Russ & Daughters' Sturgeon: The Other Smoked Fish
Lox, be it the traditional, salty belly of the salmon or the more refined Nova Scotia or the delicate Gaspe or the smokier Scottish or Irish varieties, has always been the media darling of New York Jewish appetizers. Tourists and Gentiles both know to order the LEO, lox, eggs and onions, or the even more ubiquitous lox on a bagel and can hardly keep a straight face when asking for a "shmear" of cream cheese in their best Texas Yiddish drawl. But if lox is the Queen of appetizing, sturgeon is most definitely the King.
Though prized for caviar, I prefer sturgeon's delectable, moist, cold smoked white meat to its roe. Though each fish is unique, you can tell the quality by the colors. The meat should be snow white, not gray, but even more importantly, really superior sturgeon should have yellow streaks of fishy, fatty goodness, the same way a fine steak is marbled with white beef fat.
Notwithstanding its enormous pre-historic size (a mature sturgeon can weigh hundreds of pounds), its scarcity makes it far more expensive than even the silkiest smoked salmon. Sturgeon at the top appetizers runs upwards of $60 a pound and it's worth every blessed penny. Do not accept cheaper imitations like sable, known as "the poor man's sturgeon," or carp.
My favorite way to eat sturgeon is sliced as thin as humanly possible and draped over an open faced toasted (yes, I said toasted) onion bagel to give some crunch and to just slightly warm the yellow veins of fat in the fish. Cream cheese does not do justice to sturgeon so you need the fat on fat of sweet (never salted) melted butter to combine with the meaty tasting white fish.
Barney Greengrass or Russ & Daughters are my go-to places. The former, known alternatively as the "Sturgeon King," usually has several quality specimens on display so you can choose. At Russ & Daughters, if you're a regular and you don't see a piece that meets your standards in the case, ask if you can have yours sliced from the piece they invariably hide beneath the case. Just don't tell 'em I told you about the secret "vault," which I learned about from my Dad.