M. has a long list of favorite things in New York City. My list is shorter, but growing. His list, however, usually dominates my list for two reasons. One, he can manuever the city quickly & easily, I meander and wander. This means his list can be accomplished in much less time. His list is dominated by action, my list involves looking. I walk twenty minutes to a favorite shop and say "Look! Isn't this boutique filled with the most beautiful and amazing things? I can't afford any of them. But I love to LOOK." His list involves action. He goes, he looks, he buys, he conquers.
Such was the case at Russ & Daughters, a smoked fish and appetizers shop on the lower east side. It is a tiny place, all done up in white and black subway tile. You take a number when you enter the door and wait. Eventually one of the fishmongers in a white lab coat will call out your number. You must move quickly, pushing to the front and asserting that yes, you are number 109 and you have the paper slip to prove it.
Then, time stops. For the fishmonger will spend as long as you like slicing fish and answering questions, helping you to find just the right thing. These are trained fish professionals, not at all like the guys behind the deli counter. These fellows know their stuff: lox and caviar and smoked fish, trout, and a dozen different kinds of pink, fatty salmon.
As always, M. does the ordering. He knows exactly what he wants while I provide supplementary information, such as the kind of H&H bagel I want for the plane. During this visit I decided to be selfish and take up space in the small shop rather than wait outside. I stared at piles of dried fruits and chocolates, black & white cookies, candies, crackers, cheeses, teas and coffees. These are the things found on the other side of the shop, a mere five feet away from the fish action. Still, it seemed quieter and less frantic.
Russ & Daughters is the kind of place you want to take photos to try to capture and remember the excitement and uniqueness of this most distinct shop. At the same time, you know that no photo will do it justice. So you stand in a corner, listen to what people are ordering and watch the old woman with the small cart and a half-dozen to-go containers try to push her way through the aisle. You watch the bagles and the cream cheese and the onions and the fish fly out the door, and once outside you watch three people get parking tickets for stopping in the middle of the road, hoping to hop out and quickly run in.
You take it all in and hope that you will be back again very soon. And if you aren't, you'll at least get a few good meals and snacks from the portable cooler packed with a whole smoked white fish, pastrami smoked salmon, bagels, a ramekin of French cheese, a pumpernickle bagle, and seven dollar danish rye crakers. This should do -- for awhile.