On the morning of May 7, 2014, Lower Manhattan welcomed two enterprising shops harking back to the Lower East Side’s grand tradition of Eastern European appetizing. One is a breezy sliver of Soho-meets-Florida with a side of Streisand (Baz Bagel, 181 Grand Street, 212-335-0609); the other, a sit-down counterpart to Houston Street’s royal smoked-fish dynasty 100 years in the making (Russ & Daughters Cafe, 127 Orchard Street, 212-475-4881). Both have found their audiences, and this fall, Baz introduced dinner hours and several dishes skewed toward supper. Contemporary Jewish food’s trendiest moments may have passed, but in their wake, two fat and tasty slices of nostalgia remain. These are good times for the latke lovers and knish kvellers who roam the sidewalks below 14th Street.
Russ & Daughters officially celebrated its centennial this year, and the famous shop came out swinging with this new streamlined, white-tile-and-blond-wood Orchard Street cafe. For bagel sandwiches and caviar, the original shop still offers the better deal ($120 for 50 grams of American Transmontanus caviar on Houston Street versus $175 for the same plus blinis and crème fraîche at the cafe).
But the kitchen at the new restaurant positively shines with a strong showing of cooked dishes, like toothsome kasha varnishkes enlivened by caramelized onions and a perfectly poached egg. Latkes with wild salmon roe and crème fraîche elevate a Chanukah staple to Mount Sinai-level heights (the biblical version, not the hospital). Your mileage on smoked fish boards may vary — the “shtetl” and its three slices of admittedly lush smoked sable were figuratively hard to swallow at roughly $6/sliver, despite a lovely barnyard condiment of goat’s milk cream cheese.
The retro dinette also remains one of the best places in town to receive a herring primer, from schmaltz-soaked to curry-spiced. An option to add a shot of vodka alongside your pickled fish certainly makes a compelling case. Cocktails aren’t entirely offensive, especially compared to the relatively expensive $7 egg creams. You’d be hard-pressed to find a carob molasses version of the New York classic outside of these walls — its malty funk and fog-like froth justify the lofty price.
Baz is the brainchild of former Rubirosa GM Bari Musacchio and David Heffernan, a veteran of the iconic Barney Greengrass, the Upper West Side’s answer to Russ & Daughters. It takes a more casual approach to nouveau Jewish dining, serving comfort food without the pretense — and with slightly gentler prices to match.
Baz has a leg up on Russ in the bagel department, as Musacchio and co. hand-make their bagels on site. Likewise, the smoked-fish samplers are better, at least in terms of bang for your buck. The same $18 that yielded three slices of sable at Russ yields an extra three slices of Acme smoked salmon at Baz. Both restaurants also serve some form of whitefish dip with bagel chips, though only Russ & Daughters stocks wasabi-infused flying fish roe, a signature of their Heebster sandwich. Baz’s toned-down approach reveals itself in kasha that’s suitably perfumed with sauteed onions, but lacking the lusciousness of Russ & Daughters’ egg-topped iteration.
Baz also makes an excellent chocolate egg cream for the still-too-high price of $6 (coffee’s the underdog victor between the two).
Along with composed savory plates like crunchy chicken schnitzel, smoked trout croquettes in the shape of fish sticks, and a LaFrieda beef burger, Musacchio added a brief wine list and a trio of low-alcohol cocktails. Unfortunately, the boozy “Bette” shake was missing the same oomph as its namesake chanteuse. The piña colada riff normally tastes tropical and refreshing thanks to pineapple sherbet and a generous slug of Vouvray, a French white wine from the Loire Valley. Unfortunately, on one of our visits, the fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juices (nice!) popped and hissed when opened, a sign of fermentation. Past-its-prime juice is somewhat easier to overlook considering Baz channels the hearty fare of delis past with a literal plate of meat and potatoes in the form of fork-tender brisket and a cafeteria-style scoop of horseradish mashed potatoes.
There’s plenty of overlap among the creative desserts at both restaurants, especially in their versions of berry-topped blintzes, ice cream sundaes, and chocolate babka in all its pillowy glory. With rumors swirling about the Torrisi team turning their original Mulberry Street space into an appetizing shop run by Per Se vet Melissa Weller, it’s safe to say that Lower Manhattan remains a destination for Jewish comfort foods and preserved goods.
Check the next page for more photos of each.