On the streets of Williamsburg and throughout Manhattan, the idea of preserving something from years ago, like a vintage Vespa or your grandmother’s sewing machine, is very much in style. In the last year alone, three of the most hyped restaurants have been based on old Jewish culinary traditions: Russ and Daughters Café, Baz Bagels, and Black Seed Bagels. But the best place to find the treats that those places specialize in still exists, and it’s only a short 6-train away.
“I got 95 percent Jewish blood running through these veins,” says Hong Kong native Kenny Sze inside of bustling Sable’s Smoked Fish (1489 Second Avenue, 212-249-6177). It’s early afternoon, and Kenny, along with his brother Danny, are slicing slivers of salmon from Scotland and Ireland and, as Kenny says, “Keeping quality high!” The brothers have run the Upper East Side smoked fish beacon since 1989.
The siblings arrived here from Hong Kong in the early 1970s for high school; both spoke limited English, and both started working at a local bagel chain to earn extra money. Eventually, both landed jobs at the famed Jewish specialty store Zabars. “We started working at the bottom, cleaning floors and working our way up,” says Kenny.
Over the next 12 years, the brothers climbed the ladder to become co-heads of the appetizer department, learning from and befriending the best fishmongers and purveyors along the way. “It was like a university, a 12-year university,” says Danny. ” We learned the techniques in spotting the best fish from touch, color, and smell.”
In 1989, they realized the Upper East Side was in need of a smoked fish emporium of its own, and they opened in the location they are still in today. “A lot of my customers from Zabars just started coming here, and they stay with me now,” says Danny.
Enter under Sable’s garish, neon signs outside, and you’ll find a store-length deli counter loaded with smoked fish, dips, pickles, and dozens of other appetizers. Opposite the counter are hundreds of polaroids of regulars and celebrities posing with Kenny and Danny; one of the brothers’ biggest fans was the late Rodney Dangerfield, who used to have Sable’s overnight $300 to $400 worth of smoked fish and dips to his California home twice monthly. Even food fickle former Mayor Michael Bloomberg makes an appearance on the wall: Sable’s provided pounds of caviar for his daughter’s wedding. “The Bloombergs like caviar,” says Danny.
Sable’s is known for its smoked fish, and for good reason — it’s arguably the best in the city, better than Russ and Daughters and even the mighty Barney Greengrass. And that’s for the brothers’ focus on quality. “Some days the fish is just not up to standard, and we just can’t serve it to our customers” says Danny. (The owners taste everything before it hits the counter.) Look for salty and oily salt-cured belly lox, rich and firm smoked sturgeon, and, my personal favorite, delicate smoked Irish salmon; this selection of smoked fish is unparalleled. And don’t miss the smoked salmon “wings,” which contain some of the fattiest and tastiest pieces of the fish.
Many customers pick up fish dips, especially because Kenny and Danny offer tastes on crackers when shoppers enter the store. There’s a chunky fresh lobster salad — made from lobster, mayo, celery, and spices — smoked salmon salad, and shrimp salad, each of which tops all other fish spread dips I have encountered in the city.
Quality extends beyond the fish counter, too: Sable’s stocks still-warm H&H bagels that are delivered six times a day in small batches from the store just around the corner. You’ll find chopped chicken liver, nearly smooth, yet slightly chunky and sweet. The orange and grapefruit juices are fresh-squeezed.
Sable’s does most of its business in delivery and takeaway — in the summer, regulars order coolers of provisions to be delivered to the Hamptons Jitney; in the winter, snowbirds ask for shipments to be overnighted to Florida — but you shouldn’t ignore the eat-in tables, because the place serves a fantastic breakfast and lunch. Have a little of that salmon on a fresh bagel, or a scoop of lobster salad on a plate of lettuce and tomato. I recommend ordering some sturgeon, scrambled eggs, and well-done onions with an almost burnt bialy. Fresh, sweet, and salty, the eggs are always fluffy. You might follow up with the Irish salmon plate, a perfect complement.