Shelsky's of Brooklyn offers a full range of fun and funky Jewish appetizing — no trip to Manhattan required.
There was a time, in the dark ages of the past, when Brooklynites craving a quality whitefish salad or a heaping plate of kippered salmon had to delay the gratification, hopping the subway or piling into the car for a too-long trip to the Lower East Side. But since 2011, all that’s changed.
It was in that year that Peter Shelsky, an Upper East Side native transplanted to Carroll Gardens, opened Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, his eponymous appetizing shop offering a full range of expertly-sourced smoked fish and house-cured salmon. The shop’s motto? “No more schlepping.” Finally, a Brooklyn establishment with bagels, bialys, rye, pumpernickel, fish and schmears — all under one roof.
Shelsky’s tiny Smith Street storefront quickly became too small for Peter’s outsized culinary ambitions — he is a former restaurant chef and owner of a catering business — and for the increasing enthusiasm of the shop’s customers. So he packed up and moved to a much larger Cobble Hill location, which opened on Court Street two weeks ago. The restaurant is not kosher.
“It took too long to get here, but the move has been great for us,” Shelsky said on a recent weekday morning spent in the white-tiled store. “Now we have room to play.”
Playfulness, indeed, forms a large part of the Shelsky’s ethos. Much of the shop’s success can be attributed its wildly popular, zanily-named sandwiches: fully-loaded combinations of up to three types of fish plus multiple spreads and vegetable toppings with names such as “The Great Gatsby” (pastrami-cured salmon, honey mustard, horseradish cream cheese and red onion served on caraway rye) and “The Fancy Pants” (lake sturgeon, house-cured gravlax, Ben’s cream cheese, tomato and red onion served on a bagel or bialy). Shelsky began thinking up the crazy creations when he was just a kid who a spent most Sundays on the Lower East Side eating Kossar’s bialys and Russ & Daughters pickled herring with his grandmother.
“I used to take a bagel or bialy, load it up with lox, sable and herring, schmear the whole thing with scallion cream cheese and serve it open-faced,” he recalled. “My family was mortified. But you know what? It was delicious. We serve that sandwich here today and of course it’s called ‘The Peter Shelsky.’”
Like its new neighbor Mile End — chef Noah Bernamoff’s popular Montreal-style smoked meat shop located just a few blocks away — Shelsky’s has helped make traditional, Eastern European-style Jewish eating trendy by applying cheffy techniques to established classics and by not being afraid to mix the old with the new. There is whitefish salad here, but it’s sustainably sourced directly from fishermen in Wisconsin. There’s house-made pickled herring, as well as Jamaican jerk herring and herring smoked over French oak staves. House-cured gravlax aplenty for the traditionalists among us, and a Szechuan kung pao version for the daring, too.
This willingness to tweak tradition is what has enabled a new wave of chefs and restaurateurs to establish Jewish food as a bonafide trend, Shelsky said.
“There are a few of us out there now — I’m thinking of people like Noah and the Russ & Daughters folks and the Gefilteria people — who are doing really cool things with this food,” he said. “We’re taking the old school and revitalizing it —sometimes by using chef tricks, but just as often by restoring the recipes to the way they used to be made.”
Plus, Shelsky jokes, his own efforts on social media have a played a large role in getting Jewish food into the limelight.
“I go crazy with the hashtag #JewFoodRenaissance,” he laughed. “I’m sure that’s really what has set this trend in motion.”
Shelsky’s of Brooklyn
141 Court Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
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