Chatting with Russ & Daughters, a Lower East Side legend

Russ & Daughters’ fourth-generation owners talk about the family business, film festivals and, of course, spectacular fish.

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  • Paul Wagtouicz

    The Hattie at Russ & Daughters Cafe

  • Paul Wagtouicz

    The Shtetl at Russ & Daughters Cafe

  • Paul Wagtouicz

    Schmaltz and a shot at Russ & Daughters Cafe

  • Paul Wagtouicz

    Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper at Russ & Daughters Cafe

  • Paul Wagtouicz

    Russ & Daughters Cafe

  • Paul Wagtouicz

    Russ & Daughters Cafe

  • Paul Wagtouicz

    Russ & Daughters Cafe

  • Paul Wagtouicz

    Russ & Daughters Cafe

  • Paul Wagtouicz

    Russ & Daughters Cafe

Paul Wagtouicz

The Hattie at Russ & Daughters Cafe


For New Yorkers, lining up at Russ & Daughters is a time-honored tradition—pull a ticket, wait for your number to be called, then sidle up to the glass-covered cases to gawk over the stunning sable and sturgeon. The routine hasn’t changed much since the smoked-fish emporium launched a century ago, but now there’s even more to love: the plotz-inducing Russ & Daughters Café (127 Orchard St between Delancey and Rivington Sts, 212-475-4881). With a centennial and a successful spin-off to celebrate—as well as the premiere of a documentary, The Sturgeon Queens—2014 might be the shop’s best year yet.

FAMILY TIES
Jewish immigrant Joel Russ launched the prototype of Russ & Daughters in 1907, peddling fillets of schmaltz herring from a pushcart on the Lower East Side until he opened a brick-and-mortar store in 1914. The reins have since been handed over to fourth-generation cousin owners Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper, who expanded the family business with their booming café in May. “Our great-grandfather needed cheap labor, so he roped in his children,” Federman jokes; the store’s namesake daughters—Hattie, Anne and Ida—each have a fish platter named after them at the restaurant.

SMOKED-FISH SMORGASBORD
The heart of the café is its fish-carving station, where slicers offer a crash course in exquisitely fresh catch: brook trout, whitefish and seemingly every salmon variety in existence (kippered, pastrami-cured, Gaspe Nova). “I’d toast up a bagel, spread on cream cheese and put every single fish on it,” Tupper says of his younger self. “My grandmother would get so angry.” Make like a Russ kid with one of the open-faced sandwich boards: Melt-in-your-mouth sable meets decadent goat’s-milk cream cheese on a bagel or a Kossar’s bialy in the Shtetl ($18), or go classic with silky, saline nova, piled high with tomatoes, capers and onions ($16).

BEYOND THE FIN
Russ is synonymous with great fish, but there are plenty of landlocked tenement eats on the café menu, too, including crispy-yet-tender latkes, topped humbly with applesauce and sour cream ($9) or indulgently with salmon roe and crème fraîche ($14). But the most welcome addition to the Russ & Daughters roster is booze, in the form of wine, beer and cocktails. “Caviar should be eaten with vodka,” Tupper says. “Herring goes amazingly well with beer.”

LIFELONG LOWER EAST SIDER
The melting-pot flavor of the neighborhood permeates every table. “At one booth, you have four generations of one family and next to them, you have some celebrities just hanging out,” Federman says. When the place is packed and the wait time exceeds an hour—typical for weekend brunch, so go during a less-crowded weekday night—the Russes suggest going out and exploring the nabe. “That’s our guiding principle, to keep what’s old new and connect people with the history,” Federman says.

BIG-SCREEN STARS
It’s fitting that The Sturgeon Queens, a documentary chronicling Russ & Daughters’ history, will open the Lower East Side Film Festival on Thursday June 12 at Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, two blocks from the Russes’ legendary flagship. “I think the arc of our family is a tale that resonates with Americans, whether you’re Jewish or Italian or Chinese,” Federman says. “It’s a small family business that has survived. Today you don’t see that,” adds Tupper. “It gives people hope.”


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