Monday, September 29, 2014

Ode to Mr. X at the Zabar's Fish Counter

Wandering thoughts while my sourdough starter revives after time away

I'm considering a babysitter for my starter, but that's another story. The following is bread related: Nothing goes better with a bagel, (best with garlic, onion or sesame seeds on top), or an onion roll, than lox with cream cheese; maybe add a slice of summertime ripe tomato and some red onion. Heaven if the lox is fresh and perfectly sliced.

To be a connoisseur of anything is to be difficult to please. I am so difficult on lox quality that there is no deli or supermarket or specialty purveyor in the entire Washington, DC, region from whom I will buy lox. It is thick; it is pre-cut; it is, sin against sin, pre-packaged in terribly thick slices that do not taste fresh. I go to New York and I go to Zabar's, only because at Broadway and 80th, it is blocks away from my in-laws. Only in New York is there competition for good lox. You can even go to Jersey or Long Island (Bagel Boss is the best there) and have options. Over the years, I have come to know the men behind the Zabar's fish counter, masters all, but Mr. X, Mr. X is unforgettable.

So who is Mr. X? And why does he deserve an ode?
I have been thinking about writing about Mr. X for some time. He is an artist, pesky, sullen and amazing at what he does. He works behind the Zabar's fish counter.
He is an artist of an ancient and unappreciated task; he slices lox. Who cares; why would I even have a favorite person and why him? 

Mr. X slices the lox so thin that it is translucent. Mr. X is unfriendly; he doesn't make chit chat. After years of serving me every so often, whenever I am in town or just passing through solely to buy the lox he slices (that's no exaggeration, by the way) he does not know my name, my children (who are old enough to visit the city and relatives on their own, willingly buying lox, packing it with some ice and a cold storage bag for the ride home). I know absolutely nothing remotely personal about Mr. X. He does not share.

In his white work smock, he snarls and ignores you if you smile or say something. He offers no recognition that he's ever seen me or anyone else before. He is not at work to socialize, apparently. He just takes the order and slices. And to watch him slice is to witness pure poetry in motion and that's before you bite into the lox he sliced and appreciate in every cell in your body that he has transformed a fresh and delicious food into something exquisite to behold and to taste. 

Mr. X doesn't spend his time shooting the breeze with his colleagues as the others do. He doesn't talk sports. No, whatever is going on in his mind, his hands attend only to the that bit of fish under his control.

We extol Mr. X's talent around the dinner table as we eat the lox and bagels or onion rolls. We hold a slice up to the light. We say what a master he is. We wish that the next time we find ourselves on the Upper West Side, at Zabar's, hopefully at a time when the store is not crowded, that Mr. X is available. And if we are there at the most crowded of hours on a Sunday morning, we patiently wait, assessing the line, thinking thoughts that maybe our turn will coincide with Mr. X's finishing up with one customer and announce our number.

Really, you never saw such transparent, gorgeous slices of lox. Get a fresh bagel or one of Zabar's delicious onion rolls, some cream cheese, maybe a tomato slice and a little red onion, make a sandwich, leave a slice of lox or two to eat right after, walk to the park (that's Central Park), find a pretty spot, and enjoy your slices of heaven. You might never leave New York.

[Photo of the fish counter at an unusually quiet moment on a weekday afternoon.]

If you have never bought lox, it is expensive. You will doubt the worth of this expensive fish. Don't doubt; order the nova. That's the variety of lox. If you say "nova lox" the guys behind the counter will give you that look, which means you have no idea what you are talking about. Just say nova. Some people, like my dad and my niece, are fans of the pickled lox, which is an entirely different food product, does not require slicing, and appears disgusting to anyone who does not eat it. Same for herring, which they also have at Zabar's and any self-respecting appetizing fish store. (Also whitefish, sable, etc.) 

A nod to the onion rolls ...
We go through a little passage in the store to the bakery and typically buy a dozen or two onion rolls, but up to four dozen if we know we won't be in the city for a while. They are doughy; they have a good ration of onions to dough; they smell great. They are like the onion rolls from my Brooklyn childhood and the old Ratner's (I cried at the demise of that institution). Another treat. Sometimes we add knishes, corned beef, and chopped liver or go upstairs to the kitchen tools. Though I am a vegetarian, these treats tempt me off the wagon. If you want rugelach, get the cinnamon; but this is not Zabar's specialty, though it's not bad.

P.S. This post is filed under "bakeries" because Zabar's has one, tiny and crowded as it is. And I did mention breads. I hope by next week to be baking the next bread. For now, I am making old ones and with commercial yeast. I know, terrible. I think the starter will be completely resuscitated tomorrow, in time to make a tried and true whole wheat bread. That starter requires a good week or two of TLC before it forgives me for going on vacation.

P.P.S. He has a name, Mr. X, but he seems like a very private person and I have no right to identify him by name or otherwise.


  1. Thanks for visiting and writing the delicious essay! Really enjoyed reading your Ode to Mr. X!

  2. Your fish counter is a delight. There is nothing even remotely close in DC. And that's true for the bakery as well.