Restaurant Review: Sherry Herring NYC
Sherry Herring’s herring sandwich.
Photo: Liz Clayman
Before New York was a town of bagels-lox-and-cream-cheese, it was a town of herring. The Dutch founders were pickled herring addicts. The English and the Germans were also seduced by the trick. Same with the Scandinavians. (Small fatty fish had an outsized impact on the economies and diets of much of Northern and Eastern Europe, especially after the Dutch found a way to preserve them for transport. ) Eventually, however, the herring in New York became indelibly appetizing. Joel Russ, the man behind the world’s most famous Jewish appetizer shop, didn’t get his start 120 years ago selling novi and babka to Sunday brunches, but rather hawking pickled herring in a barrel in the street.
At the time, herring was quite a sought-after commodity – an everyday protein for the waves of immigrants who had taken a liking to it. The times have changed. Among old-school noshers (including the Underground Gourmet), herring still exerts a nostalgic pull. We can’t resist a sampler’s plate washed down with a few icy shots of aquavit at Aquavit’s bar in the city center. And the sight of all those stainless steel tubs filled with herring sauces and marinades in the Russ & Daughters window never fails to elicit in us a slobbering response that would have greatly interested the late Ivan Petrovich Pavlov.
But if Herring enjoyed anything like mass appeal, it’s safe to say that in recent years her fanbase has dwindled. In a list of nine items on the Jewish Cuisine website Nosher Called “The ultimate ranking of the rudest Jewish food,” herring gets double billing: in its familiar pickled form and for its supporting role in the Russian dish “herring under a fur coat,” which also contains roe. chopped, beets, potato, carrot and mayo. Regarding her profanity, half-Jewish author Shannon Sarna apologizes: “Personally, I love herring, especially for brunch or with lots of cold vodka. But many, many others (including many of you readers) really hate this stuff.
Even herringbone odes pass off as herringbone smacks. In another list, this one taking the form of a 256-page book titled The 100 Most Jewish Foods, Illustrator Maira Kalman reveals that as a child in the Bronx, she was the eccentric in her family who found herring repulsive. “They stank,” she wrote. “They were fat and, in my opinion, hairy. Although I know a fish can’t be hairy. But when my mom ate a piece of it, I saw all those hair-like bones sticking out of her mouth. Over the years, however, Kalman has come and developed a taste for furry things. Many never do. A dearly deceased family man from UG who otherwise gave in to no one in his appetite for appetizing, never got over his fear of herring. However, he loved the classic Swedish preparation of cream sauce and sliced pickled white onions that stores like Russ & Daughters slapped on the fish, and he always managed to convince the foreman at his local store to only sell him the dressing. “I’m going to have a pot of creamed herring,” he would say. “Hold the herring.”
So what of Sherry Herring, a counter sandwich specialist who recently opened on the Upper West Side and whose name leaves little doubt as to her sympathies? The signature dish takes herring fillet (a choice of young, tender matjes or plumper, fattier schmaltz) where no herring fillet has gone before: on a French baguette with butter, sour cream , white onion, sliced peppers, and cherry tomatoes that the open kitchen team squeezes like lemons onto the sandwich. That works.
In addition to the herring, Sherry Herring has a handful of other similarly dressed sandwiches, including smoked sardines, salted anchovies, and chipotle tuna spread, all of which are excellent. You can eat them on a counter ledge or outside the store on a bench, but it’s best to take them three blocks from Central Park, allowing the flavors to meld like a muffuletta in road course. For an appetizing picnic without limits, grab a pack of baguette chips and some items from the fridge display case, including herring in cream sauce and onions, Israeli pickles and what must be New York’s new #1 smoked whitefish salad – a rich, chunky concoction that will bankrupt you for all other builds. But herring is the thing at Sherry Herring, and, the owners would like you to know, it’s imported from a secret Dutch source (as opposed to, say, Greenpoint, Brooklyn). Among those owners are Israeli author and former food columnist Sherry Ansky, the Sherry in Sherry Herring, and something like Tel Aviv’s Ina Garten.
For Ansky, herring was not an acquired taste; according to the story, she had her first plate of herring when she was six years old and never looked back. “I ate one piece, then another, until I was done,” she said. The Jewish week.
Ansky’s daughter, Michal, also an Israeli foodie celebrity and a Masters of great chefs judge, runs a popular market in the port of Tel Aviv that looks like a cross between Eataly and the old market in Essex. In 2011, Ansky quit her job as a journalist and announced that she wanted to make herring sandwiches and sell them from a kiosk in Michal’s Market. For connoisseurs of Israeli cuisine, the news came as a shock, as if Garten had retired his Cuisinart and started selling oatmeal at a stand in Smorgasburg. Everyone thought she had become a meshuga, says Michal. But the sandwiches took off. Herring aficionados flocked. Tourists made pilgrimages. Somebody feed Phil’s Phil Rosenthal showed up and sang, “This is one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had in my stupid life.”
Sherry Herring isn’t the first place to serve herring sandwiches in New York. Shelsky is in Brooklyn and Barney Greengrass is splashing around. For its annual New Holland Herring Festival, Russ & Daughters served fresh herring fillets with chopped onions and pickles on a soft, custom-baked bun in the style of the Dutch treat known as broodje haring. And, of course, many Nordic cuisines over the years have tampered with the open-faced wonder that is smørrebrød herring. Some herring snobs look askance at the sandwiches as a mask of pure pungent herring flavor. Like herring for dummies. Herring for those who don’t like herring. This venerable fish, according to Orthodoxy, should be eaten as is with a slice of black bread and perhaps a little raw onion on the side. But a broader perspective would be to consider the herring sandwich – like cream herring – a gateway herring for the uninitiated.
Besides the imported Dutch herring, what sets a Sherry Herring sandwich apart from local renditions are the condiments and the baguette. The breads, like the shop, are kosher and sourced from Jersey-based Patis Bakery. Even so, being New York and more specifically, the Upper West Side, the idea of dropping the smoky and salty totems of mouthwatering on French bread didn’t go down without the obligatory round of kvetching. People wondered, Where are the bagels? “They kept asking about them,” says Sherry Herring general manager Alex Benchimol. “They wouldn’t stop.” So now the kitchen offers a few Bagel Boss bagel specialties (you can get yours stuffed with salmon, whitefish, or tuna, but they draw the line at the signature herring). How are they? “We sell a lot more baguette sandwiches than bagel sandwiches, and a fair amount of herring,” says Benchimol. “But on Sundays, the bagels definitely make noise.”
Photo: Liz Clayman