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NYC's Top Spots for Jewish Cuisine

March 18, 2015 - by Irene Silber
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What would NYC be without bagels and lox, pastrami and corned beef? What about matzo ball soup and Coney Island dogs? These now-iconic foods were introduced by Jewish immigrants, but have been adapted—and often supersized—since then.

Once upon a time, delis were take-outs rather than restaurants, and in accordance with kosher dietary laws, sold either meat or dairy but never both. There were also “appetizing” stores that specialized in fish. Today the distinctions have blurred but you can often still taste the origins at these NYC eateries that offser some of the best Jewish cuisine in the city.

Heaping, carved-to-order sandwiches at Katz's Deli in LES.

Katz’s Deli at 205 E. Houston, opened in 1888 and is still the gold standard for pastrami and corned beef; which are slow cured in-house. Sandwiches start with about a pound of meat before trimming, and are carved to order by countermen who proffer samples as they work. You can opt for table service instead, but why not take a ticket and fetch your own food at the counter? Interacting with the staff is part of the fun. The grilled Reuben sandwich on rye may be the deli’s crowning achievement, but many would advocate for the knoblewurst, or even the tongue. Katz’s closes at 10:45 pm on Sunday – Wednesday, at 2:45 am on Thursday, and stays open all night on Friday and Saturday.

Russ & Daughters at 179 E. Houston, has been selling smoked and cured fish and accompaniments for four generations. In 2014, they declared that 100 years of standing in line was enough, and opened Russ & Daughters Café at 127 Orchard Street. The menu puts a twist on familiar deli items – using smoked whitefish in chowder, and making cream cheese from goat’s milk. Some of the breads are crafted with an 80-year-old starter that originated in the Bronx, migrated to Boston, and is now back in NYC.

Balaboosta, at 214 Mulberry St., takes its name from the Yiddish word meaning the perfect hostess. The food here springs from Middle Eastern Jewish traditions but is ultra-modern in execution. Try the Shakshouka: eggs baked in spicy tomato sauce with merguez lamb sausage; or kibbeh selek: Iraqi beef and semolina dumplings. Sister restaurants include Bar Bolonat for upscale contemporary Israeli cuisine, and two Taim falafel and smoothie stores.

Chicken fat (schmaltz) flows like water at Famous Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, a temple of excess at 157 Chrystie St. Every night is a surreal bar mitzvah here. Bottle of vodka in a block of ice? Why not? A vat of chopped liver topped with crackling and drenched with schmaltz? Yes please. This meat palace is really Yiddish dinner theater and you will likely find yourself in the cast, dancing with strangers (The vodka helps).

The sign outside 541 Amsterdam Ave. proclaims that Barney Greengrass is the Sturgeon King. There’s no reason to doubt that claim once you taste the house-smoked sturgeon, dubbed the “filet mignon of fish.” Visit Barney Greengrass is for breakfast when you can get eggs with smoked fish, or omelets made from deli meats, including tongue. If Barney’s pale green interior looks familiar, that’s because it’s often seen in movies and television, from You’ve Got Mail to Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and 30 Rock.

It’s estimated that more than 1 million American Jews follow strict kosher dietary laws. In NYC, there are dozens of restaurants serving certified kosher ingredients prepared under the supervision of a rabbi. Because of the high standards in butchering, harvesting, packaging and cooking kosher foods, they attract health-conscious diners of all faiths.

For a meat-centric kosher experience, visit Le Marais, named after the traditionally Jewish neighborhood in Paris. The dishes have French names but the aged steaks taste 100% American.

While many kosher restaurants serve fish, which may be eaten with either meat or dairy Butterfish is one of the few that specializes in high-end sushi. Located in the Atrium of the Sony Tower at 550 Madison Ave., Butterfish has a clean, modern feel but no sushi bar. Hot and cold items are all prepared in the kitchen and delivered to your table.

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