Shabbat Dinner Done Right — at Russ and Daughters

Anyone who checks out my Instagram feed is bound to stumble upon a Russ & Daughters image or two, or three, or 50.  There’s not much I can do to set myself apart from the steady stream of R&D acolytes who have paid numerous visits to the storefront at 179 East Houston Street in Manhattan over the past 100 years. Everyone has their favorite bagel sandwich, everyone has their favorite anecdote. For the record: It’s pastrami salmon with a thin spread of horseradish cream cheese on a toasted poppy-seed bagel, and my favorite R&D anecdote happens to serve as the lede of this article for Gothamist.

If R&D had remained nothing more than the cramped cozy little shop on the Lower East Side that served up the best smoked salmon, caviar, and chocolate-covered graham crackers with a side of kibitz, we’d still be all right. We’d still step through that door, take a number, and wait patiently while marveling at row after row of pink, pristine fish and choice after choice of spreads (one taste of the whitefish and baked salmon can instantly cure a bad mood — try it, you’ll see). But lucky for us, fourth-generation owners Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper knew better, and now, in the same place where the memories of overcrowded tenements have been overshadowed by high-rise luxury co-ops, we can have our babka French toast and eat it too — while sitting down!

This is just a long and flowery way of saying that I visited the brand-new Russ & Daughters Cafe for one hell of a Friday-night dinner yesterday. You can read the Yelp reviews, or you can read this New York Times article on that prominently features the LES restaurant, or you can Google the scores of blogs that have also written about the perfect pairing of old-world recipes and the adventurousness of 21st-century foodies. It’s all been said already. My two cents? It’s very easy for me to take New York for granted: I grew up in the suburbs; my family has always lived here; it’s a part of my fiber. Very rarely do I go somewhere in this city and say to myself, “Thank G-d I live just a subway ride away.” Well, that was my reaction upon finishing my meal at the Russ & Daughters Cafe. With my penchant for travel and desire to eat my way through entire states (See: Tennessee. June 14-19, 2014), it’s usually restaurants in faraway cities that stick out as precious gifts the locals should hold close to their vests. Not this time. To steal a term from Grub Street, all self-respecting New Yorkers should dine at the Russ & Daughters Cafe sooner rather than later. This place is a point of pride for our city. Historically and gastronomically.




Did True Blood’s Tara Meet the True Death? Truly?

There is no way I can write about True Blood without it devolving into cliché: As is the case with so many fans and critics, my relationship with the campy HBO drama has been like a bad marriage. I was infatuated throughout Seasons One and Two, the steamy gothic romance between small-town waitress Sookie Stackhouse and debonair Civil War-era vampire Bill Compton making me giddy in my lady parts. But by Season Three I started to notice something going sour, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time (the answer was were-panthers). Season Four was that last-ditch effort to hold on (amnesiac Eric) to what we had before, and by Seasons Five and Six things had just deteriorated into full-on disgust. There were too many new characters (everyone in the Authority, Scott Foley, Warlow) and too many unnecessary and cumbersome subplots (“Billith”; Joe Manganiello pretty much starring in his own sitcom called Alcide’s Adventures — That No One Gives a Shit About). But now that the seventh and final season of True Blood is here, it feels like the divorce proceedings are under way, and it’s going to be an amicable outcome. I’m tired of railing against how bad the show has become, worn out from bemoaning the loss of a smart, sexy, thought-provoking series that originally intended to shed light on American political hypocrisy and LGBT themes. So, while I can’t entirely sit back and just let the show take its course — not after all the recaps and articles I’ve written on the subject, both for and on Tumblr — I am at peace with the majority of its mistakes and wrong turns.

I applaud showrunner Brian Buckner’s decision to bring the narrative not only back to Bon Temps, but to refocus the story on the core characters. However, at this late stage, the damage to the show has already been done, and from what I’ve seen of the first two episodes of the season (full disclosure: I have already viewed the episode airing Sunday, June 29), True Blood is little more than a hollow shell of its former self. There is no better example of this fact than an early scene from this coming Sunday’s episode, in which two popular male characters engage in what can best be described as the ultimate fantasy of any person with some semblance of a libido. Unfortunately, True Blood has been there, done that so many times that the aforementioned scene just comes off as anticlimactic (in more ways than one). See also: Violet and Jason up against a car.

Other than remaining genuinely invested in Jessica and Pam — the only characters left with the ability to steal scenes — the only plotline I’m still interested in is that of WTF happened to Tara? And that’s only because what’s going on with her is — no pun intended — making my blood boil. Within hours of Tara’s ostensible, offscreen staking, actress Rutina Wesley was making the press rounds, confirming that her character was indeed dead. Now, any fairweather True Blood viewer knows that “dead” doesn’t necessarily mean dead. Vampire elf Godric appeared more as a personification of Eric’s conscience than he ever did as actual flesh-and-undead-blood. Plus, Tara does show up in this Sunday’s episode — but given TB’s penchant for flashbacks, dreams and apparitions that should hardly qualify as a spoiler.

My issue with Tara’s supposed death comes from what went down last season, in which Buckner told me, “One of our principal characters will not make it all the way through the season.” And with all due respect to Todd Lowe (whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing twice during his TB tenure) and his dreamy, puppy-dog eyes, devoting almost an entire episode to mourn Terry Bellefleur while Tara — who has always been more of a “principal” character than the USMC vet — is disposed of offscreen just seems downright disrespectful. That and, after Tara spent six seasons as Bon Temps’ unluckiest resident, dodging maenad possession, grieving a murdered boyfriend, being terrorized by a sociopathic vampire, and getting shot in the head by a vengeful werewolf only to be turned into a vampire — she was killed off without so much as a moment of reflection from her friends and family? Instead of crying his eyes out over his cousin, Lafayette spent more time listening to hippie-generation vampire (and new love interest) James talk about how the peace, love and understanding Sixties really meant baseball-bat beatdowns if you were gay. It just doesn’t add up. If any character in the True Blood universe deserves to be at peace, it’s Tara Thornton. And so far, I don’t see her spirit being laid to rest anytime soon.

So that’s why I believe Rutina Wesley’s comments to the press are all part of a grand red herring. The writers must have something real special in store for Tara, because offscreen deaths just aren’t how True Blood rolls. We all saw Eric Northman and his Viking penis go up in flames at the end of Season Six, but wiping Alexander Skarsgård’s name from the season-premiere credits doesn’t even come close as an acceptance of his character’s true death. Spoiler/not-really-a-spoiler alert! You’re gonna see him again Sunday. Also, whether she really is a pile of goo, an apparition or just taking a TruBlood break, remember, Tara has been”dead” for two seasons now — she’s a vampire!