Russ and Daughters

Russ and Daughters is a New York institution for smoked fish, much like how Katz’s is synonymous with pastrami sandwiches and Grimaldi’s is known for pizza. It’s pretty impressive how a place like this has held up so well over the years. There’s so much bagel and lox competition now with fancy hipster places like Sadelle’s and Black Seed sprouting up right and left. But there’s something about nostalgia and an authentic backstory that keep people coming back to Russ and Daughters, leaving the newcomers’ stars to fade when their 15 minutes are up.

old fashioned counter service
old fashioned counter service

Russ and Daughters opened a restaurant on Orchard St about two years ago, and the lines are still out the door. Everyone is pretty committed to waiting out the hour and a half for a table, both young hipsters in beanies discovering Russ for the first time and the more experienced clientele who have grown up with the brand ages ago. Once you’re in, you get that old school NYC experience that you’ve been waiting patiently for. It looks like a scene of an Edward Hopper painting come to life, in which smartly dressed staff members in white lab technician jackets move across shelves of specialty food products in classic Pop Art packaging. And because Russ and Daughters actually has been around for that long, you do feel like you’re getting the real deal, not tickets to a knockoff.

matzo ball soup
matzo ball soup
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the classic board – gaspe nova smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomato, onion, capers
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lower sunny side – sunny side up eggs, gaspe nova scotia salmon, potato latkes

Of course you have to get some sort of bagel and lox or smoked fish spread, and a bowl of hearty matzo ball soup. The presentation is pretty clean and classic, staying true to how people would have consumed these heritage food products back then. There are some new fangled creations for people who want modern day brunch options, like the Lower Sunny Side, a plate of fried eggs, latke and smoked salmon, but nothing ever veers too much from the original. Any variations are Russ and Daughters 2.0, not 6.0.

Somehow I wasn’t bothered by the hour and a half wait. I’ve attempted this twice before and bailed, but one day I just accepted that the wait comes with the territory and patiently read through a copy of the NY Times. Like a grandmother who is late because she doesn’t know how to use Google Maps, Russ and Daughters might try your patience but all is forgiven when the two of you reunite.

Kopitiam, Malaysian Breakfast

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kopitiam’s cozy quarters on canal st

A bowl of nasi lemak for breakfast is not for the faint of heart. This traditional Malaysian rice bowl dish, which is one of the specialties at tiny LES Malaysian cafe Kopitiam, is shameless in its pungent, stinky fishiness. The anchovies are front and center, eyes peeking out of their tiny, dried bodies, swimming in a fragrant sea of other strong personalities like fish sauce, shrimp paste and garlic. Stinky, fishy, spicy, sweet, this is the type of Asian dish that makes white people with meek palates very, very afraid.

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nasi lemak

That’s the type of approach that Kopitiam takes to its Malaysian cooking–bold and authentic flavors. There’s no toning down of this or that to appeal to a broad audience, which I appreciate. You definitely have to be in a certain mood to eat foods that are so intense early in the day, in the same way that you can only take in so many episodes of Game of Thrones, but when you do, you won’t forget it.

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pulut panggang

The pulut panggang, a sticky rice snack covered in banana leaf and filled with dried shrimp, was just as funky and feisty as the nasi lemak that came before it. As a Korean, I’ve had my fair share of eating dried squid or cuttlefish, and the highly concentrated and briney flavors in just about everything I ate felt very familiar.

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blue morning glory sticky rice

We also had the pulut inti, a blue morning glory sticky rice with grated coconut that reminded me a lot of Thai coconut sticky rice. As a sweet treat, it served as a nice palate cleanser for all the salty marinades that came before it. I’d say that the sweeter options like the malaysian toast and pandan and coconut cake are good entry points for those who want to tread the Malaysian waters a bit more lightly. But I’d recommend plunging right in. Almost everyone in the small 4 person restaurant as well as the steady flow of take out customers were going for it, and we were all staying afloat just fine.


Kopitiam
51 Canal St (between Orchard and Ludlow St)
New York, NY 10002
(646) 894-7081

Wildair Wine Bar

The problem with wine bars is the food. Why is it that the only options seem to be cheese and charcuterie plates? Wildair, the newish wine bar run by the team behind popular restaurant Contra, focuses on natural and funky wines, and the food menu is so much more than cheese and prosciutto. And it lacks that “wine bar” atmosphere that can be a little annoying–pretentiousness, vinophiles taking about how they LOVE this grape, girls night out pre-gaming, etc. It feels like a comfortable neighborhood bar filled with normal people who are there just to hang out.

fried squid
fried squid, spring onion, lemon, basil with squid ink aioli

I have mixed feelings about making a meal out of small plates, but the ones at Wildair are diverse and well portioned so that you can feel like you’ve had a proper square meal. If you only had to limit yourself to one thing, order the fried squid. It looks like the stuff that they serve at Chinese restaurants, except the batter is so much crisper and starchier, and the meat is actually soft and tender and almost ceviche like. And of course, that black ink aioli makes all the difference.

bread and olive oil
house bread and olive oil
beef tartare
beef tartare, smoked cheddar, chestnut

I initially didn’t want to order the bread and olive oil, because why fill up on something so safe and commonplace when there’s a beef tartare to try, but this is one hearty, rustic loaf that represents what we love most about bread. Thick, country crust with a warm, glutinous and yeasty interior and served with the best olive oil, it’s comforting and nourishing and pleasing. It surprisingly outshone the beef tartare I was eyeing, which was disappointingly covered in a blanket of smoked cheddar instead of being left pure and plain.

pork milanese
pork milanese, gribiche, mustard greens
pork rilettes
pork rillette
georgia white shrimp
georgia white shrimp, celery, cilantro

We ordered a pork milanese in case the other plates were too measly, and we probably could have done without it. It was a perfectly solid dish, but not all that memorable, other than being dense and heavy. I started to notice that all of these plates started adding up. The pork rillettes, which is a shredded paste of mashed pork meat cooked in its own fat, takes up real estate like a foie gras can, and the fried squid and loaf were of course incremental. We were on the verge of canceling the order of Georgia white shrimp with celery and Korean chili, but I was glad to have made room for them and would recommend that others do the same.

If this place weren’t always so packed, I would probably come here regularly, because it’s nice trying a new, weird wine with a little food on the side. Be prepared for disappointment, as the no-reservations policy means that a walk-in attempt at 7 pm will simply be impossible, even if you’re willing to wait for hours, because so is everyone else. A seat here may be a wildcard, but the odds of a good meal at Wildair are anything but.


Wildair
142 Orchard St (between Rivington and Delancey St)
New York, NY 10002
(646) 964-5624

Bar Goto

Bar Goto is a new Japanese cocktail bar in the LES run by Pegu Bar alum Kenta Goto. Its quiet elegance and serious-minded approach to cocktails is very reminiscent of other Japanese lounges such as Angel’s Share or B Flat. Something about it though feels a little more like a destination bar in a way that these smaller places don’t. Clearly it would be a waste if you ordered a traditional vodka soda or a gin and tonic here. Properly utilize your bartender and have him mix you an interesting cocktail like the fizzy Calpico soda or an “Umami” Bloody Mary. These might sound like silly, lightweight drinks, but they are actually far more thoughtful and complex than what their labels suggest.

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celery with kombu, sesame, shiso flakes and sesame oil
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miso chicken wings
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fried japanese burdock root fries
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octopus sashimi
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okonomiyaki japanese pancakes

There is a limited food menu should you want to pair your drink with some small bites. The highlights by far are the savory okonomiyaki Japanese pancakes and the crispy miso sesame chicken wings. Coincidentally they also happen to be the most substantial items on the menu. If you want something more delicate, the sesame oil coated celery sticks and the octopus sashimi will hold you over without overpowering your palate. But whatever you do, make room for refills of that wonderfully effervescent Calpico cocktail.


Bar Goto
245 Eldridge St (Stanton and E. Houston St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 475-4411

Mission Chinese, Part Deux

Mission Chinese got a major upgrade in its new digs on East Broadway. Gone are the janky Chinese takeout counter and that floating pinata, and in their place are fancy red booths and gold plated dragons on the walls. While I loved how much roomier and civilized this space felt versus the old Orchard spot–you can actually hear your dinner companion across the table, and you can even make reservations on Reserve–I did feel that it did lose some of its gritty charm. Mission Chinese definitely sold out a little bit and became a little less cool, but the food is still the same, and I would take that over the 3 hour wait in a cramped, LES basement any day.

big group dinner crew at mission chinese
big group dinner crew at mission chinese
remnants of mission chinese's hipster takeout past
remnants of mission chinese’s more humble past

The best way to experience Mission Chinese is to go with a group of friends and order a ton of things family style. In the old space, a table for 15 would have been unthinkable, but you can now book one through Reserve. And with big groups, they seat you downstairs, which has a funkier vibe reminiscent of the old Mission Chinese. One stipulation with big groups is that you have to either order off of a group pre-fixe menu, or you have to order one of the large format protein dishes. The latter is a better deal, as it allows you the flexibility in ordering other mains or sides that you want, and financially, even with drinks, it will cost less than the pre-fixe option. As an example, for 13 of us, our all-in bill was $52/person, which is significantly less than what the $69 or $99 option would have been after tax, tip and drinks.

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chongqing chicken wings – very spicy
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chewy green tea noodles
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beef tartare with salmon roe
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westlake rice porridge with rare beef, crunchy scallop floss and soft egg
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thrice cooked bacon with shanghai rice cakes, bitter melon and sweet tofu skins
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clams in pig’s blood
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mapo tofu
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big tray fish with purple taro, turnip and wheat noodles

I used to be a Mission Chinese hater and thought Danny Bowien’s Asian-but-not-really-Asian cooking was overrated, but I think I’m coming around, as I really liked all the dishes that we had that night. The salt cod fried rice is just as good as ever, and the spicy chonqing chicken wings still leave your lips feeling numb. The chewy green tea noodles, a new addition, are a fabulous choice of carbs, as are the bowls of rice porridge, of which we ordered three. I was absolutely floored by the thrice cooked bacon, which featured fried pork fat at its very best, and is proof that the tired bacon trend still has some legs. With all these fried, pan-fried, chicken/pork fat dishes, I found the lettuce wraps quite refreshing and was impressed by how well the beef tartare and salmon roe paired together for a very satisfying but subtle surf-and-turf bite. The clams in pig’s blood (don’t be afraid, it tastes like black bean sauce), mapo tofu and big tray fish, I probably could have done without, not because they were bad, but they were wallflowers in comparison to their brashier colleagues.

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josefina’s house special chicken
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the chicken head is the best part

The widely hyped Josefina’s house special chicken arrived like a Faltstaffian goose overstuffed with chorizo, olives and butter. After living the good life, this chicken met an unfortunate end with its head chopped off, but at least it was a life well spent and well fed. I personally found it to be a little too rich for my liking, maybe because I was already pretty full by the time this arrived at the table, but you won’t find a more tender or flavorful piece of stuffed chicken in town.

Leaving you comfortably full and lightly buzzed, a meal at Mission Chinese is a good time. To get there, you have to trek a little deeper into the Lower East Side, but it’s worth the trip. And while you’re there, you might as well make a night out of it at Forgetmenot or Mr. Fong’s for $5 Tsing Tao. Getting the most bang for your buck, it’s the Chinese way.


Mission Chinese
171 East Broadway (between Rutgers and Jefferson St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 432-0300