541 Amsterdam Ave. (at 86th St.), New York, NY (212) 724-4707
When it comes to delicatessens, few would argue that New York City's five boroughs set the standard. With so many fine establishments to choose from, arguments tend to form around such issues as who cures the best pastrami, or who brews the best matzo ball soup. When talk turns to smoked fish, however, all eyes are on Manhattan's upper west side. It is there, that legendary Barney Greengrass has been plying their brand of magic since 1908. Known fondly as the "Sturgeon King," Barney's is also considered to be the holy grail for many other varieties of smoked fish and deli specialties. My eating adventure in NYC would not have been complete without a visit to BG, which is why I recently found myself there on a cold, weekday morning, lusting after the culinary treasures I knew lay within.
Upon entering, the decor would appear dated to most people. I believe this is a deliberate attempt to match the dining atmosphere to the "cranky, but lovable" service, producing the quintessential New York deli experience. Hey, they had a coat rack I could keep my eye on, and an empty table for me to sit at, so my basic needs had been met. Breakfast for me is rarely about bacon and eggs, and although Barney's does offer these items, that's not where I was going. My breakfast was going to start with the Homemade Whitefish Salad ($9.00).
The salad is served with sliced tomato, sliced white onion, olives, half sour pickle, a wedge of lemon, and your choice of bialy, bagel, or rye bread. My selection was the rye. I absolutely adore whitefish salad, and am constantly ordering it when available. The problem is, my high expectations are rarely met. Although the preparation seems straight forward, the devil lies in the details, and in this case, the details are smoked fish. Being that BG is a master fish smoking house, it was no surprise that they excelled in this dish. There is a is a rich, smoky, almost sweet subtlety to the whitefish salad that I find irresistible. Barney Greengrass's smoked whitefish salad is the standard by which I measure all others. It is the best I have ever had.
Along side the whitefish salad, I ordered another one of my all time favorite deli items, Homemade Chopped Chicken Liver ($7.50).
Despite being raised Catholic, by the time I turned fifteen, I had been to more bar mitzvahs than I could count. The sizeable Jewish segment of my community gave me excellent exposure to many of their ethnic delicacies. I will never forget during graduate school, being invited to Seder at my childhood friend's parents' house. His mother made the most fabulous chopped chicken liver that I had ever had. Being an aspiring cook, I asked, "What's your secret?" She smiled and said, "It's the schmaltz." For those of you who don't know, schmaltz is Yiddish for chicken fat. Since then, I have used my friend's mother's chopped chicken liver as the benchmark for comparison. After my last trip to Barney Greengrass, however, I was forced to admit that I had found a definite contender for the throne.
BG's version has the requisite, robust, liver flavor, made even more sinfully rich by a generous addition of schmaltz. What put this over the top, though, were the chunks of liver permeating the whole mix. This really added to the mouth feel. Barney Greengrass's homemade chopped chicken liver is the best!
After breakfast, I sidled up to the deli counter to check out the foodie booty.
Seen here are: home made blintzes, kippered salmon,
chubs, brook trout,
Western Nova Scotia salmon,
gravlox, pastrami salmon,
chopped chicken liver, and various traditional salads.
Here you can see all the price boards.
Photographing the price boards quickly got the attention of Moe, the owner. He queried, "Who are you working for, are you stealing my pricing?" I quickly told him I was here from San Diego on vacation, pointing to my cargo shorts. Moe said, "My god boy, didn't you get the memo? It's thirty nine degrees out this morning." I informed him that my North Face jacket system kept me warm, and the shorts were a SoCal thing. He found this amusing, and turned out to be quite a friendly guy.
Barney Greengrass is a Manhattan deli institution that should not be missed on any visit to NYC. I would pay dearly to have a branch in Pacific Beach (there is one in Beverly Hills, though I have not been). Take heart, however, this old school upper westsider has an on-line store that offers many of the products that have made, and continue to make, it famous. Barney Greengrass Website God bless Fed-Ex overnight express.
Hours: Mon-Fri 8:30am-4pm Sa,Su 8:30am-5pm
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