Inside the Russ & Daughters Cafe at 127 Orchard St.
When the Russ & Daughters Cafe opens its doors for the first time this morning, it’s a foregone conclusion that the lox and herring and the smoked salmon omelets will all be delicious. The real trick will be transferring the feeling—that special old-world vibe and human touch—from the world-famous shop on East Houston Street to a brand new restaurant at 127 Orchard St. Beginning at 10 a.m., the first customers will be able to see for themselves whether the venerable appetizing shop has pulled it off—successfully expanding the century-old institution into a new space.
When we stopped by for a visit late yesterday afternoon, finishing touches were still being put on the storefront signage as well as some of the dishes (it took six months to get the matzo brei just right). For fourth-generation co-owners Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper, the opening is the realization of a dream that started at least six years ago—and it marks the first major expansion of Russ & Daughters in generations.
When you walk into the space on Orchard Street, you’ll be instantly reminded of the long-standing location at 179 E. Houston St. The white enamel countertops, brushed-metal trim and lightbox shelf displays are all familiar aesthetic features.
“Russ & Daughters was our one and only inspiration,” said Federman. “Everything was drawn from the store; we were just trying to bring the essence of the store to a sit-down spot.”
The long, narrow space goes all the way through to Allen Street and includes several distinct areas. Up front, there’s a combination bar/luncheonette counter and soda fountain. Customers will be able to enjoy an egg cream or one of the drinks from the inventive cocktail menu. It will also be possible to eat a full meal at the bar.
Next up, there’s a small display case and a carving station, arguably the heart of the restaurant. All of the smoked fish will be sliced to order here. In the middle of the restaurant is a pristine open kitchen.
“That experience you get in the store,” Federman noted, “of knowing who is preparing your food, having that kind of interaction is so essential to us that we wanted to make that part of the whole [restaurant experience, as well].” Alongside the kitchen and extending to the back of the restaurant, there are spacious banquettes for group dining.
The decor includes tributes to the past, some playful flourishes and a few modern touches. They’ve reproduced (and embellished) a sign that appeared in a 1949 photograph of the store.
“I had always loved this photograph and I loved this sign because it is grammatically correct but it is so awkward,” Federman explained.
The new sign reads: “For what you have been waiting, Russ & Daughters is enlarging its quarters for your sit-down convenience.” In the window on the Allen Street side of the restaurant sits a reproduction of a famous 1968 New York Magazine cover depicting a fish swimming through a bagel. It was a 2010 gift from Milton Glaser, a founder of the magazine, who drew the original illustration and penned the story, titled, “A Gentile’s Guide to Jewish Food.” In the hallway leading to the bathrooms, there are some great new illustrations from Jason Polan (Every Person in New York). The attention to detail even carries through to the bathrooms themselves; we’ll leave you to discover that for yourselves.
The head chef/consultant of the new restaurant is John Stevenson, who previously was executive chef at a private events space on the Upper East Side. Along with Stephane Lemagnen, he took the vision spelled out by Federman and Tupper and created a menu that stays true to the Russ & Daughters culinary legacy. At the same time, Stevenson told us, it’s been a lot of fun to invent new menu items without any preconceived notions about how they should be made. Stevenson has been on the team for the past six months, spending time in the original shop and perfecting dishes.
As you’d expect, smoked fish is the core of the menu. Sandwiches (smoked salmon, sturgeon, sable, kippered salmon) are served open-face. There are also smoked fish platters for sharing, a selection of caviar and herring plates. New items include: moist and flavorful potato knishes, kasha varnishkas, babka french toast and several interesting salads, including one featuring smoked trout and potato. In addition, there are a variety of egg dishes such as lox with eggs and onions, eggs Benedict with Scottish salmon and—a decadent offering—soft-scrambled eggs with caviar. For dessert, there’s challah bread pudding and halvah ice cream (it’s delicious). The drink menu includes a variety of specialty cocktails, wine and beer and three types of egg creams. Shrubs, made with fruit juice and vinegar, come in beet, pineapple and cherry. All of the breads are fresh-baked at a facility Russ & Daughters has set up in Queens, overseen by a hand-picked baker, Gordie Weissman.
A lot of time and energy has gone into refining every single dish, but Stevenson said it’s not just about what’s happening in the kitchen.
“The food is only 20 to 30 percent of Russ & Daughters,” he observed. “It’s really the people, so it was very important to observe the culture.”
One man who’s played a major role in explaining that unique culture to the new staff is Russ & daughters General Manager Herman Vargas, a fixture in the shop since 1980.
“Everyone talks about Russ & Daughters having a soul,” Vargas said. “I felt compelled to share with them what Russ & Daughters really is… It’s a place where people come together and reconnect with their roots and they experience something that is unique.”
“We felt that after a hundred years,” Federman said, “people deserved a chance to enjoy Russ & Daughters sitting down.” Both she and Tupper were determined to stay on the LES. “We were very committed to staying on the Lower East Side,” she added. “It felt like 100 years of our history and soul is wrapped up in this neighborhood.”
They gravitated to Orchard Street, where the business originated in the form of a pushcart in the early 1900s. Asked whether the opening was timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the store this year, Tupper said, “It was a bit of a coincidence because we have been looking for spaces for two years.” The quirky space stretches across what used to be two back-to-back buildings. They were combined in the 1930s. Until 1925, the back half of the restaurant was the home of the Allen Street Synagogue, where the famed opera singer Richard Tucker was discovered.
In 2009, Mark Russ Federman handed over the business to Niki, his daughter, and nephew Josh. At first, they said he was a little skeptical about the restaurant. Having made it through the bad old days on the Lower East Side and being a somewhat cautious sort, he urged the new generation to consider every possible drawback to expansion. But now he’s fully on board. Even before the restaurant opened, Tupper said, he told them “Good for you guys. You’re doing a good thing.”
It’s a pretty safe bet that the wait for a table at the new restaurant will rival the lines at the old appetizing store. Local businesses, including Russ & Daughters owners, are hoping the restaurant will be a major new drawing card for the LES. Reservations will not be accepted, but customers will be able to leave their phone numbers with the host, and spend a little time discovering (or rediscovering) the area while they wait for a table.
“They can walk the neighborhood and hopefully bring some life back to the [community] that has been lacking in the daytime,” said Tupper. “If people can walk around for an hour and explore shops and see what’s down here and look at buildings, that’s exactly what we want.”
Federman said the response from visitors who came to the restaurant during a week of “friends and family” meals was gratifying. “The overwhelming enthusiasm and love that we got from people coming was amazing,” she said. “People are already claiming their tables!”
Russ and Daughters Cafe will be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. this week. Beginning in the next week or two, the restaurant will open at 8 a.m.