masses by When Harry Met Sally to New Yorkers by their grandparents, Katz’s Delicatessen is an institution. Operated since 1888, this Jewish-style deli is open 24 hours a day on the weekend, operates via a ticket system (take a ticket when you come in and order at counters, then pay at the end), and is so casual you could come in wearing pajamas and nobody would bat an eye. Katz’s serves deli staples like omelettes, grilled cheese, and fries, and for all I know, those things are great! I wouldn’t know because I haven’t ever ordered them. 
Because I have respect for places of worship.
I mean Katz’s. 
Is there a difference?
Stuffed Derma (a.k.a. Kishke)
Ignore the naysayers – this isn’t made with intestines like in the old days. This is just stuffing made the fatty, garlicky, Jewish way. Matzo meal, herbs and spices, mixed together into a highly spiced, savory, carby indulgence. And schmaltz. Plenty of glistening, orange tinged schmaltz gives the kishke a luxurious mouthfeel – velvety, smooth, and thick. It really is the world’s best stuffing. Dipped in plenty of thick chicken gravy, it wants for nothing. 
Dill and New Pickles
The dill pickles are crunchy and sour, but the new pickles are the really special thing. Firm and cold, they burst in the mouth with a vegetal, clean flavor, more like a cucumber than a pickle. It just has a vague hint of brine – a perfect accompaniment to the main attraction. 
 Pastrami on Rye with Extra Mustard
When you order this at the counter, the man slicing it will give you a few pieces on a plate. No need to ask for the sample – it will just be there. The first bite you take of the pastrami, steam rising off of it, pepper and grease clinging to your fingers, is the best. That first taste is of pepper and garlic. The hearty flavor of the beef. The texture – it really chews like steak. 
Placed between slices of soft, fragrant rye bread and liberally sauced with spicy mustard, it hits many points on the palate: spicy, meaty, aromatic, and salty. I mean, it really is salty – it doesn’t taste salty at the time, but you will be gulping water all night. 
It will be worth it. 
Katz’s is stupidly expensive  -this meal cost about $30. The place can be crowded, the atmosphere is more brusque than romantic, and absolutely everything here will give you heartburn. 
And blocked arteries. 
And joy. 
No tasting menu in the world can compete.
Katz's Deli on Urbanspoon

Artie’s Delicatessen – The Sandwich of My Dreams

Who doesn’t love a deli? If the scents of sour pickles, garlicky meats, and long simmered soups don’t get your engine running, you had better check your pulse, because you’re probably dead. I was raised on corned beef sandwiches, stuffed kishke, and the like, so eating these foods is my trip down memory lane. That’s why I felt especially keen to try Artie’s, a Jewish-style deli on the UWS.

Artie’s is a very gentrified version of the classic deli – cleaner and brighter, with young servers who don’t yell at you if you aren’t ready to order.

Pickles and Coleslaw

Any good deli gives you a little nosh before you know what you want to eat. The dill pickles were excellent – cold, crunchy, and sour with a touch of fragrant dill flavor. The coleslaw was even better – slightly sweet, with a creamy mayonnaise dressing tempered by the tang of vinegar. Two pickles and and a few forkfuls of colelsaw later, I was ready to make my meal happen.

Matzoh Ball Soup

I am not one for ordering matzoh ball soup at restaurants, because I feel like they never compare to the soups that you eat at people’s homes during Passover. That said, after trying my dining companion’s soup, I had to admit that this was surprisingly tasty. The matzoh balls were fluffy but not mushy, with a slight amount of resistance as my spoon slid cleanly though them. They were tender on the tongue, light and infused with a clean chicken flavor. The soup was not too salty(MAJOR pet peeve of mine), but it lacked the rich, gelatinous, savory flavor of truly long simmered chicken stock. Even so, the carrots were sweet and tender, and this is one of the better versions that I have tried from a restaurant.

Brisket Reuben with Sauerkraut, Muenster Cheese, and Horseradish Dressing

This was the most disappointing of the dishes ordered. The brisket was overcooked, rendering it limp and gray. It was saved by the excellent accompaniments – sour, crisp sauerkraut, aromatic rye bread, and gooey muenster cheese. The horseradish dressing could have used more of a sinus-clearing kick, but, then, I will always say that. This sandwich was fine, but not excellent. For excellent, you will have to see exhibit C:

Pastrami and Chopped Liver with Bermuda Onion

Yes. That is right. 3 of my favorite things in one sandwich. Thick slices of garlicky, peppery pastrami. The tender pieces of beef were surrounded by a pearly layer of fat that melted upon contact with my tongue. Creamy chopped liver, iron-y and umami, decadence at its finest. Razor thin slices of Bermuda onion, sharp at first then sweet at the end, to cut through the fat and salt of the sandwich. The chopped liver made the pastrami taste spicier, and the pastrami was so substantial that it made the chopped liver delicate, more like a spread than an overwhelming sandwich component. There was a good amount of meat there without being overwhelming, and the bread used was that same hearty rye. This sandwich longed for nothing.

Artie’s is not the best deli in the world. It’s a little gentrified, and the brisket leaves something to be desired. But the service is great, the menu is huge, and the chopped liver/pastrami sandwich is so good I just may go back for another today.

Just don’t expect anyone to kiss you afterwards-all that garlic is good for the appetite, bad for the romantic life.
Artie's Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Barney Greengrass – My Place of Worship

My parents can relax and my grandparents can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. I have paid homage to my past and will continue on in the Jewish faith in a new and focused light.
 I have been to Barney Greengrass
This legendary smoked fish emporium has been popularized by Larry David, Larry Seinfeld, and countless other Larrys as having the most delicious smoked fish this side of the Odessa. Sure, there are other Jewish delicacies like matzo ball soup, chopped liver and latkes, but if you come here, you get smoked fish.
The shop has been around since 1908, and I think that’s how long most of the servers have been working there. It certainly hasn’t been redecorated since then. Think ancient posters publicizing the “Sturgeon King,” 25 tables crammed into 4 sq. feet of space and a tiny counter where your posterior will most surely be in other diners’ faces. The surroundings might not be plush, but they are perfect for eavesdropping and somehow make the whole experience seem more…authentic? What can I say…I like being elbowed in the ribs while eating my breakfast!
Whitefish Salad Platter with Cream Cheese, Sesame Bagels and Bialys
If you like tuna salad, this will blow your mind. If you don’t like tuna salad, this will blow your mind. If you like smoked fish, this will thrill you, if you don’t like smoked fish, this will thrill you. What I am saying is that there is NO WAY that you will not like this. The taste is so delicate, so barely salty and pleasantly smoky that it is faintly reminiscent of bacon. The texture is tender but not soft, with whole pieces of delicate, mild fish bound by only enough mayonnaise to make it the proper consistency – thick enough to eat on a fork, spreadable enough to smear, NO greasy, gloppy residue. Spread a toasted bialy with the rich brick of cream cheese, add some tomato for sweetness, some onion for bite and some of that incredibly mild, satisfying whitefish salad. Eat, and as you do, feel a wave of nostalgia from tuna fish sandwiches of your youth or a breakthrough “Aha!” moment as you wonder what you have been missing your whole life. 
A lot. You have been missing a lot. 
Scrambled Lox, Egg and Onion
I have often ordered this dish, but have never enjoyed it so much. Thick, velvety slices of Nova salmon (less salty than traditional smoked salmon) mingled with soft, sweet caramelized onions and hearty eggs. The eggs were, wisely, not too loose – that would have made the dish too rich and unctuous. The salmon was clearly the star here – gently brined, it was fatty and meltingly tender. It was such a subtle, refined version of the dish – it, too blew me away. 
What can I say about Barney Greengrass that hasn’t been said a million times by several generations? The lines are horrible, the servers are surly and the prices are high. But the food is unbelievable. It is made with so much heart, so much reverence, and is just so darned delicious. 
Grandma, you were right. THIS is officially my place of worship.
Barney Greengrass on Urbanspoon