As a young college student with little funds and a great love of food, I am always trying to get the most bang for my buck. In my quest to explore all the bakeries New York has to offer I am most deeply stung when I spend good money at an establishment that has been hyped up for very little reward. I often do extensive research before venturing to one of these locations, in hopes that I will be avoiding a future negative review. However, the internet holds few trusted sources when it comes to this, and taste can be extremely subjective. Therefore, the occasional misstep into disappointment is inevitable.
The greatest disappointment, however, is when a trusted source turns on you, and a location for which you had the highest hopes turns out to be your worst fear: average. It is with great regret that Nick and I found this to be true with Russ & Daughters Cafe, a New York Deli establishment that was featured in many a friend’s Instagram post, but more importantly on Somebody Feed Phil’s New York City episode. Nick and I blew through every episode of the series and were obsessed with Phil Rosenthal’s endearing wonder toward the world and thorough enjoyment of foods from all cultures. This semester we decided that we should try and hit as many locations featured in the New York City episode as possible (most likely excluding Blue Hill Farm or Peter Luger Steak house – as again, we are college students). We trusted Phil with our lives, but more importantly our money, and were excited to explore the city we called home in a fresh way.
The intended first stop was Razza, a pizza shop that is actually located in Jersey City. A full-fledged New Yorker might scoff at venturing outside the actual city in search for amazing pizza, and I have to admit I was slightly dubious of the idea myself. But living just steps away from the PATH train it was not too big a field trip, and from what we saw on the show well worth it. Our plans were foiled when we called to check availability and realized they were closed on Sundays. We were still on a Phil foodie mission that day though and were determined to visit a location. After looking back at the options, we decided to give Russ & Daughters a try. Conveniently located in the lower east side, we strolled upward and salivated at the thought of the dishes we hoped would comfort our souls from the loss of pizza.
We arrived at the pristine, white, old-school looking cafe primed and ready for some Jewish food, a cuisine with which I have not had much experience. We were able to snag a small table and settled in to really examine the menu. Typically, I do thorough menu research and pretty much know what I am going to get beforehand so I can settle into the experience. But all the options sounded so good I was struggling to come to a decision. Nick, however, was having the reverse problem. As one hailing from Hawaii, he is a man who has high standards for fish. This often means just avoiding having fish on the mainland to avoid disappointment. But the menu at Russ & Daughters makes fish difficult to avoid, it was inevitable that some sort of cured salmon or white fish was going to be consumed. He resigned himself to this fact and ordered the eggs Benedict, and I decided to go classic with their bagel and nova smoked salmon.
We waited for our dishes to arrive and remarked how taken we were with their aesthetic. The interior is akin to the soda shops of old, with a counter and spinning dinner stools and there are glass containers of various dried fruits and nuts lining the walls. A few waiters were adorned with soda jerk hats placed perfectly atop their heads, and behind the counter a server wore a white lab coat-like jacket, taking me back to the 50’s. If you wanted to feel like you were going out for a quintessential New York meal, Russ & Daughters was perfectly curating that vibe.
Our food arrived and was certainly well displayed. My bagel was a do-it-yourself situation, with the cream cheese contained in a metal dish, and the salmon, capers, tomato, onion, and bagel all laid out separately on a wooden board. I appreciated the visual appeal but was worried about my own abilities to construct I viable bagel sandwich. There are many food stuffs that I am good at constructing, but any and all sandwiches have consistently eluded me. Perhaps it’s that I’m generally messy, and I find that a well-constructed sandwich is neat with each layer perfectly laid on top of each other. Or perhaps I am just not good at picking out foods on my own that pair well between two pieces of bread, creating a mediocre lump. Whatever the cause, sandwiches of all types are always better when made by another person. Knowing this, I was a little miffed that I had paid a hearty $18 for the ingredients and I had to do all the construction, which is half the battle, myself.
The bagel itself was also not what I had imagined. It was certainly not the large, puffy bagel of my dreams, but rather skinny and frankly typical looking. This was the sort of bagel I might have expected from my school’s cafeteria, or a grocery store back in NH, not a Jewish New York establishment. While the texture looked perfectly passable, there was simply not enough of it. If I’m asking for a bagel, I know the carb-filled affair I’m getting into. This was almost an attempt to minimize the actual bagel of the bagel with fixings as much as it could.
Nick’s egg Benedict was a curious situation, as it started out classic with two poached eggs and hollandaise, but then veered off course with a bed of smoked salmon and cooked spinach on one piece of toast. While the substitution of salmon for Canadian bacon is not unusual in the world of fancy brunch spots in NYC, the spinach turned the dish into a Benedict/Florentine mashup. The toast was the most unusual aspect of it all. Eggs Benedict is typically served with one egg on each half of an English muffin. This is perfect because, ya know, there are two eggs. And ideally, these eggs are rich with runny yolk, and there is great joy to be had in the puncturing of the yolk and soaking it all up with that egg’s respective English muffin. But with all of it piled onto the one piece of toast, the fundamental experience of eggs Benedict was missing. The toast was also rather thick, which while making it look yummy individually, was concerning when thinking about proportions.
I carefully went about constructing my bagel and decided to consume each half open-faced. I adorned the top half with all the fixin’s and was miraculously able to get a bite with all of them. The standout of it all was by far the cream cheese. Light, a little sweet, and a little tart, and whipped to perfection. This cream cheese was downright artisanal and delivered a multifaceted experience that can often be left one-note in a cream cheese, dampened down by the heaviness of the spread. I also found the smoked salmon enjoyable, as an unfussy lover of cured meats. The rest of it was entirely average. I have frankly had better bagels with salmon and cream cheese for much cheaper in other establishments that I didn’t have to build myself. For a place that makes its name off of this classic dish, there was not much to recommend it.
However, I did not have much of it as I actually ended up swapping with Nick and mostly having the eggs Benedict/Florentine. Nick was entirely displeased with the dish, finding the fish not up to par, the spinach an off-putting addition, and the toast far too thick as we feared. He did not even want to touch the rest of it, but found the bagel to be okay, and as I found the Benedict okay, we decided to trade. Aside from the strong salmon feelings, I heartily agreed. The toast was fluffy and a good piece of bread individually, but its starchiness was far too thick a bed for the would-be stars of the show. On top of that, I was trying to maneuver two eggs on top of one slice, making everything rather messy. This is why you use an English muffin or split biscuit. A slice of toast just did not do the eggs any favors.
Speaking of those eggs, they did little to help themselves out. The egg yolks were not runny at all, again taking away a cardinal experience of eggs Benedict. While it was not inedible (an egg is an egg after all) it was over poached and not right.
The spinach was cooked remarkably well, and if it was a dish of cooked spinach I would have been over the moon. There was a bright citrus undertone to it, and the texture was just right for steamed spinach, which is so often watery, sad, and limp. But I did not like it at all as an element of the eggs Benny and chose rather to scrape the spinach off the toast and eat it individually than to muscle through it with the other less-than-perfect elements. Scraping the spinach off was made difficult by the sheer amount of it that was piled on. Every time I thought I was through I was surprised with another clump of spinach where I wanted none.
The best part of the meal came with the check in the form of coffee/chocolate toffees given to us in a similar manner as an after-dinner mint. The little cubes were rich with burnt butterscotch and coffee offset with just a tinge of chocolate that would be a satisfying conclusion to any meal, whether good or disappointing as this one was. If I had gotten only those toffees I would have been impressed and pleased. I might even make my way to the Russ & Daughters deli to get just those one day. But one toffee does not a meal make, and on the whole, Russ & Daughters provided us with two disappointing ones.
After having been let down by our trusted Phil, we decided that our mistake needed remedy in the form of ice cream. We had passed a shop on our walk up and ventured back down to hopefully salvage the night.
We entered Bive, the ice cream shop in question, and I quickly realized what we were getting ourselves into: health ice cream. Or should I say, healthy frozen treats. The names of the flavors were things like “Boost Me Up”, “Keep Me Strong”, and “Keep Me Balanced”. They advertised ingredients such as chia seeds, aloe vera, goji berries, and collagen, all with descriptions of their respective health benefits. This was a health store masquerading as an ice cream shop. These were people with no interest in making good food, but making food that would trick customers into feeling like they were treating themselves while not violating their diet too much. But we had made eye contact with the person behind the counter and were in too deep to leave. And who knew! Maybe it could redeem itself from the image it presented!
I went with a chocolate sort of flavor and one with chocolate chips in it, neither of which I can remember the flavor-unrelated names for. I did find hope in the different flavors of cones, of which I decided to try lavender.
Surprisingly, the ice cream had some flavor. But the texture was grainy, unsubstantial, and wholly unpleasant. I was so acutely aware that I had paid once again far too much for far too little. I’m sure those frozen lumps de-toxified my blood or calmed me down or boosted my serotonin or something, but that’s not what I want when I’m looking for ice cream. Especially when I’m looking for ice cream to quell my earlier food-related disappointment. But as a result of their healthy aspirations the product’s flavor was extremely one-note, and texture one that screamed the phrase “make-shift”. The cone was interesting with its solid lavender flavor, and if it was with real ice cream perhaps I would have enjoyed it more. But as a cap off of two scoops of fake ice cream all it did was fail in fully cleansing my palate of the sins done unto it that night with its light floral bouquet.
For days, even weeks later, Nick and I were filled with sudden bursts of anger about that night of food. Establishments that serve average fair are fine. Plentiful. Necessary staples of this earth. But it is when I go in with high expectations set not only by my peers but from respected television personalities and am met with mediocrity that I am upset. Adoration should only come forth when it is deserved. Titles of greatness should not be adorned upon food that does not meet such a description. Yes, tastes vary. But there are some things, like the basics of a bagel or the construction of eggs Benedict, that are universal truths. Russ & Daughters failed on both such fronts and seemingly used complacency in their renowned name to deliver a subpar product for far too much money. To have this meal followed by fake ice cream was the cherry on top of my Sundae of culinary anger. It is nights like this for which I write this blog. So, when you’re looking to have a nice night out with a friend and treat yourself, you’re really treating yourself. Because who has the time to get duped by big names with little to offer? In New York City there are just too many other options to waste time and money like that.