Thursday, April 2, 2015

Russ and Daughters . . . Cafe

I've been a fan of Russ and Daughter's Appetizing store for many years. So when one of the Russ daughters herself confided in me that they were planning to open a cafe I could hardly wait. But, I wondered, would others be excited? When old-time places are falling by the wayside (or being re-invented with varying success by young and sometimes irreverent chefs) would there be an audience or worse yet would the family try to "modernize" and re-invent what has been so successful for all these years.
On this trip to New York -- my first since that fateful visit -- I learned I needn't have worried. Not only did Russ and Daughters maintain the smoke fish and old fashioned dishes that made them famous and beloved they also modernized a bit, tastefully in a shiny bright 40's (or maybe 50's) inspired diner  that looks like a new version of the old shop. The everlasting line at the door is proof there is no shortage of audience. I settled in at the counter between a couple of New York gals after the dishes they knew from childhood and an art student from China, with little English and curious about the dishes on offer.
I'm always happy to sit down to lox and bagels or whitefish salad and the cafe offers all of my smoke fish favorites on "boards" laid out with cream cheese, condiments, and house-made bagels (the bialy's -- my personal favorite -- are still from Lower East Side stalwart Kossars). But today -- rounding up a pretty successful tour of NY matzoh ball soups -- I had to try.
Now what I really want -- my holy grail of matzoh ball soups --is a completely not kosher for passover combination of egg noodles, kreplach (Jewish wontons?), and Matzoh balls all in a flavorful chicken broth with carrots and celery. I vaguely remember something like that in a deli years ago and I have been looking since then. The grail not achieved, I have to say Russ and Daughters might be the most flavorful soup I found in the city (there are still a few places on my list to try). Rich and chickeny but not heavy or fatty. Heavy on flavor but still light.
I'm sure arguments have started over matzoh balls -- I probably have witnessed a few. Some people like them light and fluffy with a soft delicate texture, deemed "floaters" by the matzoh ball cognoscenti. Others declare "sinkers" heavy dumplings with firm, solid centers the only proper soup accompaniment. Me? I think there is place for both and I am not so fussy about the style of matzoh ball (perhaps because without trying I have made each kind myself) as long as it is flavorful and soaks up the chicken flavor of the soup (and hopefully) the chicken fat in the dumpling batter. Russ and Daughters delivers on flavor and I was glad of it on a cold windy New York spring day.
Along side my soup, kasha and varniskas -- buckwheat groats tossed with bow tie pasta and, at Russ and Daughters though I have never seen it before, topped with a poached egg. My grandmother made this dish and I'm not sure I have had it made this well since she passed away in the 1970s. Kasha is hard to cook. It can be horribly dry or scorch easily. I've only tried once or twice and it always seems to need gravy for moisture and flavor. As it's stirred the poached egg yolk coast the grains and I remember my grandmother's way of beating an egg into the grains they cooked.
"How is the kasha?" The New York gal next to me asked.
"Like my grandmothers," I reply.
"She made it with a poached egg?"
"No," I explained. "But it tastes like hers it feels like hers."
My new friend understood.

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