Of Hemming and Herring

You enter Orchard Express on the Lower East Side, as if opening the tent flap of a Moroccan souk. Men of indeterminate ethnic backgrounds are hunched over sewing machines or gossiping and laughing both in front of and behind the counter. No matter how many people are clogged into the narrow aisle of the shop, I know I will get my pants marked with a chalk slash and hemmed within a half hour ($5/hem).

Which leaves me with time for…a snack! But where to go?  My daughter, who just graduated from nearby Bard High School Early College—several train rides and a 20 minute walk from our Morningside Heights apartments—became utterly at home in the LES, an area in which I still routinely get lost. She was the first one who told me about Gaia, which made it to #2 in a New York Magazine’s cheap eats list and was featured in the New Yorker (but which has such erratic hours I’ve rarely been able to eat there). She and her friends hung out at Marm, Cocoa Bar, Black Cat and Tiny’s Giant whereas I cling to familiar landmarks: the Lower East Side Tenement museum store, one of the best unsung places for unique costume jewelery in the city (and a pristine bathroom in the basement), and Economy Candy, where I stock up on tough-to-find “original” Neccos.

Fortunately, Russ and Daughters Cafe is across and a little down from Orchard Express. Appetizing stores and the restaurants they spawn like Barney Greengrass or Eli Zabar’s Eli’s Table, have always been too budget busting for me, but I have been intrigued by Russ and Daughters Café, which opened to much fanfare in 2014, and of the tales of the Tibetan "Sherpa Lox," who slices lox paper thin at the 103 year old store. I liked the turquoise awning, the Spartan white decor inside that has echoes of an old fashioned pharmacy or soda fountain in the signage, but also nice touches of cerulean blue. The weather was hotting up so I dropped my bags, sat at the old-new fashioned bar and ordered a shrub.

Not without checking, of course, that a shrub wasn’t some kind of turgid green Kale pressed juice drink.  A shrub is actually an ancient Arabic concoction now transformed into a modern artisanal concoction: a mix of vinegars, fruit and sugar. An ice-cold metal straw tinkled against the ice cubes of my refreshing beet and lemonade shrub; Russ & Daughters uses the pickling vinegars that pickle the café’s beet salad. It’s a nice way to “make do,” like using leftover fabric to fashion a natty patch. A very old-world, Orchard Street thing to do.  

Once you order a $6.00 drink that has no alcohol in it, paying $3.00 more for the pickled herring trio ($9.00) seemed downright reasonable. The trio refers to the three sauces that flavor two each of the six herring canapés--Six mini slabs of the finest herring plopped atop dense squares of pumpernickel. Each sauce is subtle and just-right, from the thumbprint of traditional creamy pickled onions to the mustard with slivers of green apple and cranberry chutney.  And if you want to sample them, or anything from Russ and Daughter’s Café, do it here rather than their Jewish Museum outpost, which ratchets up the price a few dollars for every item. However, at the Jewish Museum’s café you are surrounded my whimsical wallpaper by Maira Kalman.

I ate and sipped slowly, trying to make my tiny luxuries last. I told the friendly waitress/bartender that I was waiting for my pants to be hemmed at Orchard, and a well-coiffed, very UES older woman piped up to tell me about the Nelson Tailor Shop on Rivington Street, which I’d noticed before, with its sign featuring a threaded button for the “O” in Tailor.  She showed me the zipper they had  installed in a free tote bag she got for purchasing $40 worth of cosmetics. Paying $20 to put a zipper on a free St. Tropez tote bag seemed a bit extravagant, but I had to admire the job—not something for Orchard, where the hems are serviceable but always a little bit off.  But how can I complain? When I reentered the souk of Orchard my pants were sitting folded on the counter. They do not take names, issue tickets. The whole business operates on trust—again a remnant of old world life you can find when crossing Delancey, and not just in the Tenement Museum.

P.S. –I did take a tip from my bar counter friend. The  vintage beaded dress we purchased from Housing Works for Julie’s prom, had a small rip in the seam. I knew I needed a place with a little more TLC than Orchard Express, so I took it to Nelson Tailor. A man and woman spoke heatedly about the dress in Spanish for fifteen minutes; I could understand they intended to rip out the side seam and zipper to attach the tear, and I was certain the mend would be prohibitive. “$15” a woman told me! A schmoozy snack session led to a chance encounter, which led to a sewing fix which led to a perfect prom dress! This is how we get things done in New York City.

Russ and Daughters Cafe
127 Orchard Street
212-475-4880 ex.2