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Get Thee To Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King

April 5, 2011

The Upper West Side stalwart.

Previously I’ve written about my lack of understanding  of why people are willing to endure endless lines at Good Enough To Eat. The place is good, but not great. It’s cramped and bumpy. The food’s tasty but not astonishing. In other words, it’s Good Enough To Eat, not Great Enough To Stand In Line For An Hour For. This is particularly true considering there are numerous other places nearby that make fantastic brunches. The greatest of these, from a foodie’s POV, is Barney Greengrass.

Talk about a tight fit... .

Now let me be clear: Barney Greengrass is no paradise. It is even more cramped and tightly packed than Good Enough To Eat on a typical weekend day. The waiters can be nice if they’ve seen you around but generally tend to be a bit on the gruff side. I suspect it is because they are squeezing through impossibly tiny places all day and carrying plate after plate of fish delicacies to the bottomless maw of foodies.

A look at some of the decor.

The decor was probably nice in 1918 or something, and I guess you could say it has been “preserved.” The tables are too small for normal, early 21st-century humans to sit comfortably at, especially when the place is crowded. There is a very good chance someone will have brought a wailing baby or two.

The typically-crowded dining room.

Chances are excellent you will also have to wait on some kind of line. The secret to avoiding a lengthy wait at Barney Greengrass (or most brunch spots, actually) is to arrive before 11:00 a.m. That said, unlike GETE, though, the wait at Barney Greengrass is worth it, especially for fressers.

So now that we’ve established that you don’t come for the decor or to luxuriate in paradise, let us get on with what is really great about the place: the food.

The off-the-menu latke is excellent in every regard.

On the weekends, Barney Greengrass offers an off-the-menu latke. If you like potato pancakes, you will love their latke. So many places try to do latkes and wind up serving you a doughy, unrecognizable puck that someone who clearly has never had a potato pancake tried to fashion based on the words in the name alone. Yuck. Not so at Barney Greengrass. They understand what a latke should taste like (healthy onion flavoring, some grease), and how it should be served (apple sauce and sour cream). They give you three small, crispy, onion-y latkes, they are both crunchy and fluffy, and have a salt note to boot. They’re terrific and I strongly recommend starting your meal with them.

The pastrami salmon.

Next, I like to indulge in something that perhaps some purists would scoff at: pastrami salmon. I know, it’s a bit gimmicky, but who cares. If you like pastrami, and you like smoked salmon, you’re going to like it. Note the darkened rind on the edges of the Nova – that’s where the pastrami spicing has been applied. It’s delicious! Plus it leads you through a gateway to wrongville: who would ever consider putting pastrami on cream cheese? A shonda! But with the salmon, you can even spritz a little lemon, maybe add some onion… .

Some toasted bialen.

Barney Greengrass offers you your choice of bagel per dish you order. Naturally, I always get a bialy. If you don’t know what a bialy is, it is the sexier, leaner, more onion-flavored and attractive sister to the bagel. Shame on you for not knowing. But now you know, so no excuses.

The signature dish.

Barney Greengrass offers an extensive menu of seafood delicacies, but I think it is safe to say that their signature brunch dish is the salmon, eggs and onions. You won’t go wrong ordering whitefish salad or some such, but I find myself coming back again and again for the concoction you see above.

Fluffy eggs + salty salmon + onions = delicious.

Although the portion at first glance may not appear to be too big, believe me it is seriously hefty. The salmon adds a powerful salt to the fluffy eggs. The onions have wept a little in the pan, and the salmon itself is juicy, not dry. The result is an intensely rich and heavy breakfast dish full of flavor. The onions add a sweet and the eggs are rich. Salmon always tastes like salmon but also lends a salt. After the potato pancakes and pastrami salmon, woof, you’ll find you have had quite a meal.

Whitefish and Nova platter.

My companion on this meal went a bit berserk and ordered the whitefish, sturgeon and Nova platter. That’s a ton of food, but what was really jaw-dropping was the gob-smacking price: $44! Look, I love them all, and understand these are highly specialized items, but yowza, that’s one hefty price tag for a single dish. I am not saying it is not worth it, but it sure would’ve scared me off. For comparison: the pastrami salmon appetizer was $13, the salmon eggs and onions $14, and the latkes $12.25. That’s already plenty of dough – and food.

Once again we learn the hard way you’re not going to save money eating well in New York. That said, the food at Barney Greengrass is delicious. If you have the opportunity, I would strongly recommend going during the week. It is much less crowded and all the cramped conditions I wrote about earlier are much more likely to be eased quite a lot. The food is amazing and it’s a foothold to the New York of another era. Strongly recommended.

Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King

541 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10024
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