Mastering the Art of the Bagel
Reggie Nadelson stops by the Lower East Side institution Russ & Daughters for the best bagels, lox, and cream cheese on planet Earth.
Here at Russ & Daughters—the Louvre of Lox, as London’s Sunday Times once called it—salmon is king. There’s the rare double-smoked variety from Denmark, the pale elegant wild stuff from the Baltic Sea, the classic Scottish, the traditional belly lox. There is kippered salmon made by hot smoking, pickled salmon with onions, Scandinavian gravlax with dill, pastrami-cured salmon.
I’m elbow deep in the stuff, learning how to make the perfect version of that great New York sandwich, lox and cream cheese on a bagel—how to choose, slice, assemble. Meg Ryan might have faked an orgasm at Katz’s Deli (down the street from Russ) in When Harry Met Sally, but as far as I’m concerned you can forget the corned beef, the pastrami, the salami.
"All the elements matter," says Joshua Russ Tupper, green-eyed, 33, and part of the fourth generation of Russes to run his family’s "appetizing" store in Manhattan. "A bagel must, of course, be boiled before it’s baked and it should never be fluffy." Fluffy, we agree, is for pillows. As for the flavor, poppy seed and sesame are okay, but for a great sandwich, plain most completely surrounds and stands up best to the salmon, the cream cheese. I slice it in two even halves to Josh’s specification. (Some eccentrics, like loyalist Mel Brooks, slice bagels in three.) Purists do not toast a fresh bagel; only a second-day bagel can you toast.
I’ve been shopping at Russ & Daughters all my life and I have watched the neighborhood around it change. Once a place of peddlers and push-carts, it became a squalid area of broken- down tenement buildings and bums before turning into the gentrified zone it is today, with fancy cafés and hideous new glass apartment buildings, an art-house cinema, and a Whole Foods that fills an entire city block. Russ—along with Katz’s and the knish parlor Yonah Schimmel—is one of the few enduring landmarks, the remaining crown jewel. Not much has changed in decades, the pink-and-green neon sign depicting two jaunty salmon still outside, the spotless white-tiled floor and spiffy white-coated lox guys within.
Joel Russ, an Eastern European immigrant, opened the store in 1914, calling it Russ’ Cut-Rate Appetizers. (The term "appetizing store" appears to be a New Yorkism, applied to Russ and other shops like it that sold only fish and dairy products to differentiate them from delis, which sold meat.) For more than 90 years, the Russ family has run the shop: Joel’s daughters, his grandson, and now his great-grandchildren—Josh and Josh’s first cousin, Niki Russ Federman, 30. The walls are plastered with turn-of-the-century photos and family pictures; the girls look like the Andrews Sisters circa l945.
"Only New York bagels are real bagels, and there are only a few places left where you can get one," says Josh, mentioning Terrace Bagels in Brooklyn as well as Russ.
Josh and I move on to the cream cheese, which he buys from a supplier in California, though he admits any good, natural (no additives, no preservatives), full-fat cream cheese is fine. It’s in the homemade flavorings, however, that Russ’s cream cheese comes into its own: chopped green Provençal olives, scallions, caviar, and my new favorite, cream cheese laced with horseradish. "But for the sandwich, plain," says Josh, handing me a container. I spread about a tablespoonful on each half, not too lavish nor too spartan. There is a fine balance in this.
Getting the salmon right, choosing, slicing, takes judgment, a nuanced palate, experience. "We get deliveries from all the best smokehouses," says Josh, who is reticent about naming the actual suppliers, in part because he uses different ones all the time depending on where the best salmon is caught. (Some smokehouses are built close to the source of the salmon—near the coast of Ireland, alongside highland Scottish rivers, on islands such as Bornholm off Denmark; others are in New York itself.) "And we return what we don’t like," Josh continues. "When my uncle Mark wanted to come into the business, his father said, ’You just have to feel it.’ " It seems this was meant in both senses. Feel it with your hands and your heart.
From a glass case Josh removes a side of salmon. There are usually about ten kinds available, and for my sandwich the first contender is belly lox ($30 per pound). Unlike the other salmon in the case, lox is cured in brine, not smoked. This is the original for a lox, bagel, and cream cheese sandwich, the salty fish in a ideal merger with the cheese and maybe a translucent slice of red onion, a couple of capers. In spite of the exquisite smoked salmon available, I still love this lox of my childhood.
The most popular of the smoked is Gaspé Nova, also $30 a pound and frequently called Novy. At some imprecise point in history, the Novy came to refer to a higher class of lox—though it’s technically not lox because it is smoked, not cured. It’s mild and fresh tasting, usually the least salty. The Norwegian variety, at $24 per pound, is the least expensive but nice and smoky; the Irish ($34 a pound) is juicy and more delicate. Only at Russ do you find double-smoked Danish organic salmon ($48 per pound), a pale champagne color, deeply smoked, with an almost minky, velvet feel.
And the Scottish?
"Nice," says Josh. "Sophisticated, complex, great for your sandwich or naked on a plate with a little lemon and black pepper." (It’s $32 per pound.)
My mouth is full, my hands are fishy. I like the eco-correct and newly fashionable wild salmon. Western Nova from the Pacific ($48 per pound) is lean, almost fatless. The Baltic, also $48 a pound, is great salmon, too, intense and different because these fish dine on herring rather than crustaceans. Finally there is the Balik ($48 per pound), a special middle cut from a few perfect specimens, usually from Scotland. This is buttery stuff, rich, the Kobe beef of salmon, often cut thick like sashimi. You can eat it off a fork.
For my sandwich I decide on the Western Nova. I’ll need about three full-size thin slices, an eighth of a pound, a little more.
"God is in the slicing," Josh says. "The way you slice affects the texture, the texture affects the taste in your mouth." He hands me over to Herman Vargas, one of Russ’s masters of the craft. Vargas puts the knife in my hand, a long, thin, very sharp one with a wooden handle (these go out every week for sharpening).
I stand so my left hand is on the salmon, my right with the knife at a 45-degree angle to the fish.
"Just let your hand rest comfortably," says Vargas, who has been at Russ for 27 years and who, when he arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic at the age of 17, had never seen lox.
I chop away at the salmon. The pieces come out ragged and fat. This is not easy. I try again, this time with Vargas’s hand over mine. "Let the knife pull your hand gently," he says. "It takes time to learn." How long? "About ten years. Slicing salmon is a meditation."
Finally we produce lovely full, thin slices, almost translucent. I drape them over the bagel and cream cheese. My sandwich is finished. This is a good sandwich, a great sandwich, but if I’m honest it tastes not just of the bread and fish and cheese. This is a sandwich for me that tastes of holidays, Sunday mornings, New York. Herman remembers how when he first started working at Russ & Daughters, he fell in love because it—the family, the customers—reminded him of Puerto Plata, the city where he grew up.
Now he watches me eating the sandwich and says, "To make one of these right, it takes a village."
Lox, Bagel & Cream Cheese Sandwich
1 fresh plain new york bagel
1–2 heaping tbsp natural full-fat cream cheese
3 slices (approx. 1/8 lb or a little more) smoked salmon or belly lox
1. Slice the bagel in half.
2. Spread the cream cheese evenly on both halves.
3. Optional: Add a thin slice of red onion, tomato, a few capers—this works best if you’re using belly lox.
4. Drape three slices of thinly sliced salmon on the bottom half.
5. Put the other half of the bagel on. Press down lightly. Slice in half if desired. Eat. Serve with fresh cold orange juice, seltzer, or a cold mineral-y Pinot Grigio. Happy New Year!
P.S. For some variety, try a well-toasted bialy—crannied cousin to the bagel—buttered while hot and topped with pastrami-cured sal- mon (smoked salmon with pastrami spices) so the butter melts into the bread and fish.
Russ & Daughters, 179 E. Houston St.; 212-475-4880; russanddaughters.com