Having turned 100 years old this year, Russ & Daughters in New York City is the stuff of legend. The Lower East Side "appetizing" specialists have served generation after generation of New Yorkers (and plenty of tourists) the finest in cured fishes, cream cheeses, and salads that have become synonymous with Jewish cuisine in America. One of the most popular orders is also one of the dishes New York City is famous for: A bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon. Known on the Russ & Daughters menu as "The Classic," this humble sandwich tells the story of one family's commitment to doing things the old fashioned way.
Fourth generation owners, appetizing experts, and cousins Niki Russ Federman and Joshua Russ Tupper define their mission at Russ and Daughters as "connecting people to the purest, most traditional experience." Federman puts it simply: "We are out to maintain the ideal." To that end, they work with purveyors who are just as fanatical as they are about doing things properly, whether it be with a dairy, a fish smokehouse, or even a knife sharpener. Often, these partners are other multigenerational family businesses that have a long history with the shop.
Their dedication to the details has clearly paid off. The shop typically sells 150 - 200 classic sandwiches plus 100 - 150 pounds of hand-sliced salmon on a busy day. Along with the 100-year-old shop — where there's consistently a line of people waiting to get their appetizing fix — Tupper and Federman also manage their recently opened full service restaurant, which has the city buzzing over their familiar offerings.
Eater NY's Marguerite Preston puts Russ & Daughters into context:
"Russ & Daughters is basically the standard to which all other bagels and lox aspire. The shop is such a truly New York place. It's barely changed in 100 years, and it kind of seems like the people in it haven't either. If that doesn't tell you how good it is, watching the guys slice the fish into those perfectly thin slices will. Just ordering the sandwich makes you feel like a real New Yorker."
Below, the elements of The Classic at Russ & Daughters:
1. The Bagel
Russ & Daughters uses bagels from Brooklyn's The Bagel Hole. In their quest to serve "the most classic experience," Federman and Tupper have landed on these hand-rolled bagels that are noticeably smaller than what some people might expect from a bagel. Federman and Tupper explain that master bagel artisan Phil Romanzi makes bagels to their specifications; not that too much instruction is even needed. "There are very few decent and really traditional New York bagels, and Phil is really the torchbearer" says Federman. "We clicked because we know what a real New York bagel tastes like — he makes a perfect New York bagel — and we were not going to succumb to pressure from the mass dilution of what bagels are."
2. The Salmon
While the terms "lox" and "smoked salmon" are often used interchangeably, at Russ & Daughters the original definitions still hold. "Lox" refers to belly lox from salmon that's been brined and salt-cured, never smoked. Explains Federman: "That term 'bagel and lox' started with belly lox. It's so salty it needed the cream cheese to cut the salinity." When customers order lox, the counter guys "turn it back on the customer" to make sure they wouldn't rather order smoked salmon. And since there are eight different smoked salmons, the process is a bit like selecting a wine, trying to find the perfect match for what the customer is looking for. The most commonly ordered salmon for The Classic is Gaspe Nova salmon. This cold-smoked North Atlantic salmon has a has a "mild smokiness." It's also one of the moistest salmons on offer at the shop with a "melt-in-your mouth, butter quality," says Tupper.
Russ & Daughters works with smokehouses (some of which they've been working with for generations) to provide its customers the highest quality salmon they can. This is not exactly working to Russ & Daughters' specifications, rather Tupper and Federman are constantly appraising and critiquing the quality of the salmon they buy. Tupper explains: "Our specifications for the smokehouses revolve around what we see. We don't tell them how long to smoke the salmon, what woods to use. We say, 'Oh this is more smokey than it used to be. What changed?' We tell them the end product we're looking for." There are many variables in the smoking process, and Tupper and Federman are able to zero in on mistakes or inconsistencies. "Sometimes it's under or over cured, or soaked for too long, or smoked for too long, or something is wrong with the wood. We have very close relationships with our smokehouses," says Tupper. Federman adds, "We can reject anything we don't love."
3. The Cream Cheese
Russ & Daughters gets its cream cheese from a California dairy that makes all-natural cream cheese in the old fashioned way. Because the dairy does not use any gums or preservatives, the texture and flavor is a bit different from the mass-produced version on grocery store shelves. "It's got a little bit of tang to it," Federman says. She also notes that because it's a natural product, there's more variability: "Depending on time of year, it can be much more wet or much more dry." The shop is known for it's extraordinary variety, made by mixing components like chopped scallions, salmon, and even caviar into this natural cream cheese. The Classic is traditionally served with simple, plain cream cheese.
4. The Assembly
One of the most prominent features of the shop is the long counter behind the display cases. Federman describes the realities of working in the long, narrow space as a "dance where everyone kind of knows what the moves are." She adds, "You have to be light on your feet with grace and speed." There's no organizing principle of the counter. Instead slicers must be efficient with their movements and extremely aware of their surroundings since everyone has an extremely sharp knife in hand. There's only one hard and fast rule: no slicing left-handed because it's too dangerous in the small space. Even Tupper had to learn to slice with his right hand.
While a variety of bagels are on offer, the most commonly ordered are plain and everything. As of 2009 (relatively recently in the 100 year scale of Russ & Daughters history), customers can opt to have their bagels toasted. According to Tupper, about half his customers order their bagels toasted ("not locals"). While it seems innocuous, toasting was a revolutionary change at the shop. The change "threw a wrench in the system," but because they found the right toaster "the wrench wasn't a five minute wrench; it's a minute and half wrench." Still the toasting process slows down the assembly process and requires a different choreography behind the counter.
Next, the cream cheese is added to the bagel. Tupper says that even the amounts have been thought out. "Any sandwich that we make is made in the way that we think it tastes and presents the best. Too much salmon screws the flavor, so does too much cream cheese."
The shop takes slicing extremely seriously, beginning with the knives they use. They buy 10-12 inch long, 1 inch thick slicer knives wholesale at around $20 each. Then the knives are sent to knife sharpeners Ambrosi Cutlery, where the knives are ground down to .75 inch to .25 inches thick. The angle is 15 degrees — versus a 30 - 45 degree angle on many chefs knives — and the resulting knife is slightly flexible and difficult to keep sharp. Once the knife becomes too thin and flexible after repeated honing at the shop, it becomes too difficult to control and must be replaced. Knives at the shop are usually replaced after six to eight months. "I've always dreamt of having a fancy knife," says Tupper, "but it just doesn't make any sense."
Federman isn't kidding when she describes the salmon slicing as "meditative." She explains the process: "A lot of it is spacial relations and angles. Your eyes have to be everywhere and nowhere, while you hand is doing a delicate motion. No fish is exactly the same, every time you pick up the fish, you have to reacquaint yourself." The slicers cut away from the salmon's body, a reversal of how many people instinctively approach fish.
Because each slicer behind the counter works with each fish, they must adapt to the what the person before them did. "It's something we drill into everyone," says Federman. "You have to think about what you're handing off to the next person because they're going to pick up where you left off." A perfect slice runs the entire side of salmon and is of consistent thinness. "What you're aiming for is super simple, but it's just difficult to get there," says Tupper.
Customers at the shop can also add tomato, capers, and/or onions. There's one topping that Tupper and Federman say will never be offered at their shop: lemon. "We want you to taste the deliciousness of the fish and the acidity of the lemon cancels it out," says Tupper. Of how people order their Classics Tupper adds, "It's a very personal thing. It's like asking how do you take your coffee."