A three-minute walk from my home will take you right to the front door of Russ & Daughters. I first learned about this place, like many others, though Calvin Trillin’s, Feeding a Yen. But I won’t spoil the book for you, cause you should go and read it for yourself. Last Wednesday morning, I entered though the spotless front doors of Russ & Daughters for the first time – this place is 93 years old, though you’d never suspect it, judging by how immaculate and clean it was.
It was a sight to see, an impressive variety of smoked salmon, cream cheese, caviar, and various salads like tuna and herring to the left. And on the right were sweets.
So many beautiful, beautiful sweets! Halvah in a myriad of flavors, chocolate babka, chocolate dipped fruits, rice pudding, and yes, even bagel pudding, if you dare believe.
But I was not swayed because I arrived with a sole objective in mind: bagel + cream cheese + smoked salmon. But I was clearly an amateur. I must have had first-time-customer written all over my face and body language as the man dressed in white asked, “you’re first time?” I smiled sheepishly as he showed me the menu and told me to take my time. It was strangest thing. I was the only customer in the shop, and there were exactly seven men dressed in white behind the counter, all staring at this first-time-customer. As I pondered the options. I heard one of the men whisper to another, “be nice to her, it’s her first visit.” Hehe. He didn’t whisper quietly enough, but it was a comforting statement to hear!
I eventually placed my order, and watched at the man work on my bagel. First, he picked off a poppy seed spotted baby off the racks and deftly slashed it in half. Then he looked up and grinned. It was a rather good-looking grin! I must have had that whoaaa-so-coool expression etched in my face. Cause. You know. It was very cool. Next was a layer of pure white cream cheese, both on the top and bottom half of the bagel. Then, the smoked salmon. It was taking a long time. I tried to not to stare, even though I really wanted to. So I just focused in very hard on the assortment of cream cheese. Even once in a while I saw the swift movement of a knife from behind the glass counters, and then a flash of pink sheen. The salmon. It was positively glowing. In due time, the lox and cream cheese bagel was assembled. I obediently handed over $4.45 and received the bagel in return. An excellent exchange.
I ran back to my apartment just a few streets away (needed to be back by 1pm cause Ikea was coming to deliver my furnishings). I dashed up five very lengthy flights of stairs, sat my bottom of the windowsill and unwrapped the glorious bagel. It was so perfect looking, I wanted to stare at it forever. And ever. And ever.
But then, you know, I had to eat! So I bit. And it was ooooooo, so good! Sososososo good! The bagel was the perfect size, spotted in poppy seeds with a good crust and innards that were neither too dense or fluffy (like the kind of bagels we get in Hawaii). But the bagel wasn’t so remarkable as to overpower the double layer of cream cheese encasing a sleek triple layer of thinly sliced salmon, all at once cool and savory, slippery in your mouth, expertly sliced. Ooooh, it was bliiissss like you’d never dare dream!
I sat back, more content than I’ve ever been in a very long time, and sighed. It’s amazing how good food can change your mood. The afternoon was spent arguing with Ikea over the phone, trying to figure out what happened with the missing 70% of our furniture, and dripping sweat in the un-air-conditioned apartment. And I thought summer in Hawaii was hot!
And then around 3pm, my stomach started to speak to me. It said, “I think it’s time for dessert!” And so my mind and legs gladly obliged…and somehow, I found myself in front of Russ & Daughters for the second time that day.
This time it was for halvah. But not any halvah, mind you. A bar of halvah dipped in dark chocolate and sliced almonds. Awesome, eh? Growing up in Hawaii, the word ‘halvah’ never crossed my vocabulary until freshmen year at NYU. And what a discovery ‘halvah’ was! I had endless bars of halvah purchased from delis, by the pound at Economy Candy, and when I was in LA, from the shelves of Trader Joe’s.
But this halvah here from Russ & Daughters is my favorite by far. Now I don’t know how much halvah the rest of you have eaten, but I think I could have this for breakfast everyday. The nutty ground sesame seeds are bound together tight enough to hold shape, but still release into a joyous crumbly mess as my fingers pulled it apart piece by piece. A thin layer of dark chocolate and almonds to cover and add an extra touch of subtle sweetness…a smile was on my face for the rest of the week.
Russ & Daughters
179 East Houston St.
NY, NY 10002