Too heavy. Not enough spice. Gelatinous. Gourmets have loved knocking the cuisine of traditional Eastern European Jews for years.
But just as it began to get tough to eat a potato knish, a latke or a slice of kugel without raising eyebrows, nothing short of a minor culinary miracle occurred—bagels, lox, kasha varnishkes (buckwheat and bow-tie pasta) and egg creams are suddenly trendy again in the Big Apple.
Several new restaurants, with serious foodie credentials, are serving up dishes that your bubbe or zayde (grandma or grandpa) would approve.
“I don’t think that it’s a passing fad,” says Ted Merwin, associate professor of religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College and author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.
“Now that Jews are rapidly becoming assimilated into American society, along with their foods, there’s a desire to bring Jewish food up to date and make it relevant again.” It doesn’t hurt, he adds, that there is now a slew of fashionable Jewish celebrities, including Jon Stewart.
The current fascination with artisanal products and traditional cooking methods couldn’t be a better fit for the cuisine, since so many of its recipes (and the surviving establishments making them) have often existed for decades.
The old-world charm of Russ & Daughters, which has resided in the same neon-bedecked storefront on Houston Street for nearly a hundred years, now not only attracts a range of hungry shoppers from the five boroughs and the surrounding suburbs, but also way beyond.
In its infancy, the shop was one of hundreds of so-called appetizing stores in the city that sold a range of foods, including smoked, pickled and cured fish and cheese. Now it’s one of the city’s last.
But after falling apart and building up again (albeit with a completely different and trendier demographic), the Lower East Side is one of the Big Apple’s most desirable areas—and Russ & Daughters is finally being treated as a culinary treasure.
The store was even the subject of a charming 2014 documentary, The Sturgeon Queens, which explored the family behind the institution.
That same year Russ & Daughters also launched a café a few blocks away on Orchard Street serving such new creations as the ‘Super Heebster’ (bagel toast, whitefish, baked salmon salad, wasabi-infused roe and horseradish dill cream cheese) and the ‘Mensch’ (sturgeon, butter, tomato, onion and capers).
It’s been so successful that its owners (the family’s fourth generation), Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman, just opened a kosher 70-seat restaurant inside the Jewish Museum on tony Fifth Avenue.
The new outpost will soon have an appetizing counter selling, you guessed it, knishes and smoked fish and some of its other signature items. “We’ve never been more busy,” says Russ Tupper. “We’ve started reaching people who aren’t Jews.”
Not far from Russ & Daughters, on a chic block of West Broad way in SoHo, is the trendy Sadelle’s.
During lunch and breakfast, the cavernous restaurant serves towers of smoked fish. And what goes better with a sliver of sturgeon than a schmear of cream cheese and a bagel?
Sadelle’s has wonderful homemade hand-rolled bagels, including a delicious take on the everything bagel that features fennel seeds and caraway seeds in addition to the familiar garlic, poppy and sesame toppings. (Melissa Weller, who previously worked at Roberta’s and Per Se, creates the bagels and baked goods right in the middle of the dining room.)
The eatery also has caviar service, matzo ball soup, a range of omelets and a classic, decidedly non-kosher egg sandwich that includes fried eggs, Muenster cheese and bacon. You might be tempted to skip the egg salad, but it's deliciously creamy.
If you’re looking for a bit of a different take on traditional dishes, head to one of the two Mile End delicatessens, which specialize in modern versions of the food of Canadian Jews. (Mile End’s name is taken from the Jewish section of Montreal.)
Founder Noah Bernamoff is, naturally, from Montreal; he found himself longing for his hometown’s specialties while he was attending law school in New York.
To get a fix for his cravings, he started cooking and soon realized—to our collective benefit—that he enjoyed it more than studying torts and writing briefs.
He opened the first deli in a tiny Brooklyn location and began serving New Yorkers such rich delicacies as a chicken schnitzel BLT (maple bacon, pickled green tomato, lettuce, and mustard-mayo on an onion roll), or a Smoked Meat Sandwich (what they call cured and smoked brisket across the border) with a side of poutine (a decadent mix of French fries, cheese curds and gravy): perhaps every Canadian’s favorite drunk food.
Now that’s a meal you’ll be telling your children’s children about.