New York City, NY – Monday 5th September
New York City establishment. This phrase may well be thrown around easily on blogs and restaurant review sites but it is a phrase that Anthony Bourdain rarely employs. Steve and I are only two of millions of Bourdain’s fans across the globe. We’ve watched every episode of his food and travel shows that we can find. I’ve read his books, many of his published articles and even follow him on social media. So when Bourdain recommends particular eating establishments, Steve can’t help but award them a gold star on his map.
Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King would surely win this gold star based upon its impressive name alone. Cream cheese schmear beneath folds of hand-sliced smoked salmon on a fresh, not toasted, bagel epitomises the quintessential Manhattan dish in my book. If I can’t find such a dish at Barney Greengrass, I may as well pack up my bag and head home. So at 10.30am on Labor Day Monday, Steve and I eagerly approach the Upper West Side institution from the south, its triple fronted store a beacon amongst over-hanging construction scaffolding.
Framed photos and certificates faded by years of sunlight line the base of the front windows. Inside, the counters mesh together haphazardly between refrigerated glass cabinets, old school registers and retail shelving. Baskets of bread spill forth their contents; rye, light rye, spelt, whole-wheat, unbleached white, sourdough, sesame, pumpernickel. Dried fruit and nuts are stacked in clear plastic containers above the counters. I’m not sure where to look first.
Steve taps me on the arm and indicates an empty table being cleared of its previous customer’s debris. As we move towards it twisting between occupied seats, the man clearing it looks up and smiles. His well-loved cloth swiftly clears the last of the crumbs and he pulls back the vinyl chair for me. I smile and faintly nod as I unload my bag onto the seat back. Three walls surround me, each proffering an array of smoked and/or cured fish products. Chalkboards run the perimeter also, detailing the delivery services available within the contiguous United States of their smoked products, caviar, salads, house-roasted coffee and more. Having not uttered a word, I have signalled my status as tourist and a thoughtful waiter hands me a couple of menus and proceeds briefly to illuminate me all about Barney Greengrass – The sturgeon king.
Four generations and over 100 years has seen this institution provide high quality hand-sliced smoked and cured fish products as well as meats, pickles, bagels and bialys to the people of Manhattan. Eggs with no fewer than twelve variations of fishy sides grace one page of the simple black and white folded menu.
‘I don’t want cooked eggs and I don’t want an omelette either.’ I’m slightly exasperated. I didn’t come here for a variation on the standard American breakfast fare.
‘What do you want?’ Steve asks.
‘I want a bagel with lox. And a schmear. But I can’t order it like that. They’ll think I’m taking the piss out of them.’ I look him in the eye. ’You order it for me.’
‘I’m not ordering your meal. You do it.’
He no sooner closes the menu and a waiter dressed in stiff white cotton shirt and trousers appears at my side with a half-full coffee jug in hand.
‘Coffee ma’am?’ He enquires.
‘Sure and I think we are ready to order,’ Steve answers and looks my way. I swear I can see a slight smirk emerging on his face.
‘Ah, yeah. I’m a bit over-whelmed by the choice actually,’ I blurt at the waiter.
‘How can I help?’ the waiter bends closer and his smile softens, somehow more genuine.
‘Well, what I’d really like is a bagel with lox and cream cheese. Simple really.’
‘That’s no problem, ma’am. Now lox is salty – that okay by you?’ I nod eagerly. ‘And if I may recommend sliced tomato and onion on the side?’ I nod again.
‘And for you sir?’
‘Scrambled eggs with sturgeon and Nova Scotia salmon on the side. With onions.’
‘What kind of bagel? Plain or toasted?’ He interjects.
‘Everything bagel. Plain,’ Steve responds without pause, as though he does this most days.
‘Anything to drink ma’am?’
‘Orange juice please,’ I answer, happy to not be referred to as ma’am for the next half hour or so, now that our orders are placed.
At times, New York City can feel like a theme park. Times Square with its M&Ms store and Disney store screaming neon and flashing screens. Yellow cabs honk and toot their way down the numbered streets. Barney Greengrass could unfortunately be one more tourist attraction in this theme park and yet it’s not. The aged wallpaper and scuffed vinyl flooring has the feel of a well thumbed book. I wish this place was in my neighbourhood. I would work my way through the Jewish delicacies now adopted by New Yorkers – chopped liver, knish, egg salad, cheese blintzes, babka, borscht and matzo ball soup.
When the sturdy plates clatter down on our table, a lesser person may have been underwhelmed. Standard-issue crockery holds Steve’s unadorned well-coloured eggs. Chunks of salmon sit beside flakes of buttery sturgeon while sweet caramelised onions dot the sunny eggs. No singular leaf of iceberg lettuce or finger of pickle gussies up the dish.
My bagel has a tight shiny surface that squeaks slightly under my teeth. Several folds of bright salmon are top and tailed by a generous schmear of cream cheese and a sprinkling of plump capers. Thick slices of both ripe tomato and sweet onion sit forlorn on the side plate.
Though it may be a family run legacy, this thriving food store still sends out customers of all ages and extractions toting large paper bags brimming with all manner of treats. If we didn’t have an afternoon’s exploration ahead, I have no doubt that we too would gather a bounty of food treats on our departure.