Why Is New York Rye Bread So Bad?

Thanks to Russ & Daughter's, New York finally has a traditional rye bread worth eating. 

Thanks to Russ & Daughter's, New York finally has a traditional rye bread worth eating. 

My first run in with rye bread was at Katz's Deli, almost three years ago. I ordered matzoh ball soup and a pastrami sandwich with extra pickles. It cost a small fortune and the bread was the most disappointing piece of gluten I have ever put in my mouth. Held aloft in my hand it hung there, like a soggy piece of berber carpet.

Later, when I went to others in the deli trinity: Second Avenue and Carnegie, I was met with the same flimsy, spongey stuff they tried to pass off as rye bread.

I tried toasting it, which blessedly made it firmer, but it still tasted of zilch. Nada.

I've written about the new Russ & Daughter's Cafe, which opened this past May on Orchard Street, and I've now eaten there twice. (I've visited their original location too many times to count.) Everything there is beyond perfect. Sorry, I know that kind of review is boring. But there are a few things worth an extra helping of praise. Today I'll talk about bread, which I sampled today, along with the Scottish salmon and plain cream cheese that had just the right tang and fluffy, but not too fluffy, lift.


Rye bread with a liberal swipe of cream cheese, scottish smoked salmon and that blessed rye bread.

Such a simple little plate of food; it was heaven. The bread was so good I wanted to prop it up on an easel and paint it. What I'm referring to is their shissel rye, a firm and dense bread with a nice hard crust that is loaded throughout the entire crumb with a blend of caraway and nigella seeds. Nigella seeds, black seeds that have an onion and nutty tang, are somewhat similar to black sesame seeds. (I've written about these seeds before in a post about La Vara, a Spanish restaurant in Cobble Hill.) Finally, I thought, a bread worthy of my daily nutritional requirements. A bread that made me think of the rye's I knew and loved in Los Angeles. It was even better then the one I grew up eating from Bea's Bakery in Encino. As soon as we left the store, Mom and I would each take a tiny cornmeal encrusted end, and spin the bag back up with the twist tie.

Side note: In Yiddish, cissel, sissel, or shissel, sometimes means caraway seed, so this aptly named shissel bread is rye with caraway. (Thanks Mom.)

This new magical rye bread is baked by Gordie Weissman, who was tracked down by the determined Russ & Daughter's grandkids, and convinced to move one whole state west.

A third generation baker at Gus and Paul’s Bakery, Weissman's grandfather arrived in the U.S. around 1904, and began baking on Manhattan’s Lower East Side before moving to the Bronx to bake. (Russ & Daughter's opened their original location in 1914.) In 1958, Gordie’s father, Gus, and Uncle opened their own shop in Springfield, Massachusetts. There the family of bakers churned out rye, pumpernickel, bagels, and bialys for over fifty years, until the Russ grandchildren came calling. And I for one am thankful.

According to an article on masslive.com, it was perfect timing for Gordie--so maybe not the hard sell one would have thought. The bakery was having a hard time making ends meet and had recently been closed for a brief spell because of state withholding issues. What, they can't pay in bread? Pity for Springfieldians. Celebration for Manhattanites.

Weissman is currently baking his new bread, with ancient family starters, at a startup space in Long Island City. Serious Eats has a very good piece on the entire bread lineup at the new Russ & Daughter's Cafe, which you can read here. And

New York magazine wrote about the state of the new rye breads, but these are not the rye bread I am talking about above. Those new ryes are dark and gritty bread, the kind you want to take on a hike, and I love them all.