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Calvin Trillin on Russ & Daughters


I recently attended the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation's Much Ado About Noshing event at the Astor Center featuring New Yorker writer Calvin "Bud" Trillin and two of the four generations of family members that have continuously owned and operated Russ & Daughters, the world-famous Lower East Side appetizer, for more than 100 years.

The third generation was represented by Mark Russ Federman, a "reformed" lawyer who left law to run R & D (which also stands for "Herring Research and Development"). Mark is writing the hotly anticipated history of Russ & Daughters and his family, which bears the working title The House That Herring Built. Before completing his memoir, Mark recently passed the Russ & Daughters torch to his nephew Josh Russ Tupper and his daughter Niki Russ Federman, who, thankfully, recently gave birth to an heiress to the Sturgeon Queens' royal family: a fifth generation Russ daughter. Speaking of historic preservation, Niki and Josh, like Mark before them, gave up their graduate studies and professional careers to preserve a family business devoted to preserving fish. Their silky smoked "lox" on a bagel with shmear is a historic Lower East Side luxury to die for.

I support my own smoked fish addiction (Russ & Daughters' smoked sturgeon, my favorite, is even more expensive than the lox) by practicing law. Mark's natural contempt for lawyers was increased tenfold when I represented Niki and Josh against Mark when they assumed legal ownership. After briefly being banned from the store, all was forgiven once I produced evidence that three generations of my family have been paying retail for sturgeon for 50 years.

Known as a political writer, poet, and satirist, Calvin Trillin has also often written about his relationship with food while living in Greenwich Village with his wife Alice for 40 years and raising two daughters. If Woody Allen's neurotic, existential, self-deprecating humor had focused on food instead of love and death, he'd have been named Calvin Trillin. By way of example, Trillin ascribes to famous Russ & Daughters customer Zero Mostel the revelation that Jewish-Romanian cooking, particularly its emphasis on schmaltz (chicken fat), has been responsible for the deaths of more Jews than Hitler. (Photo Wikimedia/Huangavin)

Trillin has been the inspiration for my humble attempts at being a food writer. His writing recounts his loving paternal efforts to share his passion for the food he discovered in his own beloved Lower East Side, Little Italy, Chinatown, and Greenwich Village with his daughters as they were growing up, and his wife's equally loving tolerance of his food obsession.

For me, Trillin's books are a mirror of my own life living in Greenwich Village with my beautiful and infinitely patient wife and infinitely picky-eater daughter. I, too, share Trillin's legendary violent distrust of Chinese menu translations, as he covets the dishes served to the Chinese customers at the next table which do not appear on the English menu while Alice unsuccessfully tries to soothe his paranoia. I must confess to lying to the Chinese legal translator in my law office, whom I've convinced that the translation of the Szechuan menu I've given her is critical to winning a firm client's litigation.

Trillin started the lecture by describing the typical Russ & Daughters customer: a sweet, elderly, Jewish lady who comes in once a week looking for a "nice" whitefish. "One whitefish coming up," says the affable counterman, most likely Herman Vargas, a 30-year veteran slicer and general manager of Russ & Daughters who speaks more Yiddish than Spanish, and who has been immortalized in Trillin's books. "I said a 'nice' whitefish," shoots back the lady.

I told Mark that my own father would insist that his sturgeon be sliced from the superior piece of fish hidden in the proverbial "vault" and reserved for only the best regular customers. Niki and Josh have confirmed to me the existence of the vault, but will not share the combination even though I'm supposedly their "trusted" lawyer.

One of my favorite Trillin stories involved his obsessive-compulsive quest to find the perfect Italian sausage-and-pepper hero among the seemingly infinite number of sausage stands at the Feast of San Gennaro to the embarrassment of his daughters, a feeling my own daughter knows quite well, as I've done the same at countless braciole stands at the Feast. Trillin has even attempted to lure his now grown daughter to move back to New York from San Francisco by promising to locate the gnarled, dark pumpernickel bagel she cherished as a little girl from the now defunct bakery that used to be next door to Russ & Daughters.

With Trillin and the Russ family sharing their intimate stories with the audience, unlimited Gaspe and Scottish smoked salmon sliced by the inimitable Mr. Vargas, modern hors d'oeuvres like wasabi-flavored flying fish roe atop blinis and crème fraîche, and the fantastic chocolate babka for dessert, Much Ado About Noshing was actually much ado about something very precious to the history and culture of New York City.


Calvin Trillin Visits Russ & Daughters Café

He isn't very far into American Fried, the first volume of his Tummy Trilogy, before Calvin Trillin mentions Russ & Daughters. He happens to be tailing madcap actor and comedian Zero Mostel on the sort of Lower East Side food crawl that the New Yorker writer would later become famous for, and describes a luscious lox and sturgeon sandwich made by proprietor Herbie Federman. The subsequent chapter tells how Sunday mornings, Trillin is in the habit of going to Russ & Daughters to buy Nova Scotia lox, while also getting homemade scallion cream cheese from Ben's Dairy and pumpernickel bagels from Tannebaum's, then putting it all together for the most sublime DIY brunch imaginable. Sadly, Ben's and Tannenbaum's are long gone, making the pleasures of weekend foraging along Houston Street almost a thing of the past.


Now, of course, you could just go to the new Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street and have the delicacies brought to you already assembled. Trying to beat the crowds three weeks after the opening, I went around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for a late lunch, and was lucky enough to persuade Calvin Trillin to join me. I wanted to get the perspective of the World's Greatest Authority on Russ & Daughters on the new joint. He showed up in a blue Russ & Daughters baseball cap with a fish on it.


At the new café Trillin counts as a sort of reigning saint. Just inside the front door in a glass case there's a relic from the original shop circa the late 60s, a brown paper sack with the kind of brass plaque underneath usually reserved for fancy art galleries. The bag boasts "Queens of Lake Sturgeon," and it's attributed to the collection of Calvin Trillin. He pointed to it as we entered: "I found this after rustling through my shopping bag collection," implying that every West Villager has an assortment of historic sacks stashed in a closet somewhere that he indexes as carefully as a museum curator.

We then made our way in a stately procession past a white podium and into a space suffused with indirect light, with something on our right that looked like a soda fountain, but was also a bar. Up above inscribed in sans-serif on a series of back-lit panels were house specialties — and mainstays of Lower East Side Jewish cuisine — that included chubs, pickles, babka, smoked whitefish, sardines, caviar, bialys, and bagels. Attendants stood around the room in spotless white shop coats surrounded by antique black-and-white photos of the Russ & Daughters store, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. One couldn't help but be struck by the impression that, apart from the fussy lighting scheme and modern shades of paint, a time machine might have transported you back a century, so thoughtfully detailed were the premises.


After admiring a guy who, knife slashing and glinting, sliced Nova like he was on Broadway doing a one-man show, we were seated in the rear room at a fawn-gray booth. As he ran his eye over the bill of fare, Trillin observed, "the menu is partly Jewish dairy restaurant, partly appetizing store." As luck would have it, the bowl of matzo ball soup? ($8) was one of the first things to arrive, featuring a good quantity of light and dark meat. "This isn't like my mother's," Trillin said, poking at the big soft matzo ball and spooning up the amber broth, upon which little droplets of pure schmaltz danced. "My sister and I used to joke that hers were so hard you could play jacks with them." The recipe was clearly owing to somebody's mom, because the soup was a classic version that hadn't been doctored for the purposes of menu modernity.


There were newfangled things on the menu, too, including the super heebster ($10), a pair of open-faced toasts with cream cheese and fish salad surmounted by a cascade of fluorescent roe tinted green with wasabi. There were sprouts on the top, too, something which had probably never crossed the threshold of a traditional Jewish café before. Unavoidably, we reminisced about the neighborhood's old dairy restaurants, now kaput, including Ratner's, a hulking cave of a place that had been around the corner on Delancey Street, where old schmatta salesmen once sat in the afternoon spooning up bowls of pure sour cream.




Trillin seemed to take particular pleasure in the herring platter ($20), which included three different types of pickled herring, with rollmops in the middle, served with three contrasting sauces. He also liked the tiny potato knishes, which seemed pointedly different from those of another remaining Lower East Side stalwart, Yonah Schimmel's. My favorite was the sandwich of salmon cured as if it were pastrami, deposited on a pretzel roll with muenster cheese and sauerkraut. Neither of us much liked the matzo brei, which was a heap of crushed crackers barely moistened with scrambled eggs. "We never had this in Kansas City," Trillin observed. "Maybe it's an exclusive New York thing," I replied.

For most of the meal, Trillin's presence in the restaurant had gone unobserved. But as we were finishing up the last rollmop, Niki Russ Federman, great granddaughter of the Russ & Daughters founder, and co-owner of the present café, bounded up and warmly greeted us. We told her we'd already eaten, but she sent over a couple of things she wanted us to try. One was a carob egg cream. "In the old store when I was a little girl, there used to be a barrel of bokser," she smiled, using the Yiddish word for carob. "The old men would sit around the back of the store, and occasionally one of them would grab a handful of the pods and chew like it was gum. So we decided to make an egg cream out of it."


She also sent over a couple of slices of shissel rye, now made in Queens by baker Gordie Weissman. Originally from a Bronx baking family, he was working in Springfield, Massachusetts before Federman and her cousin and co-owner Josh Russ Tupper found him and set him up to make the rye bread for the café. "It's made from an 80-year-old starter," Federman noted enthusiastically. "This bread is wonderful," Trillin replied, feeling it with his fingers like an Orchard Street salesman might have once appraised the quality of a glove.

I paid our bill and we were soon out the door, headed for the Delancey Street M stop.


Calvin Trillin Visits Russ & Daughters Café

He isn't very far into American Fried, the first volume of his Tummy Trilogy, before Calvin Trillin mentions Russ & Daughters. He happens to be tailing madcap actor and comedian Zero Mostel on the sort of Lower East Side food crawl that the New Yorker writer would later become famous for, and describes a luscious lox and sturgeon sandwich made by proprietor Herbie Federman. The subsequent chapter tells how Sunday mornings, Trillin is in the habit of going to Russ & Daughters to buy Nova Scotia lox, while also getting homemade scallion cream cheese from Ben's Dairy and pumpernickel bagels from Tannebaum's, then putting it all together for the most sublime DIY brunch imaginable. Sadly, Ben's and Tannenbaum's are long gone, making the pleasures of weekend foraging along Houston Street almost a thing of the past.


Now, of course, you could just go to the new Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street and have the delicacies brought to you already assembled. Trying to beat the crowds three weeks after the opening, I went around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for a late lunch, and was lucky enough to persuade Calvin Trillin to join me. I wanted to get the perspective of the World's Greatest Authority on Russ & Daughters on the new joint. He showed up in a blue Russ & Daughters baseball cap with a fish on it.


At the new café Trillin counts as a sort of reigning saint. Just inside the front door in a glass case there's a relic from the original shop circa the late 60s, a brown paper sack with the kind of brass plaque underneath usually reserved for fancy art galleries. The bag boasts "Queens of Lake Sturgeon," and it's attributed to the collection of Calvin Trillin. He pointed to it as we entered: "I found this after rustling through my shopping bag collection," implying that every West Villager has an assortment of historic sacks stashed in a closet somewhere that he indexes as carefully as a museum curator.

We then made our way in a stately procession past a white podium and into a space suffused with indirect light, with something on our right that looked like a soda fountain, but was also a bar. Up above inscribed in sans-serif on a series of back-lit panels were house specialties — and mainstays of Lower East Side Jewish cuisine — that included chubs, pickles, babka, smoked whitefish, sardines, caviar, bialys, and bagels. Attendants stood around the room in spotless white shop coats surrounded by antique black-and-white photos of the Russ & Daughters store, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. One couldn't help but be struck by the impression that, apart from the fussy lighting scheme and modern shades of paint, a time machine might have transported you back a century, so thoughtfully detailed were the premises.


After admiring a guy who, knife slashing and glinting, sliced Nova like he was on Broadway doing a one-man show, we were seated in the rear room at a fawn-gray booth. As he ran his eye over the bill of fare, Trillin observed, "the menu is partly Jewish dairy restaurant, partly appetizing store." As luck would have it, the bowl of matzo ball soup? ($8) was one of the first things to arrive, featuring a good quantity of light and dark meat. "This isn't like my mother's," Trillin said, poking at the big soft matzo ball and spooning up the amber broth, upon which little droplets of pure schmaltz danced. "My sister and I used to joke that hers were so hard you could play jacks with them." The recipe was clearly owing to somebody's mom, because the soup was a classic version that hadn't been doctored for the purposes of menu modernity.


There were newfangled things on the menu, too, including the super heebster ($10), a pair of open-faced toasts with cream cheese and fish salad surmounted by a cascade of fluorescent roe tinted green with wasabi. There were sprouts on the top, too, something which had probably never crossed the threshold of a traditional Jewish café before. Unavoidably, we reminisced about the neighborhood's old dairy restaurants, now kaput, including Ratner's, a hulking cave of a place that had been around the corner on Delancey Street, where old schmatta salesmen once sat in the afternoon spooning up bowls of pure sour cream.




Trillin seemed to take particular pleasure in the herring platter ($20), which included three different types of pickled herring, with rollmops in the middle, served with three contrasting sauces. He also liked the tiny potato knishes, which seemed pointedly different from those of another remaining Lower East Side stalwart, Yonah Schimmel's. My favorite was the sandwich of salmon cured as if it were pastrami, deposited on a pretzel roll with muenster cheese and sauerkraut. Neither of us much liked the matzo brei, which was a heap of crushed crackers barely moistened with scrambled eggs. "We never had this in Kansas City," Trillin observed. "Maybe it's an exclusive New York thing," I replied.

For most of the meal, Trillin's presence in the restaurant had gone unobserved. But as we were finishing up the last rollmop, Niki Russ Federman, great granddaughter of the Russ & Daughters founder, and co-owner of the present café, bounded up and warmly greeted us. We told her we'd already eaten, but she sent over a couple of things she wanted us to try. One was a carob egg cream. "In the old store when I was a little girl, there used to be a barrel of bokser," she smiled, using the Yiddish word for carob. "The old men would sit around the back of the store, and occasionally one of them would grab a handful of the pods and chew like it was gum. So we decided to make an egg cream out of it."


She also sent over a couple of slices of shissel rye, now made in Queens by baker Gordie Weissman. Originally from a Bronx baking family, he was working in Springfield, Massachusetts before Federman and her cousin and co-owner Josh Russ Tupper found him and set him up to make the rye bread for the café. "It's made from an 80-year-old starter," Federman noted enthusiastically. "This bread is wonderful," Trillin replied, feeling it with his fingers like an Orchard Street salesman might have once appraised the quality of a glove.

I paid our bill and we were soon out the door, headed for the Delancey Street M stop.


Calvin Trillin Visits Russ & Daughters Café

He isn't very far into American Fried, the first volume of his Tummy Trilogy, before Calvin Trillin mentions Russ & Daughters. He happens to be tailing madcap actor and comedian Zero Mostel on the sort of Lower East Side food crawl that the New Yorker writer would later become famous for, and describes a luscious lox and sturgeon sandwich made by proprietor Herbie Federman. The subsequent chapter tells how Sunday mornings, Trillin is in the habit of going to Russ & Daughters to buy Nova Scotia lox, while also getting homemade scallion cream cheese from Ben's Dairy and pumpernickel bagels from Tannebaum's, then putting it all together for the most sublime DIY brunch imaginable. Sadly, Ben's and Tannenbaum's are long gone, making the pleasures of weekend foraging along Houston Street almost a thing of the past.


Now, of course, you could just go to the new Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street and have the delicacies brought to you already assembled. Trying to beat the crowds three weeks after the opening, I went around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for a late lunch, and was lucky enough to persuade Calvin Trillin to join me. I wanted to get the perspective of the World's Greatest Authority on Russ & Daughters on the new joint. He showed up in a blue Russ & Daughters baseball cap with a fish on it.


At the new café Trillin counts as a sort of reigning saint. Just inside the front door in a glass case there's a relic from the original shop circa the late 60s, a brown paper sack with the kind of brass plaque underneath usually reserved for fancy art galleries. The bag boasts "Queens of Lake Sturgeon," and it's attributed to the collection of Calvin Trillin. He pointed to it as we entered: "I found this after rustling through my shopping bag collection," implying that every West Villager has an assortment of historic sacks stashed in a closet somewhere that he indexes as carefully as a museum curator.

We then made our way in a stately procession past a white podium and into a space suffused with indirect light, with something on our right that looked like a soda fountain, but was also a bar. Up above inscribed in sans-serif on a series of back-lit panels were house specialties — and mainstays of Lower East Side Jewish cuisine — that included chubs, pickles, babka, smoked whitefish, sardines, caviar, bialys, and bagels. Attendants stood around the room in spotless white shop coats surrounded by antique black-and-white photos of the Russ & Daughters store, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. One couldn't help but be struck by the impression that, apart from the fussy lighting scheme and modern shades of paint, a time machine might have transported you back a century, so thoughtfully detailed were the premises.


After admiring a guy who, knife slashing and glinting, sliced Nova like he was on Broadway doing a one-man show, we were seated in the rear room at a fawn-gray booth. As he ran his eye over the bill of fare, Trillin observed, "the menu is partly Jewish dairy restaurant, partly appetizing store." As luck would have it, the bowl of matzo ball soup? ($8) was one of the first things to arrive, featuring a good quantity of light and dark meat. "This isn't like my mother's," Trillin said, poking at the big soft matzo ball and spooning up the amber broth, upon which little droplets of pure schmaltz danced. "My sister and I used to joke that hers were so hard you could play jacks with them." The recipe was clearly owing to somebody's mom, because the soup was a classic version that hadn't been doctored for the purposes of menu modernity.


There were newfangled things on the menu, too, including the super heebster ($10), a pair of open-faced toasts with cream cheese and fish salad surmounted by a cascade of fluorescent roe tinted green with wasabi. There were sprouts on the top, too, something which had probably never crossed the threshold of a traditional Jewish café before. Unavoidably, we reminisced about the neighborhood's old dairy restaurants, now kaput, including Ratner's, a hulking cave of a place that had been around the corner on Delancey Street, where old schmatta salesmen once sat in the afternoon spooning up bowls of pure sour cream.




Trillin seemed to take particular pleasure in the herring platter ($20), which included three different types of pickled herring, with rollmops in the middle, served with three contrasting sauces. He also liked the tiny potato knishes, which seemed pointedly different from those of another remaining Lower East Side stalwart, Yonah Schimmel's. My favorite was the sandwich of salmon cured as if it were pastrami, deposited on a pretzel roll with muenster cheese and sauerkraut. Neither of us much liked the matzo brei, which was a heap of crushed crackers barely moistened with scrambled eggs. "We never had this in Kansas City," Trillin observed. "Maybe it's an exclusive New York thing," I replied.

For most of the meal, Trillin's presence in the restaurant had gone unobserved. But as we were finishing up the last rollmop, Niki Russ Federman, great granddaughter of the Russ & Daughters founder, and co-owner of the present café, bounded up and warmly greeted us. We told her we'd already eaten, but she sent over a couple of things she wanted us to try. One was a carob egg cream. "In the old store when I was a little girl, there used to be a barrel of bokser," she smiled, using the Yiddish word for carob. "The old men would sit around the back of the store, and occasionally one of them would grab a handful of the pods and chew like it was gum. So we decided to make an egg cream out of it."


She also sent over a couple of slices of shissel rye, now made in Queens by baker Gordie Weissman. Originally from a Bronx baking family, he was working in Springfield, Massachusetts before Federman and her cousin and co-owner Josh Russ Tupper found him and set him up to make the rye bread for the café. "It's made from an 80-year-old starter," Federman noted enthusiastically. "This bread is wonderful," Trillin replied, feeling it with his fingers like an Orchard Street salesman might have once appraised the quality of a glove.

I paid our bill and we were soon out the door, headed for the Delancey Street M stop.


Calvin Trillin Visits Russ & Daughters Café

He isn't very far into American Fried, the first volume of his Tummy Trilogy, before Calvin Trillin mentions Russ & Daughters. He happens to be tailing madcap actor and comedian Zero Mostel on the sort of Lower East Side food crawl that the New Yorker writer would later become famous for, and describes a luscious lox and sturgeon sandwich made by proprietor Herbie Federman. The subsequent chapter tells how Sunday mornings, Trillin is in the habit of going to Russ & Daughters to buy Nova Scotia lox, while also getting homemade scallion cream cheese from Ben's Dairy and pumpernickel bagels from Tannebaum's, then putting it all together for the most sublime DIY brunch imaginable. Sadly, Ben's and Tannenbaum's are long gone, making the pleasures of weekend foraging along Houston Street almost a thing of the past.


Now, of course, you could just go to the new Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street and have the delicacies brought to you already assembled. Trying to beat the crowds three weeks after the opening, I went around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for a late lunch, and was lucky enough to persuade Calvin Trillin to join me. I wanted to get the perspective of the World's Greatest Authority on Russ & Daughters on the new joint. He showed up in a blue Russ & Daughters baseball cap with a fish on it.


At the new café Trillin counts as a sort of reigning saint. Just inside the front door in a glass case there's a relic from the original shop circa the late 60s, a brown paper sack with the kind of brass plaque underneath usually reserved for fancy art galleries. The bag boasts "Queens of Lake Sturgeon," and it's attributed to the collection of Calvin Trillin. He pointed to it as we entered: "I found this after rustling through my shopping bag collection," implying that every West Villager has an assortment of historic sacks stashed in a closet somewhere that he indexes as carefully as a museum curator.

We then made our way in a stately procession past a white podium and into a space suffused with indirect light, with something on our right that looked like a soda fountain, but was also a bar. Up above inscribed in sans-serif on a series of back-lit panels were house specialties — and mainstays of Lower East Side Jewish cuisine — that included chubs, pickles, babka, smoked whitefish, sardines, caviar, bialys, and bagels. Attendants stood around the room in spotless white shop coats surrounded by antique black-and-white photos of the Russ & Daughters store, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. One couldn't help but be struck by the impression that, apart from the fussy lighting scheme and modern shades of paint, a time machine might have transported you back a century, so thoughtfully detailed were the premises.


After admiring a guy who, knife slashing and glinting, sliced Nova like he was on Broadway doing a one-man show, we were seated in the rear room at a fawn-gray booth. As he ran his eye over the bill of fare, Trillin observed, "the menu is partly Jewish dairy restaurant, partly appetizing store." As luck would have it, the bowl of matzo ball soup? ($8) was one of the first things to arrive, featuring a good quantity of light and dark meat. "This isn't like my mother's," Trillin said, poking at the big soft matzo ball and spooning up the amber broth, upon which little droplets of pure schmaltz danced. "My sister and I used to joke that hers were so hard you could play jacks with them." The recipe was clearly owing to somebody's mom, because the soup was a classic version that hadn't been doctored for the purposes of menu modernity.


There were newfangled things on the menu, too, including the super heebster ($10), a pair of open-faced toasts with cream cheese and fish salad surmounted by a cascade of fluorescent roe tinted green with wasabi. There were sprouts on the top, too, something which had probably never crossed the threshold of a traditional Jewish café before. Unavoidably, we reminisced about the neighborhood's old dairy restaurants, now kaput, including Ratner's, a hulking cave of a place that had been around the corner on Delancey Street, where old schmatta salesmen once sat in the afternoon spooning up bowls of pure sour cream.




Trillin seemed to take particular pleasure in the herring platter ($20), which included three different types of pickled herring, with rollmops in the middle, served with three contrasting sauces. He also liked the tiny potato knishes, which seemed pointedly different from those of another remaining Lower East Side stalwart, Yonah Schimmel's. My favorite was the sandwich of salmon cured as if it were pastrami, deposited on a pretzel roll with muenster cheese and sauerkraut. Neither of us much liked the matzo brei, which was a heap of crushed crackers barely moistened with scrambled eggs. "We never had this in Kansas City," Trillin observed. "Maybe it's an exclusive New York thing," I replied.

For most of the meal, Trillin's presence in the restaurant had gone unobserved. But as we were finishing up the last rollmop, Niki Russ Federman, great granddaughter of the Russ & Daughters founder, and co-owner of the present café, bounded up and warmly greeted us. We told her we'd already eaten, but she sent over a couple of things she wanted us to try. One was a carob egg cream. "In the old store when I was a little girl, there used to be a barrel of bokser," she smiled, using the Yiddish word for carob. "The old men would sit around the back of the store, and occasionally one of them would grab a handful of the pods and chew like it was gum. So we decided to make an egg cream out of it."


She also sent over a couple of slices of shissel rye, now made in Queens by baker Gordie Weissman. Originally from a Bronx baking family, he was working in Springfield, Massachusetts before Federman and her cousin and co-owner Josh Russ Tupper found him and set him up to make the rye bread for the café. "It's made from an 80-year-old starter," Federman noted enthusiastically. "This bread is wonderful," Trillin replied, feeling it with his fingers like an Orchard Street salesman might have once appraised the quality of a glove.

I paid our bill and we were soon out the door, headed for the Delancey Street M stop.


Calvin Trillin Visits Russ & Daughters Café

He isn't very far into American Fried, the first volume of his Tummy Trilogy, before Calvin Trillin mentions Russ & Daughters. He happens to be tailing madcap actor and comedian Zero Mostel on the sort of Lower East Side food crawl that the New Yorker writer would later become famous for, and describes a luscious lox and sturgeon sandwich made by proprietor Herbie Federman. The subsequent chapter tells how Sunday mornings, Trillin is in the habit of going to Russ & Daughters to buy Nova Scotia lox, while also getting homemade scallion cream cheese from Ben's Dairy and pumpernickel bagels from Tannebaum's, then putting it all together for the most sublime DIY brunch imaginable. Sadly, Ben's and Tannenbaum's are long gone, making the pleasures of weekend foraging along Houston Street almost a thing of the past.


Now, of course, you could just go to the new Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street and have the delicacies brought to you already assembled. Trying to beat the crowds three weeks after the opening, I went around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for a late lunch, and was lucky enough to persuade Calvin Trillin to join me. I wanted to get the perspective of the World's Greatest Authority on Russ & Daughters on the new joint. He showed up in a blue Russ & Daughters baseball cap with a fish on it.


At the new café Trillin counts as a sort of reigning saint. Just inside the front door in a glass case there's a relic from the original shop circa the late 60s, a brown paper sack with the kind of brass plaque underneath usually reserved for fancy art galleries. The bag boasts "Queens of Lake Sturgeon," and it's attributed to the collection of Calvin Trillin. He pointed to it as we entered: "I found this after rustling through my shopping bag collection," implying that every West Villager has an assortment of historic sacks stashed in a closet somewhere that he indexes as carefully as a museum curator.

We then made our way in a stately procession past a white podium and into a space suffused with indirect light, with something on our right that looked like a soda fountain, but was also a bar. Up above inscribed in sans-serif on a series of back-lit panels were house specialties — and mainstays of Lower East Side Jewish cuisine — that included chubs, pickles, babka, smoked whitefish, sardines, caviar, bialys, and bagels. Attendants stood around the room in spotless white shop coats surrounded by antique black-and-white photos of the Russ & Daughters store, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. One couldn't help but be struck by the impression that, apart from the fussy lighting scheme and modern shades of paint, a time machine might have transported you back a century, so thoughtfully detailed were the premises.


After admiring a guy who, knife slashing and glinting, sliced Nova like he was on Broadway doing a one-man show, we were seated in the rear room at a fawn-gray booth. As he ran his eye over the bill of fare, Trillin observed, "the menu is partly Jewish dairy restaurant, partly appetizing store." As luck would have it, the bowl of matzo ball soup? ($8) was one of the first things to arrive, featuring a good quantity of light and dark meat. "This isn't like my mother's," Trillin said, poking at the big soft matzo ball and spooning up the amber broth, upon which little droplets of pure schmaltz danced. "My sister and I used to joke that hers were so hard you could play jacks with them." The recipe was clearly owing to somebody's mom, because the soup was a classic version that hadn't been doctored for the purposes of menu modernity.


There were newfangled things on the menu, too, including the super heebster ($10), a pair of open-faced toasts with cream cheese and fish salad surmounted by a cascade of fluorescent roe tinted green with wasabi. There were sprouts on the top, too, something which had probably never crossed the threshold of a traditional Jewish café before. Unavoidably, we reminisced about the neighborhood's old dairy restaurants, now kaput, including Ratner's, a hulking cave of a place that had been around the corner on Delancey Street, where old schmatta salesmen once sat in the afternoon spooning up bowls of pure sour cream.




Trillin seemed to take particular pleasure in the herring platter ($20), which included three different types of pickled herring, with rollmops in the middle, served with three contrasting sauces. He also liked the tiny potato knishes, which seemed pointedly different from those of another remaining Lower East Side stalwart, Yonah Schimmel's. My favorite was the sandwich of salmon cured as if it were pastrami, deposited on a pretzel roll with muenster cheese and sauerkraut. Neither of us much liked the matzo brei, which was a heap of crushed crackers barely moistened with scrambled eggs. "We never had this in Kansas City," Trillin observed. "Maybe it's an exclusive New York thing," I replied.

For most of the meal, Trillin's presence in the restaurant had gone unobserved. But as we were finishing up the last rollmop, Niki Russ Federman, great granddaughter of the Russ & Daughters founder, and co-owner of the present café, bounded up and warmly greeted us. We told her we'd already eaten, but she sent over a couple of things she wanted us to try. One was a carob egg cream. "In the old store when I was a little girl, there used to be a barrel of bokser," she smiled, using the Yiddish word for carob. "The old men would sit around the back of the store, and occasionally one of them would grab a handful of the pods and chew like it was gum. So we decided to make an egg cream out of it."


She also sent over a couple of slices of shissel rye, now made in Queens by baker Gordie Weissman. Originally from a Bronx baking family, he was working in Springfield, Massachusetts before Federman and her cousin and co-owner Josh Russ Tupper found him and set him up to make the rye bread for the café. "It's made from an 80-year-old starter," Federman noted enthusiastically. "This bread is wonderful," Trillin replied, feeling it with his fingers like an Orchard Street salesman might have once appraised the quality of a glove.

I paid our bill and we were soon out the door, headed for the Delancey Street M stop.


Calvin Trillin Visits Russ & Daughters Café

He isn't very far into American Fried, the first volume of his Tummy Trilogy, before Calvin Trillin mentions Russ & Daughters. He happens to be tailing madcap actor and comedian Zero Mostel on the sort of Lower East Side food crawl that the New Yorker writer would later become famous for, and describes a luscious lox and sturgeon sandwich made by proprietor Herbie Federman. The subsequent chapter tells how Sunday mornings, Trillin is in the habit of going to Russ & Daughters to buy Nova Scotia lox, while also getting homemade scallion cream cheese from Ben's Dairy and pumpernickel bagels from Tannebaum's, then putting it all together for the most sublime DIY brunch imaginable. Sadly, Ben's and Tannenbaum's are long gone, making the pleasures of weekend foraging along Houston Street almost a thing of the past.


Now, of course, you could just go to the new Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street and have the delicacies brought to you already assembled. Trying to beat the crowds three weeks after the opening, I went around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for a late lunch, and was lucky enough to persuade Calvin Trillin to join me. I wanted to get the perspective of the World's Greatest Authority on Russ & Daughters on the new joint. He showed up in a blue Russ & Daughters baseball cap with a fish on it.


At the new café Trillin counts as a sort of reigning saint. Just inside the front door in a glass case there's a relic from the original shop circa the late 60s, a brown paper sack with the kind of brass plaque underneath usually reserved for fancy art galleries. The bag boasts "Queens of Lake Sturgeon," and it's attributed to the collection of Calvin Trillin. He pointed to it as we entered: "I found this after rustling through my shopping bag collection," implying that every West Villager has an assortment of historic sacks stashed in a closet somewhere that he indexes as carefully as a museum curator.

We then made our way in a stately procession past a white podium and into a space suffused with indirect light, with something on our right that looked like a soda fountain, but was also a bar. Up above inscribed in sans-serif on a series of back-lit panels were house specialties — and mainstays of Lower East Side Jewish cuisine — that included chubs, pickles, babka, smoked whitefish, sardines, caviar, bialys, and bagels. Attendants stood around the room in spotless white shop coats surrounded by antique black-and-white photos of the Russ & Daughters store, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. One couldn't help but be struck by the impression that, apart from the fussy lighting scheme and modern shades of paint, a time machine might have transported you back a century, so thoughtfully detailed were the premises.


After admiring a guy who, knife slashing and glinting, sliced Nova like he was on Broadway doing a one-man show, we were seated in the rear room at a fawn-gray booth. As he ran his eye over the bill of fare, Trillin observed, "the menu is partly Jewish dairy restaurant, partly appetizing store." As luck would have it, the bowl of matzo ball soup? ($8) was one of the first things to arrive, featuring a good quantity of light and dark meat. "This isn't like my mother's," Trillin said, poking at the big soft matzo ball and spooning up the amber broth, upon which little droplets of pure schmaltz danced. "My sister and I used to joke that hers were so hard you could play jacks with them." The recipe was clearly owing to somebody's mom, because the soup was a classic version that hadn't been doctored for the purposes of menu modernity.


There were newfangled things on the menu, too, including the super heebster ($10), a pair of open-faced toasts with cream cheese and fish salad surmounted by a cascade of fluorescent roe tinted green with wasabi. There were sprouts on the top, too, something which had probably never crossed the threshold of a traditional Jewish café before. Unavoidably, we reminisced about the neighborhood's old dairy restaurants, now kaput, including Ratner's, a hulking cave of a place that had been around the corner on Delancey Street, where old schmatta salesmen once sat in the afternoon spooning up bowls of pure sour cream.




Trillin seemed to take particular pleasure in the herring platter ($20), which included three different types of pickled herring, with rollmops in the middle, served with three contrasting sauces. He also liked the tiny potato knishes, which seemed pointedly different from those of another remaining Lower East Side stalwart, Yonah Schimmel's. My favorite was the sandwich of salmon cured as if it were pastrami, deposited on a pretzel roll with muenster cheese and sauerkraut. Neither of us much liked the matzo brei, which was a heap of crushed crackers barely moistened with scrambled eggs. "We never had this in Kansas City," Trillin observed. "Maybe it's an exclusive New York thing," I replied.

For most of the meal, Trillin's presence in the restaurant had gone unobserved. But as we were finishing up the last rollmop, Niki Russ Federman, great granddaughter of the Russ & Daughters founder, and co-owner of the present café, bounded up and warmly greeted us. We told her we'd already eaten, but she sent over a couple of things she wanted us to try. One was a carob egg cream. "In the old store when I was a little girl, there used to be a barrel of bokser," she smiled, using the Yiddish word for carob. "The old men would sit around the back of the store, and occasionally one of them would grab a handful of the pods and chew like it was gum. So we decided to make an egg cream out of it."


She also sent over a couple of slices of shissel rye, now made in Queens by baker Gordie Weissman. Originally from a Bronx baking family, he was working in Springfield, Massachusetts before Federman and her cousin and co-owner Josh Russ Tupper found him and set him up to make the rye bread for the café. "It's made from an 80-year-old starter," Federman noted enthusiastically. "This bread is wonderful," Trillin replied, feeling it with his fingers like an Orchard Street salesman might have once appraised the quality of a glove.

I paid our bill and we were soon out the door, headed for the Delancey Street M stop.


Calvin Trillin Visits Russ & Daughters Café

He isn't very far into American Fried, the first volume of his Tummy Trilogy, before Calvin Trillin mentions Russ & Daughters. He happens to be tailing madcap actor and comedian Zero Mostel on the sort of Lower East Side food crawl that the New Yorker writer would later become famous for, and describes a luscious lox and sturgeon sandwich made by proprietor Herbie Federman. The subsequent chapter tells how Sunday mornings, Trillin is in the habit of going to Russ & Daughters to buy Nova Scotia lox, while also getting homemade scallion cream cheese from Ben's Dairy and pumpernickel bagels from Tannebaum's, then putting it all together for the most sublime DIY brunch imaginable. Sadly, Ben's and Tannenbaum's are long gone, making the pleasures of weekend foraging along Houston Street almost a thing of the past.


Now, of course, you could just go to the new Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street and have the delicacies brought to you already assembled. Trying to beat the crowds three weeks after the opening, I went around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for a late lunch, and was lucky enough to persuade Calvin Trillin to join me. I wanted to get the perspective of the World's Greatest Authority on Russ & Daughters on the new joint. He showed up in a blue Russ & Daughters baseball cap with a fish on it.


At the new café Trillin counts as a sort of reigning saint. Just inside the front door in a glass case there's a relic from the original shop circa the late 60s, a brown paper sack with the kind of brass plaque underneath usually reserved for fancy art galleries. The bag boasts "Queens of Lake Sturgeon," and it's attributed to the collection of Calvin Trillin. He pointed to it as we entered: "I found this after rustling through my shopping bag collection," implying that every West Villager has an assortment of historic sacks stashed in a closet somewhere that he indexes as carefully as a museum curator.

We then made our way in a stately procession past a white podium and into a space suffused with indirect light, with something on our right that looked like a soda fountain, but was also a bar. Up above inscribed in sans-serif on a series of back-lit panels were house specialties — and mainstays of Lower East Side Jewish cuisine — that included chubs, pickles, babka, smoked whitefish, sardines, caviar, bialys, and bagels. Attendants stood around the room in spotless white shop coats surrounded by antique black-and-white photos of the Russ & Daughters store, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. One couldn't help but be struck by the impression that, apart from the fussy lighting scheme and modern shades of paint, a time machine might have transported you back a century, so thoughtfully detailed were the premises.


After admiring a guy who, knife slashing and glinting, sliced Nova like he was on Broadway doing a one-man show, we were seated in the rear room at a fawn-gray booth. As he ran his eye over the bill of fare, Trillin observed, "the menu is partly Jewish dairy restaurant, partly appetizing store." As luck would have it, the bowl of matzo ball soup? ($8) was one of the first things to arrive, featuring a good quantity of light and dark meat. "This isn't like my mother's," Trillin said, poking at the big soft matzo ball and spooning up the amber broth, upon which little droplets of pure schmaltz danced. "My sister and I used to joke that hers were so hard you could play jacks with them." The recipe was clearly owing to somebody's mom, because the soup was a classic version that hadn't been doctored for the purposes of menu modernity.


There were newfangled things on the menu, too, including the super heebster ($10), a pair of open-faced toasts with cream cheese and fish salad surmounted by a cascade of fluorescent roe tinted green with wasabi. There were sprouts on the top, too, something which had probably never crossed the threshold of a traditional Jewish café before. Unavoidably, we reminisced about the neighborhood's old dairy restaurants, now kaput, including Ratner's, a hulking cave of a place that had been around the corner on Delancey Street, where old schmatta salesmen once sat in the afternoon spooning up bowls of pure sour cream.




Trillin seemed to take particular pleasure in the herring platter ($20), which included three different types of pickled herring, with rollmops in the middle, served with three contrasting sauces. He also liked the tiny potato knishes, which seemed pointedly different from those of another remaining Lower East Side stalwart, Yonah Schimmel's. My favorite was the sandwich of salmon cured as if it were pastrami, deposited on a pretzel roll with muenster cheese and sauerkraut. Neither of us much liked the matzo brei, which was a heap of crushed crackers barely moistened with scrambled eggs. "We never had this in Kansas City," Trillin observed. "Maybe it's an exclusive New York thing," I replied.

For most of the meal, Trillin's presence in the restaurant had gone unobserved. But as we were finishing up the last rollmop, Niki Russ Federman, great granddaughter of the Russ & Daughters founder, and co-owner of the present café, bounded up and warmly greeted us. We told her we'd already eaten, but she sent over a couple of things she wanted us to try. One was a carob egg cream. "In the old store when I was a little girl, there used to be a barrel of bokser," she smiled, using the Yiddish word for carob. "The old men would sit around the back of the store, and occasionally one of them would grab a handful of the pods and chew like it was gum. So we decided to make an egg cream out of it."


She also sent over a couple of slices of shissel rye, now made in Queens by baker Gordie Weissman. Originally from a Bronx baking family, he was working in Springfield, Massachusetts before Federman and her cousin and co-owner Josh Russ Tupper found him and set him up to make the rye bread for the café. "It's made from an 80-year-old starter," Federman noted enthusiastically. "This bread is wonderful," Trillin replied, feeling it with his fingers like an Orchard Street salesman might have once appraised the quality of a glove.

I paid our bill and we were soon out the door, headed for the Delancey Street M stop.


Calvin Trillin Visits Russ & Daughters Café

He isn't very far into American Fried, the first volume of his Tummy Trilogy, before Calvin Trillin mentions Russ & Daughters. He happens to be tailing madcap actor and comedian Zero Mostel on the sort of Lower East Side food crawl that the New Yorker writer would later become famous for, and describes a luscious lox and sturgeon sandwich made by proprietor Herbie Federman. The subsequent chapter tells how Sunday mornings, Trillin is in the habit of going to Russ & Daughters to buy Nova Scotia lox, while also getting homemade scallion cream cheese from Ben's Dairy and pumpernickel bagels from Tannebaum's, then putting it all together for the most sublime DIY brunch imaginable. Sadly, Ben's and Tannenbaum's are long gone, making the pleasures of weekend foraging along Houston Street almost a thing of the past.


Now, of course, you could just go to the new Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street and have the delicacies brought to you already assembled. Trying to beat the crowds three weeks after the opening, I went around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for a late lunch, and was lucky enough to persuade Calvin Trillin to join me. I wanted to get the perspective of the World's Greatest Authority on Russ & Daughters on the new joint. He showed up in a blue Russ & Daughters baseball cap with a fish on it.


At the new café Trillin counts as a sort of reigning saint. Just inside the front door in a glass case there's a relic from the original shop circa the late 60s, a brown paper sack with the kind of brass plaque underneath usually reserved for fancy art galleries. The bag boasts "Queens of Lake Sturgeon," and it's attributed to the collection of Calvin Trillin. He pointed to it as we entered: "I found this after rustling through my shopping bag collection," implying that every West Villager has an assortment of historic sacks stashed in a closet somewhere that he indexes as carefully as a museum curator.

We then made our way in a stately procession past a white podium and into a space suffused with indirect light, with something on our right that looked like a soda fountain, but was also a bar. Up above inscribed in sans-serif on a series of back-lit panels were house specialties — and mainstays of Lower East Side Jewish cuisine — that included chubs, pickles, babka, smoked whitefish, sardines, caviar, bialys, and bagels. Attendants stood around the room in spotless white shop coats surrounded by antique black-and-white photos of the Russ & Daughters store, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. One couldn't help but be struck by the impression that, apart from the fussy lighting scheme and modern shades of paint, a time machine might have transported you back a century, so thoughtfully detailed were the premises.


After admiring a guy who, knife slashing and glinting, sliced Nova like he was on Broadway doing a one-man show, we were seated in the rear room at a fawn-gray booth. As he ran his eye over the bill of fare, Trillin observed, "the menu is partly Jewish dairy restaurant, partly appetizing store." As luck would have it, the bowl of matzo ball soup? ($8) was one of the first things to arrive, featuring a good quantity of light and dark meat. "This isn't like my mother's," Trillin said, poking at the big soft matzo ball and spooning up the amber broth, upon which little droplets of pure schmaltz danced. "My sister and I used to joke that hers were so hard you could play jacks with them." The recipe was clearly owing to somebody's mom, because the soup was a classic version that hadn't been doctored for the purposes of menu modernity.


There were newfangled things on the menu, too, including the super heebster ($10), a pair of open-faced toasts with cream cheese and fish salad surmounted by a cascade of fluorescent roe tinted green with wasabi. There were sprouts on the top, too, something which had probably never crossed the threshold of a traditional Jewish café before. Unavoidably, we reminisced about the neighborhood's old dairy restaurants, now kaput, including Ratner's, a hulking cave of a place that had been around the corner on Delancey Street, where old schmatta salesmen once sat in the afternoon spooning up bowls of pure sour cream.




Trillin seemed to take particular pleasure in the herring platter ($20), which included three different types of pickled herring, with rollmops in the middle, served with three contrasting sauces. He also liked the tiny potato knishes, which seemed pointedly different from those of another remaining Lower East Side stalwart, Yonah Schimmel's. My favorite was the sandwich of salmon cured as if it were pastrami, deposited on a pretzel roll with muenster cheese and sauerkraut. Neither of us much liked the matzo brei, which was a heap of crushed crackers barely moistened with scrambled eggs. "We never had this in Kansas City," Trillin observed. "Maybe it's an exclusive New York thing," I replied.

For most of the meal, Trillin's presence in the restaurant had gone unobserved. But as we were finishing up the last rollmop, Niki Russ Federman, great granddaughter of the Russ & Daughters founder, and co-owner of the present café, bounded up and warmly greeted us. We told her we'd already eaten, but she sent over a couple of things she wanted us to try. One was a carob egg cream. "In the old store when I was a little girl, there used to be a barrel of bokser," she smiled, using the Yiddish word for carob. "The old men would sit around the back of the store, and occasionally one of them would grab a handful of the pods and chew like it was gum. So we decided to make an egg cream out of it."


She also sent over a couple of slices of shissel rye, now made in Queens by baker Gordie Weissman. Originally from a Bronx baking family, he was working in Springfield, Massachusetts before Federman and her cousin and co-owner Josh Russ Tupper found him and set him up to make the rye bread for the café. "It's made from an 80-year-old starter," Federman noted enthusiastically. "This bread is wonderful," Trillin replied, feeling it with his fingers like an Orchard Street salesman might have once appraised the quality of a glove.

I paid our bill and we were soon out the door, headed for the Delancey Street M stop.


Calvin Trillin Visits Russ & Daughters Café

He isn't very far into American Fried, the first volume of his Tummy Trilogy, before Calvin Trillin mentions Russ & Daughters. He happens to be tailing madcap actor and comedian Zero Mostel on the sort of Lower East Side food crawl that the New Yorker writer would later become famous for, and describes a luscious lox and sturgeon sandwich made by proprietor Herbie Federman. The subsequent chapter tells how Sunday mornings, Trillin is in the habit of going to Russ & Daughters to buy Nova Scotia lox, while also getting homemade scallion cream cheese from Ben's Dairy and pumpernickel bagels from Tannebaum's, then putting it all together for the most sublime DIY brunch imaginable. Sadly, Ben's and Tannenbaum's are long gone, making the pleasures of weekend foraging along Houston Street almost a thing of the past.


Now, of course, you could just go to the new Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street and have the delicacies brought to you already assembled. Trying to beat the crowds three weeks after the opening, I went around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for a late lunch, and was lucky enough to persuade Calvin Trillin to join me. I wanted to get the perspective of the World's Greatest Authority on Russ & Daughters on the new joint. He showed up in a blue Russ & Daughters baseball cap with a fish on it.


At the new café Trillin counts as a sort of reigning saint. Just inside the front door in a glass case there's a relic from the original shop circa the late 60s, a brown paper sack with the kind of brass plaque underneath usually reserved for fancy art galleries. The bag boasts "Queens of Lake Sturgeon," and it's attributed to the collection of Calvin Trillin. He pointed to it as we entered: "I found this after rustling through my shopping bag collection," implying that every West Villager has an assortment of historic sacks stashed in a closet somewhere that he indexes as carefully as a museum curator.

We then made our way in a stately procession past a white podium and into a space suffused with indirect light, with something on our right that looked like a soda fountain, but was also a bar. Up above inscribed in sans-serif on a series of back-lit panels were house specialties — and mainstays of Lower East Side Jewish cuisine — that included chubs, pickles, babka, smoked whitefish, sardines, caviar, bialys, and bagels. Attendants stood around the room in spotless white shop coats surrounded by antique black-and-white photos of the Russ & Daughters store, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. One couldn't help but be struck by the impression that, apart from the fussy lighting scheme and modern shades of paint, a time machine might have transported you back a century, so thoughtfully detailed were the premises.


After admiring a guy who, knife slashing and glinting, sliced Nova like he was on Broadway doing a one-man show, we were seated in the rear room at a fawn-gray booth. As he ran his eye over the bill of fare, Trillin observed, "the menu is partly Jewish dairy restaurant, partly appetizing store." As luck would have it, the bowl of matzo ball soup? ($8) was one of the first things to arrive, featuring a good quantity of light and dark meat. "This isn't like my mother's," Trillin said, poking at the big soft matzo ball and spooning up the amber broth, upon which little droplets of pure schmaltz danced. "My sister and I used to joke that hers were so hard you could play jacks with them." The recipe was clearly owing to somebody's mom, because the soup was a classic version that hadn't been doctored for the purposes of menu modernity.


There were newfangled things on the menu, too, including the super heebster ($10), a pair of open-faced toasts with cream cheese and fish salad surmounted by a cascade of fluorescent roe tinted green with wasabi. There were sprouts on the top, too, something which had probably never crossed the threshold of a traditional Jewish café before. Unavoidably, we reminisced about the neighborhood's old dairy restaurants, now kaput, including Ratner's, a hulking cave of a place that had been around the corner on Delancey Street, where old schmatta salesmen once sat in the afternoon spooning up bowls of pure sour cream.




Trillin seemed to take particular pleasure in the herring platter ($20), which included three different types of pickled herring, with rollmops in the middle, served with three contrasting sauces. He also liked the tiny potato knishes, which seemed pointedly different from those of another remaining Lower East Side stalwart, Yonah Schimmel's. My favorite was the sandwich of salmon cured as if it were pastrami, deposited on a pretzel roll with muenster cheese and sauerkraut. Neither of us much liked the matzo brei, which was a heap of crushed crackers barely moistened with scrambled eggs. "We never had this in Kansas City," Trillin observed. "Maybe it's an exclusive New York thing," I replied.

For most of the meal, Trillin's presence in the restaurant had gone unobserved. But as we were finishing up the last rollmop, Niki Russ Federman, great granddaughter of the Russ & Daughters founder, and co-owner of the present café, bounded up and warmly greeted us. We told her we'd already eaten, but she sent over a couple of things she wanted us to try. One was a carob egg cream. "In the old store when I was a little girl, there used to be a barrel of bokser," she smiled, using the Yiddish word for carob. "The old men would sit around the back of the store, and occasionally one of them would grab a handful of the pods and chew like it was gum. So we decided to make an egg cream out of it."


She also sent over a couple of slices of shissel rye, now made in Queens by baker Gordie Weissman. Originally from a Bronx baking family, he was working in Springfield, Massachusetts before Federman and her cousin and co-owner Josh Russ Tupper found him and set him up to make the rye bread for the café. "It's made from an 80-year-old starter," Federman noted enthusiastically. "This bread is wonderful," Trillin replied, feeling it with his fingers like an Orchard Street salesman might have once appraised the quality of a glove.

I paid our bill and we were soon out the door, headed for the Delancey Street M stop.


Calvin Trillin Visits Russ & Daughters Café

He isn't very far into American Fried, the first volume of his Tummy Trilogy, before Calvin Trillin mentions Russ & Daughters. He happens to be tailing madcap actor and comedian Zero Mostel on the sort of Lower East Side food crawl that the New Yorker writer would later become famous for, and describes a luscious lox and sturgeon sandwich made by proprietor Herbie Federman. The subsequent chapter tells how Sunday mornings, Trillin is in the habit of going to Russ & Daughters to buy Nova Scotia lox, while also getting homemade scallion cream cheese from Ben's Dairy and pumpernickel bagels from Tannebaum's, then putting it all together for the most sublime DIY brunch imaginable. Sadly, Ben's and Tannenbaum's are long gone, making the pleasures of weekend foraging along Houston Street almost a thing of the past.


Now, of course, you could just go to the new Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street and have the delicacies brought to you already assembled. Trying to beat the crowds three weeks after the opening, I went around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for a late lunch, and was lucky enough to persuade Calvin Trillin to join me. I wanted to get the perspective of the World's Greatest Authority on Russ & Daughters on the new joint. He showed up in a blue Russ & Daughters baseball cap with a fish on it.


At the new café Trillin counts as a sort of reigning saint. Just inside the front door in a glass case there's a relic from the original shop circa the late 60s, a brown paper sack with the kind of brass plaque underneath usually reserved for fancy art galleries. The bag boasts "Queens of Lake Sturgeon," and it's attributed to the collection of Calvin Trillin. He pointed to it as we entered: "I found this after rustling through my shopping bag collection," implying that every West Villager has an assortment of historic sacks stashed in a closet somewhere that he indexes as carefully as a museum curator.

We then made our way in a stately procession past a white podium and into a space suffused with indirect light, with something on our right that looked like a soda fountain, but was also a bar. Up above inscribed in sans-serif on a series of back-lit panels were house specialties — and mainstays of Lower East Side Jewish cuisine — that included chubs, pickles, babka, smoked whitefish, sardines, caviar, bialys, and bagels. Attendants stood around the room in spotless white shop coats surrounded by antique black-and-white photos of the Russ & Daughters store, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. One couldn't help but be struck by the impression that, apart from the fussy lighting scheme and modern shades of paint, a time machine might have transported you back a century, so thoughtfully detailed were the premises.


After admiring a guy who, knife slashing and glinting, sliced Nova like he was on Broadway doing a one-man show, we were seated in the rear room at a fawn-gray booth. As he ran his eye over the bill of fare, Trillin observed, "the menu is partly Jewish dairy restaurant, partly appetizing store." As luck would have it, the bowl of matzo ball soup? ($8) was one of the first things to arrive, featuring a good quantity of light and dark meat. "This isn't like my mother's," Trillin said, poking at the big soft matzo ball and spooning up the amber broth, upon which little droplets of pure schmaltz danced. "My sister and I used to joke that hers were so hard you could play jacks with them." The recipe was clearly owing to somebody's mom, because the soup was a classic version that hadn't been doctored for the purposes of menu modernity.


There were newfangled things on the menu, too, including the super heebster ($10), a pair of open-faced toasts with cream cheese and fish salad surmounted by a cascade of fluorescent roe tinted green with wasabi. There were sprouts on the top, too, something which had probably never crossed the threshold of a traditional Jewish café before. Unavoidably, we reminisced about the neighborhood's old dairy restaurants, now kaput, including Ratner's, a hulking cave of a place that had been around the corner on Delancey Street, where old schmatta salesmen once sat in the afternoon spooning up bowls of pure sour cream.




Trillin seemed to take particular pleasure in the herring platter ($20), which included three different types of pickled herring, with rollmops in the middle, served with three contrasting sauces. He also liked the tiny potato knishes, which seemed pointedly different from those of another remaining Lower East Side stalwart, Yonah Schimmel's. My favorite was the sandwich of salmon cured as if it were pastrami, deposited on a pretzel roll with muenster cheese and sauerkraut. Neither of us much liked the matzo brei, which was a heap of crushed crackers barely moistened with scrambled eggs. "We never had this in Kansas City," Trillin observed. "Maybe it's an exclusive New York thing," I replied.

For most of the meal, Trillin's presence in the restaurant had gone unobserved. But as we were finishing up the last rollmop, Niki Russ Federman, great granddaughter of the Russ & Daughters founder, and co-owner of the present café, bounded up and warmly greeted us. We told her we'd already eaten, but she sent over a couple of things she wanted us to try. One was a carob egg cream. "In the old store when I was a little girl, there used to be a barrel of bokser," she smiled, using the Yiddish word for carob. "The old men would sit around the back of the store, and occasionally one of them would grab a handful of the pods and chew like it was gum. So we decided to make an egg cream out of it."


She also sent over a couple of slices of shissel rye, now made in Queens by baker Gordie Weissman. Originally from a Bronx baking family, he was working in Springfield, Massachusetts before Federman and her cousin and co-owner Josh Russ Tupper found him and set him up to make the rye bread for the café. "It's made from an 80-year-old starter," Federman noted enthusiastically. "This bread is wonderful," Trillin replied, feeling it with his fingers like an Orchard Street salesman might have once appraised the quality of a glove.

I paid our bill and we were soon out the door, headed for the Delancey Street M stop.


Watch the video: New York City Food Tour: HUGE Pastrami Sandwich at Katzs Deli and The Halal Guys! (November 2021).