A Jewish-American expat eats his way through the Big Apple
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Reporter's notebookWhen I found myself with a few days in the city, I made sure not to waste a meal

A Jewish-American expat eats his way through the Big Apple

Running loose in New York, a nostalgic writer homes in on the best pastrami and kasha varnishkes in the city

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

Shimmie Pesis gazes longingly into the deli case as he waits for a table at 2nd Avenue Deli in Midtown, New York. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
Shimmie Pesis gazes longingly into the deli case as he waits for a table at 2nd Avenue Deli in Midtown, New York. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — After having spent three sweltering winters on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, from time to time I find myself jonesing for a good bagel and lox. Not the round bread with a hole in the middle they serve in most bakeries in Israel, but a real, honest-to-goodness pumpernickel, with sturdy cream cheese and fresh smoked salmon hand-cut from the slab.

It’s at times like these that I feel the bittersweet pangs of exile, the melancholic call of the mother land.

As a Sephardi-Ashkenazi half-breed, I have more than my fair share of appreciation for my Syrian grandmother’s mehshi (stuffed zucchini), yeprak (grape leaves), and lachmajin (meat pizza). I have been known to make my regular pilgrimage to Jaffa for Abu Hassan’s superlative masabha (it’s hard to explain. Come taste it).

But despite a genetic predisposition for the heavily-spiced staples of my Levantine predecessors, I can’t help but identify even more strongly with the stereotypical “Jewish cuisine” of America — the pastrami, the knishes, the matza ball soup.

There’s much to love in Israel — and even more to argue over. But when I found myself with a few days in the city, I made sure not to waste a meal.

Russ and Daughters

On day one I proceeded directly to the Lower East Side to satisfy my three-year hankering for bagel and lox.

Exterior of the Russ and Daughters storefront on East Houston. (Courtesy Russ and Daughers)
Exterior of the Russ and Daughters storefront on East Houston. (Courtesy Russ and Daughers)

Some say the bagels in New York are better in general due to the tap water, and they’re probably right. For my money I’ll take Russ and Daughters on Houston Street any day of the week — even on Saturday or Sunday, when masses of hungry customers wait shoulder-to-shoulder and spilling out onto the street for their number to be called.

The shop is just that — there are no tables, just a counter with a dizzying variety of smoked salmons: nova, Scottish, Irish, Norwegian, belly lox, gravlax and pastrami cured, among others. And then there’s a whole lineup of delicate whitefish, sturgeon, sable and tuna.

Russ & Daughters fourth-generation owners Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper. (Courtesy Russ and Daughters)
Russ & Daughters fourth-generation owners Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper. (Courtesy Russ and Daughters)

Maybe its greatness can be attributed to the fact that it is the real deal. It was established over 100 years ago by Polish-Jewish immigrant Joel Russ, who put his daughters to work at the store from a young age.

A few years ago they opened a sit-down restaurant around the corner with a similar but slightly expanded menu — and identical out-the-door lines. For someone who grew up only dreaming about bacon and eggs, I was surprised at the number of hip-looking people waiting to get their hands on the one-time spartan foods shaped by kosher dietary laws.

A smoked fish platter from Russ and Daughters Cafe. (Courtesy Russ and Daughters)
A smoked fish platter from Russ and Daughters Cafe. (Courtesy Russ and Daughters)

But when the food arrived I understood what attracted the hipsters, and everyone else representing New York’s vast melting pot fressing away alongside us. It being New York, hybrids like wasabi-infused fish roe and horseradish dill cream cheese peppered the menu and made yesterday’s classics new again.

But I don’t like my classics new, I like them old. So I went for Scottish smoked salmon on sesame, and whitefish and baked salmon salad that paired perfectly with a pumpernickel. The table also ordered knishes, soup, and yes, kasha varnishkes, all outstanding. The star was the whitefish and baked salmon salad, though — rich, smoky, full of something special I can’t quite put my finger on, and frankly, the best I’ve ever had.

Wall Street Bath and Spa

If there are any experient medical benefits to a good schvitz, I’ve yet to hear of them. But that’s not to say that a couple of hours in the steam doesn’t leave me feeling like a million bucks. Alas, the internet searches I run for “Russian bath house in Tel Aviv” turn up a completely different type of result. So I wasn’t passing up on an opportunity to visit one of the famed Russian baths in Manhattan.

Five rooms of varying heat and steam, along with the cold showers, cold plunge, and jacuzzi really hit the spot for me and the alte bochrim as we shuffled around in cheap flip-flops and flimsy towels.

The 'American' schvitz, an intense heat sauna at Wall Street Bath and Spa, where buckets of ice-cold water can shock and refresh. (Courtesy Wall Street Bath and Spa)
The ‘American’ schvitz, an intense heat sauna at Wall Street Bath and Spa, where buckets of ice-cold water can shock and refresh. (Courtesy Wall Street Bath and Spa)

We joked, we schmoozed, and we enjoyed the different steam delivery systems: One room had a steam that was particularly intense, another impressive heat and buckets of ice water that we emptied over our heads. There were of course the people getting beaten with plaitzas, fragrant bundles of leaves that are said to contain essential oils that provide a bevy of health benefits, but I wasn’t shelling out anything above and beyond the already steep entrance fee. My loss.

Still, we walked out of the schvitz feeling rejuvenated and as if all the toxins had been cleansed from our bodies.

Do toxins exist? I can’t rightly say. But regardless, it left us energized and ready to proceed to our next stop, where we were to stuff ourselves to the gills with cholesterol.

2nd Avenue Deli

With all due respect to the Land of Milk and Honey, nobody does deli like New York — and nobody in New York does it better than 2nd Avenue Deli.

You can feel the buzz the moment you walk in, even while you’re still waiting for the host next to the long deli cases holding a rainbow of salads and knishes, adorned with rugelach and challahs above. Well before you make your way further into the dim, wood-paneled environment (that strangely reminds you of bubbe’s house), there is the palpable feeling that good food is served here.

Exterior, 2nd Avenue Deli, Midtown, New York location. (Shimmie Pesis/Times of Israel)
Exterior, 2nd Avenue Deli, Midtown, New York location. (Shimmie Pesis/Times of Israel)

In today’s sensitive political climate, it behooves us to avoid stereotyping. Still, the server was appropriately corpulent, pithy, and full of tough love. He ignored the bus boys pushing past him in the narrow aisle as they hoisted plastic tubs piled with dirty dishes, and instead focused stoically on us, providing insight and advice as we navigated a menu long like a Talmudic discourse.

Complimentary plates of pickles — full and half-sour — as well as coleslaw already adorned the table. Biting into a half-sour, I made a note to pine for this, too, when I returned to my desert home.

The deli case with salads at 2nd Avenue Deli in Midtown, New York. (Shimmie Pesis/Times of Israel)
The deli case with salads at 2nd Avenue Deli in Midtown, New York. (Shimmie Pesis/Times of Israel)

We all ordered sandwiches, of course. Tall ones, towers of steaming corned beef and pastrami between not-so-flimsy slices of rye bread that still seemed frighteningly insufficient against the colossal payload. Comedian Mitch Hedberg famously described the New York deli sandwich as “a cow with a cracker on either side of it,” and he wasn’t far off.

My coping strategy is to pop that sucker open and take a fork to it until I can comfortably fit it into my mouth — and anyway, it’s nice to have some time alone with that delicate, tender meat unencumbered by the relatively uncouth rye and mustard.

Half corned beef, half pastrami at 2nd Avenue Deli, in Midtown, New York. Note kasha varnishkes in the background. (Shimmie Pesis/Times of Israel)
Half corned beef, half pastrami at 2nd Avenue Deli, in Midtown, New York. Note kasha varnishkes in the background. (Shimmie Pesis/Times of Israel)

Yes, I ordered more kasha varnishkes, and yes, the earthy buckwheat and greasy bow tie pasta were heavily salted and swimming in sweet, caramelized onions — everything an erstwhile yeshiva boy could ask for.

And when all was said and done, when the last mustardy crusts were consumed and the coleslaw scraped clean from the metal dish, the waiter came by with free shots of delicious (pareve) chocolate soda and had the chutzpah to ask if we wanted dessert.

We chased him away and slowly got up, chewing lazily on toothpicks and hitching up our pants, barely able to drag ourselves out the door. It was perfect.

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