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Restaurants

Go For the Food: Russ & Daughters in NYC

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Russ & Daughters’ take-out shop on the Lower East Side of New York City sells traditional Jewish appetizing foods to go like smoked fish and chopped liver. (Russ & Daughters)

Russ & Daughters has been a New York City institution on the Lower East Side for 100 years, a deli selling what's known as "appetizing" — traditional foods like bagels and lox that were brought here from Eastern Europe by Jewish immigrants, but are now standard breakfast and brunch fare around the city and beyond.

Fortunately for tourists who don't have a kitchen to take these goodies home to — and anyone else who'd prefer their chopped liver sitting down rather than to go — Russ & Daughters opened a cafe earlier this year three blocks from the store. It's run by cousins Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman, the fourth generation of Russes in the family business. They're the great-grandchildren of the founder, the late Joel Russ, a Polish immigrant who sold food from a pushcart before opening a store in 1914.

Not only does the cafe food stand up to the store's hallowed reputation, but the entire experience of dining there is just a load of fun. There are nods to the original Russ & Daughters, like enormous hunks of salmon in glass display cases and the menu's retro typeface, which echoes the neon sign on the takeout shop. Many menu items are named with a charming wink at Yiddish — combo plates like "Mensch" and "Shtetl." Diners sit beneath lit-up signs for "PICKLES FROM THE BARREL" and "BELLY LOX."[image'

Some menu items are the same as what you get in the store: your chopped liver, your knishes, your pickles and pickled herring. But others take classic flavors and favorites to inspired new levels. Potato latkes, a Hanukkah treat available at the cafe any time of year, are truly outstanding, crispy yet fluffy, served with either wild salmon roe and creme fraiche, or with traditional applesauce and sour cream. The smoked whitefish chowder with dill is a revelation: Everything you love about chowder and everything you love about smoked fish, all in one bowl.

Do not leave the cafe without trying the halvah ice cream, which turns the dense Middle Eastern sesame candy into a creamy, delectable frozen treat, with salted caramel accentuating the dessert's sweet-and-salty flavors. Even folks who don't love halvah will love this ice cream.

While the cafe menu is not huge, there's something for every time of day, whether you want breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, drinks, or just, as they say, a nosh. There are egg dishes, smoked fish platters, open-faced sandwiches, salads, soups and sides. Booze includes wine, beer, Champagne, artisanal cocktails like the Lower East Side — gin, lime juice, dill and cucumber — and bloody marys with four types of infused vodka. Homemade soft drinks include, of course, cream soda, coffee soda and chocolate egg creams, plus a lemon-lime soda bursting with flavor.

The cafe's blend of tradition and trendiness is perfect for its location. The Lower East Side was home to an enormous immigrant population in the early 20th century. Today, the area reflects its roots as one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, but its transformation to a fashionable hotspot is also evident in the profusion of sleek bars, condos and upscale stores. If the old and new flavors at Russ & Daughters' whet your appetite for a closer look at the neighborhood's immigrant history, be sure to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, just a few doors from the cafe.

And if you can't make it here to sample all of this in person, well, the appetizing store will ship. Either way, as they say in the old neighborhood — and on the Russ & Daughters menu — "Ess gezinter hayt." Eat in good health.