One of the more memorable outings I’ve made for food since moving to New York involved a short train ride to Russ and Daughters, an institution of an appetizing store on the Lower East Side that houses a dizzying array of cured, pickled, smoked and otherwise flavorized fish. Relatively new to the world of nosh, I forked over close to ten dollars for a bagel with cream cheese and belly lox.
Although Russ and Daughters’ bagel was regrettably tough and flavorless – Calvin Trillin was in this case literally ahead of his time in walking elsewhere for his infamously cobbled lox bagels – the rest of the package comprised one of the richest meals of my life. The cream cheese was luscious on a molecular level, and the lox was a little miracle of texture and taste: plenty salty but nicely balanced by the other flavors of the brine, and falling into a perfect place between firm and creamy in composition.
A few months after that trip, I heard that the bulk of Russ and Daughters’ fish is sourced from the Acme Smoked Fish Corporation, located about a mile away from my apartment. With this discovery also came news that the Acme factory opens its doors to the public every Friday morning to sell the very same fish it exports throughout the country directly to consumers at rates much more lower than $10 per breakfast.
After nursing on-and-off fantasies of clearing aside a whole refrigerator rack for smoked fish for half a year, I finally made my way upstream to the factory bloc of Greenpoint and Williamsburg to check out Fish Friday.
Acme Smoked Fish Corporation’s retail store, an unadorned lineup of fishy wares quickly assembled on metal and plastic tables in a cold factory antechamber, unapologetically lacks the charms of a Jewish appetizing counter. Factory workers wrapped in long coats and hairnets shuffle between adjoining rooms, many returning from a smoke break on Gem St. Service is rendered with a smile, the friendliness of the Polish woman slicing my nova as direct as the way she asks me to show her, with my thumb and index finger, how much of the enormous salmon fillet I want to take home with me in butcher paper.
Entirely undressed, the fish is starkly impressive. Aside from a full selection of prepackaged fish and salads stand cardboard boxes stacked to the brim with whole smoked whitefish. Further down the line is a spread of salmon, whiting, and bluefish – cured, pickled, cold smoked and hot smoked varieties are all represented, and the lineup is bookended by the aforementioned strips of nova. Chunks and strips of every fish dot the edge of the cutting board, free to sample.
Acme’s nova – is it lox? is it smoked salmon? I’m still green enough in the ways of curing terminology to know simply by taste and sight, but this cut definitely has a smoky ring to it – must be the epitome of excellent cured fish. In the hand, it’s quite firm and substantially weighted. What feels rubbery to the touch becomes something far more joyous when placed in mouth: a stern kind of creamy that doesn’t melt in your mouth as much as it soaks into your taste buds. The taste of said robust soaking is primarily salty, but a complex kind of salty that shines with all the subtle flavors of the briny rainbow.
As generations of noshers have demonstrated, slices of smoked salmon are happiest when married to cream cheese and spread over a freshly made bagel. My own construction was notably lighter than the meal I had at Russ and Daughters, but therein lies the advantage of being your own appetizer. Acme’s gravlax – light, cured salmon sprinkled with dill and other herbs and dispensed in very thin slices – serves as a nice one-up in flavor to the standard nova, its savory notes more pronounced than those of regular smoked salmon.
Acme’s pepper crusted bluefish is my favorite of the factory’s hot smoked varieties that I’ve sampled. Halfway cooked in the hot smoking process, this cut is tender and flaky, a browned, peppery crust completing the textural shift. It’s entirely pleasurable to eat half a pound of this bluefish on its own, but on my plate it’s best paired with a generous helping of kasha, or some brown rice and vegetables.
While the smoked bluefish is a substantial delight, Acme’s pastrami smoked salmon might rank as my favorite steward of red-orange nobility. Salty, greasy, smoky and enveloped in the black-and-brown rub normally reserved for a stubborn brisket, it’s a delicacy that can give the best beef pastrami a run for its money.
Its vehicle, however, won’t involve rye and mustard. The first memory that popped into mind with my first slice of pastrami salmon was a particularly unsavory yet improbably compelling raw salmon blin I once ate for lunch in Petersburg. That meal, like my belly lox bagel at Russ and Daughters, was a bit of a mismatch of components, and it, too, hinted at something great that I was now at liberty to try.
I raided the fridge and began mixing a bowl of batter for blini. The standards of a Russian blin depends on what you plan on putting inside it, but when it comes to homemade blini, I think thin, small and simple. I haven’t put too much effort into crafting an ideal recipe, but this one seems a good enough starting point. Easy on the flour, liberal with butter and conservative with how much batter hits the pan, I fried and flipped until I had a suitable stack of crispy-edged rounds.
Dill-inflected gravlax would have made a better pairing for this kind of delivery, but it was long gone. After a gulp of honey rye vodka, I folded a blin over a slice of pastrami smoked salmon and sandwiched the layers with a dollop of European sour cream. The trifecta of flavors and textures, ushered along by Nemiroff, was a promise fulfilled. The stack of blini disappeared with haste, each serving delivering just enough satisfaction to keep our eating momentum going.
With just a handful of blini left, I thawed some frozen berries in simple syrup and a dash of maraschino liqueur, then rolled the fruit with a smidge of the same sour cream to finish off the batch. Rarely does a meal work out this perfectly – if I ever go back to Russ and Daughters, it’ll be mostly to marvel at the candy counter. I can’t say Calvin Trillin would approve, but I’d hope that after downing a stack of gravlax blini, he would understand.
Acme Smoked Fish Corporation Retail Store
30 Gem St.
Brooklyn, NY 11222
Open Fridays from 8:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.