Six months ago, I had my first experience at NYC’s Russ & Daughters — specifically, their bustling, narrow location at 179 E Houston St. in Manhattan, referred to by regulars and devotees simply as, “The Shop.” I walked in with an old friend from Brooklyn, wide-eyed at the endless array of smoked fish (sable, whitefish, peppered mackerel), housemade spreads and other delights I’d only read about in the New York Times.
Seventy dollars later, we left with ear-to-ear grins and the provisions for a feast I won’t soon forget. It was so good, in fact, that I remember commenting on how much I wish we had an analog of some sort in Portland.
Enter Rose Foods, a new addition to Forest Ave. that fills an otherwise untouched niche in Portland’s dining community.
Rose Foods is modeled in large part after the “appetizing store” first brought to NYC by Joel Russ in 1914. From the menu design and look/feel of the space (a comforting reimagination of what formerly housed the Brea Lu Cafe, now in Westbrook) right down to the language central to the restaurant’s branding — ”Quality, Vitality, Cleanliness” emanate from the front window in gold lettering — Rose Foods is a concept restaurant by its very nature.
The interior of Rose Foods. Photo by: Erik Neilson
This could easily spell disaster in the wrong hands. It just so happens, though, that owner Chad Conley seems to have a knack for this type of thing.
Conley is responsible for reviving Biddeford’s Palace Diner in 2014 alongside business partner Greg Mitchell, which has garnered praise from national publications and a cult following that continues to fill seats for bites of the state’s best burger and tuna melt. The Palace successfully takes the age-old concept of the roadside diner and updates it for modern tastes, without straying from the heart of what makes us crave regional American food to begin with. It is, in my opinion, one of the most unique restaurants in Maine.
Rose Foods finds Conley playing with yet two more timeless concepts, bridging the gap between the Old-world “appetizing store” and the modern Jewish deli — and it’s brilliant timing. If attempted in a place like New York City where it would sit alongside R&D, Katz’s, Barney Greengrass and 2nd Ave. Deli, Rose Foods might easily go overlooked. In a city like Portland, fully devoid of establishments operating in the same space, it has rightfully become the center of attention.
And it would all be nothing more than smart marketing if the food wasn’t so incredibly on point.
The menu at Rose Foods revolves largely around the shop’s “famous golden bagels,” which — despite having been in production for only two months — have already earned their foreshadowed reputation around town. With a crisp shell and chewy interior, they tick the boxes on what should constitute a “New York bagel” far better than any other examples found throughout Southern Maine. Flavors remain consistent week-to-week, with “special” bagels like celery, fennel and dill rotating in and out.
The classic nova lox open faced bagel sandwich. Photo by: Erik Neilson
Bagels can be schmeared with a spread of choice (butter, house-mixed cream cheese spreads, chopped liver) and topped with whitefish salad, sable or a variety of different lox options. Add on capers and perhaps some dill, and you’re out the door happy. For a more curated approach, the “Appetizing Platter for 2” consists of bagels, cream cheese, smoked fish, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, dill and capers — a great introduction to the core of what Rose Foods does so well.
Those famous bagels really shine in sandwich form, offered either open-faced or closed in ten different varieties. The “Classic Nova” is a solo diner’s answer to the Appetizing Platter, stacked with nova lox, cucumber, onion and capers over a base of plain cream cheese. The “Luxe Lox” — salmon cream cheese, nova lox and salmon caviar — is nothing short of self-love in sandwich form. Even the egg sandwiches won’t be found elsewhere in town, like the unapologetically old-school “Monday Morning,” layered with chopped liver, egg, pickles and gribenes (read: crispy chicken skin).
Classic Jewish deli fare is not to be missed at Rose Foods, with the pastrami on rye taking center-stage — a mountain of warm, tender smoked corn beef I’ve seen light up the eyes of unassuming patrons upon first bite on numerous visits (add sauerkraut and make it a fresser!). Matzo ball soup is authentic and steaming hot, like a warm blanket that puts off the day’s responsibilities for just 15 more minutes. On weekends, golden-fried latkes are served with sour cream, applesauce and optional caviar for celebrating a job well done.
Salads, pickles, spreads and a variety of smoked fish are available for takeaway, as well as a well-curated selection of sundries unlikely to be found at any nearby grocery store.
The one complaint I’ve heard echo across social media and elsewhere about Rose Foods has been in regard to price point. Yes, a meal at Rose Foods can add up — the Fresser Pastrami with sauerkraut comes to $24 on its own; an open-faced “Orchard Street” (sable, capers and herbed cream cheese) will set you back $18. Adding a few sides, a cup of Parlor coffee or a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda means footing the bill for a pricey breakfast or lunch.
I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and say that the price point at Rose Foods is validated entirely by the fact that it operates without competition and at an extremely high level. Conley and his crew are sourcing the best ingredients available and have put a great deal of thought (and obvious elbow-grease) into creating something that, up until today, has not existed in the Portland area. I, for one, am more than happy to pay a premium to support such an establishment — it sure beats hopping a bus to NYC.
Each time I’ve been into Rose Foods since they’ve opened, I’ve overheard more or less the same phrase uttered by clientele both young and old — ”I’m really glad this is here.”
Rose Foods | 428 Forest Ave., Portland | Wed-Sun 7 am-2 pm | 207-835-0991 | www.rosefoods.me
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