Being “The Tourist” is usually an unsavoury concept for those who deem themselves as worldly and widely travelled. They are words that are spat out with arrogant contempt and unbridled pity when you’re in the know and count hole-in-the-wall joints and speak easy underground bars amongst your “local hangouts” and are on first name terms with the cheeky barrista at the corner cafe.
But before we hang The Tourist out to dry, there is a time and place to assume the despised tourist role too – most appropriately, when visiting somewhere like New York for the first time. You’d be forgiven for bypassing the glitzy touristy cafe flanked by large tourist buses in another city or town in preference for somewhere more quaint and local, but having long read and heard about iconic New York foodie spots from friends, family, press articles and travel shows, it would seem silly to not find out what the fuss is all about. So, we devised a gustatory pilgrimage that would allow us to tackle as many iconic albeit touristy foodie spots as possible and have it culminate in a luxurious picnic spread in Central Park. With the plan in place, it was time to get our walking shoes on and start collating our picnic!
First, before we could begin to tackle the task at hand, we needed energy for our mission. And I fervently believe that gorging yourself on a coma-inducing, gargantuan amount of cold cuts slathered in sauerkraut is the perfect energy booster. That’s right, we’re starting the pilgrimage with Katz’s Deli.
1. Katz’s Deli
Anyone who has been to New York will inevitably recommend Katz’s Deli. At all hours it seems to be crammed to the hilt with tourists and locals alike all jostling for precious counter space and a chance to order their famous sandwiches. But a sandwich is a misleading term for the dozens of layers of deliciously slow roasted cold cuts, slathered in additional condiments, that are well – sandwiched – between 2 slices of bread. It was at once a sight to make my inner glutton purr with Pavlovian delight and make my inner health-conscious scientist tut disapprovingly at the amount of meat I was about to ingest.
Whilst standing in line, we struck up a conversation with a New York local who’d just returned to New York after a 6 year stint interstate – and they’d made a beeline for Katz’s to satisfy their 6 year roast beef on rye craving. With such endorsement, we had to try it – with a splodge of mustard and tartare relish. It was delicious, and as expected, disgustingly filling. Although the one sandwich between the two of us was more than sufficient, we couldn’t bypass the signature pastrami reuben sandwich smothered in cheese and sauerkraut that was at once meaty, savoury, and juicy with molten cheese and moist, tangy sauerkraut. And for the record, no, I couldn’t get my mouth around that tower of meat sandwich. The complimentary helping of enormous pickles was a welcome tart touch and appetite lifter but we thought could have had a stronger more pickled punch to them. They seemed only par pickled. The only recourse was to find better pickles direct from the experts.
2. The Pickle Guys
The unmistakable scent of pickles – that familiar, slightly acrid, nose prickling acidity will hit you before you lay your eyes on the bulging red barrels containing a rainbow assortment of pickles. I love indulging my sour receptors and have been known to demolish whole jars of cornichons in a sitting. This was my candy store equivalent and the staff at The Pickle Guys were only too accommodating to my pickle habit doling out generous tastings from the barrels of behemoth pickled sour and hot gherkins, olives, cherry tomatoes – everything and anything, pickled and bobbing around in some variety of mustard, coriander, chilli or dill seed pickling marinades. We left with a quart of mixed gherkin pickles and some tasty clove and chilli sweet pickled pineapples.
3. Russ & Daughters
No New York tourist trail would be complete without a trip to an appetizing store and the most famous of these is undoubtedly, Russ & Daughters, a 4th generation business that started very humbly, with Joel Russ selling Polish mushrooms on strings trying to make enough money to buy a push cart.
The term “appetizing” is one commonly used amongst the strong New York Jewish contingent. It is used as a noun to describe kosher bagel accompaniments – so ‘appetizings’ includes lox or smoked salmon, cream cheese spreads, whitefish and dairy products. We collected a good cross section of their appetizings, including 4 types of smoked salmon; caviar and cream cheese spreads; chopped liver spread; prized new catch Holland herrings with chopped onion (consumed by dangling above your gullet by the tail for maximum hedonistic pleasure); wasabi infused flying fish roe and of course, lots of bagels.
The store clerk looked on dubiously as we ordered one item after another. When we asked him whether we had enough for a picnic for two he just laughed at our gluttony.
4. Murray’s Cheese Shop
The dearth of readily available raw milk cheeses in Australia is good reason to eat your fill of them when you leave the zealously controlled dairy standards on Australian shores. Murray’s Cheese Shop is the United Nations of the cheese world – the display counters are crammed with delicious cheese specimens from all over the world. With the staff’s help we sampled judiciously until we settled on 2 types of raw milk cheeses: Scharfe Maxx, a raw cow’s milk cheese from Hatswil, Thurgau, Switzerland; Tomme de chevre Aydius, a raw goat’s milk cheese from Pyrénées-Atlantique, Aquitaine, France and Tickler Cheddar, a strong bitey English cheddar from Devon. With good intentions to leave, we spotted the prosciutto and decided our picnic had to be expanded to include a few thin rashers of prosciutto and because no one can have enough pickles, some pickled mixed mushrooms and antipasto.
Heaving under the weight of our shopping, we trundled on to Chelsea Markets where we’d find the centrepiece of our picnic spread.
5. The Lobster Place
Having perused through the fresh produce in Chinatown and seen how very affordable lobster was in the States compared to Australia, I was determined not to leave New York without having first gorged myself silly on disgustingly excessive quantities of the delectable crustacean. But staying in an apartment with few cooking utensils & even fewer ingredients at my disposal meant cooking the lobster ourselves was not practical. So the Co-pilot led me to Chelsea Markets, an enormous converted warehouse space in the Meatpacking District of New York. The original warehouse structure has been retained, with brick, pipes and metal abound, but refitted to fit in a plethora of food and clothing stores – and the throngs of people these stores bring. Inside we found the Lobster Place where the sight of enormous clams, crabs, oysters and of course lobsters had me darting around the store pointing excitedly and strategising ways in which we could eat as much of the store as possible.
But given it’s namesake, we were here for lobsters and lobsters they delivered in spades. There was none of this stringy-bits-of-lobster-you-need-a-microscope-to-spot business, or pieces of coloured seafood extender masquerading as expensive crustacean. Whole cooked lobsters were a mere USD$11.95/lb (or about 0.5kg)! So affordable was the lobster that generous fleshy chunks of lobster adorned sushi rolls or you could get a lobster roll jampacked with lobster meat. At the lobster bay at the back of the store we spotted staff casually shelling lobsters, filling a giant pan piled high with succulent pink chunks of freshly cooked lobster meat. If I’d been able to get any closer and had that staff member not been wielding a very large sharp knife, he might have looked away and looked back to find me looking as innocent as possible when one’s cheeks are crammed full of stolen lobster.
Gigantic Maine lobsters stared at us from their tank enclosures and we stared back hungrily. To satisfy this lobster craving we decided only a 4 pound beast would do. Once bought, it was freshly steamed to order and conveniently prepared for easy access lobster gorging. That’s 4 pounds+ or about 2kg, for AUD$44. No wonder they can afford to make lobster rolls and burgers here. This was promising to be a picnic to remember.
6. Chelsea Wine Vault
We passed by the Chelsea Wine Vault after leaving The Lobster Place and realised that this picnic could still be improved. What better to top off a picnic of lobster, caviar spreads, cheese, smoked salmon, bagels, prosciutto and pickles than a bottle of French Champagne. Like many other products, alcoholic drinks are much cheaper in the states and was a good opportunity to indulge in a nice Champagne at half the price we’re accustomed to in Sydney. Though the Moët and Veuve Clicquot were comparably priced, we preferred the Pol Roger – chilled on demand (it takes a mere 5 minutes) whilst we perused the store, driven semi-insane by the sweet wafting aroma of warm steamed lobster.
7. Central Park
After almost a full morning’s picnic foraging spanning East Village, Lower East Side, West Village and the Meatpacking District we were finally satisfied that we’d collected enough food for our picnic for two (or ten). We made our way to Central Park and having explored the park before, the Co-pilot had just the spot in mind – Sheep Meadow – a pleasant clearing between 66th and 69th on the west side of the park. It was a hot day and New Yorkers were out soaking up the sun.
We unbundled our packages and lay our picnic spread out to the gape jawed stares of nearby onlookers. And that was before we revealed the lobster. It was certainly a picnic to remember – not least of all because the Co-pilot proposed! I can’t say I expected it at that very moment, I was a little absorbed in the important task of photographing the impressive spread before me before I realised that the conversation had turned to something a little more significant than eating an obscene amount of lobster.
And it might have been our subsequent mood, but it did all taste sinfully good. We started with a toast of Champagne, and a few polite nibbles of cheese – all so robust in flavour; gloriously tender and oily slivers of smoked salmon, bites of bagels with whitefish and salmon spread and topped with wasabi flavoured flying fish roe – the flavours of the wasabi complementing the whitefish so well; and pickles to provide respite from the rich and buttery flavours. Then because we could abstain no longer, we descended upon the lobster and devoured it, savouring each and every bulging mouthful with groans of delight. To be very fair, we thought the Australian lobsters we’re accustomed to were indeed superior in flavour, but there’s something to be said for the sheer pleasure of being able to easily afford and gorge on Maine lobsters.
Champagne, lobster and caviar – the Co-pilot does know how to impress me.
8. Rockerfeller Center
To get a good spatial sense of New York city our tourist pilgrimage led us to a high vantage point for sweeping views of the city. Being fans of the 30 Rock show, we couldn’t bypass a visit to the Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Center. New York is certainly a large sprawling city with an impressive yet very familiar skyline. I’d appreciated the size of Central Park before, but seeing it from this view really emphasizes just how large it is! What a stroke of forward thinking town planning genius to keep this green oasis protected from development!
9. The High Line
With the soft afternoon sun keeping the ominous clouds at bay we just fit in a walk on The High Line. The High Line was originally built in the 1930s and served to transpose the trains and freight transport of the day off the streets and 30 feet into the air, creating more streamlined transport and traffic. But The High Line had been defunct and not in commission since 1980. Instead of demolishing it or letting it languish in a bureaucratic tangle of red tape, overgrown weeds and scenic eyesores, Friends of The Highline, a community-based non profit group formed in 1999 and with the city helped preserve and transform The High Line into a public park. The resulting park is a welcome and surprisingly peaceful green escape from the surrounding concrete with locals and tourists sauntering along the path, lounging on the grass or on sun chairs, or admiring the many varieties of plants and flowers, many of which were in brilliant colourful bloom when we were there – and everyone was clearly enjoying the park. There might be hope yet for the derelict complex that is White Bay power station – I’m really hoping it turns into Sydney’s version of a hybrid High Line and Chelsea Markets!
To make a warm summery walk on The High Line even more pleasant, there are vendors selling snacks, drinks and even old fashioned shaved ice, hand shaved and flavoured with plum and basil syrup. And though not even many New York locals would know it, you can forage even here amongst the concrete jungle with an abundance of Juneberries that were just ripening when we were there! Juneberries look similar to blueberries, bearing a crown and bright red or blue/purple skin with white to pale yellow flesh beneath. These berries pack an amazingly sweet burst of flavour and nutrients and used to be commercially available in markets, but have long since fallen off the food radar – all the more for foragers in the know (although picking of plants or flowers is actually prohibited on The High Line)! I discovered these berries when scouring Wildman Steve Brill’s site on foraging and almost, almost even managed to participate in his foraging tour of Central Park as there is apparently plenty of foraging fodder there from Juneberries to mulberries, day lilies and mushrooms to burdock roots – all right in the heart of one of the world’s commercial powerhouses! Sadly though, the weather took a dramatic turn and sunny days hitting 40 degrees Celsius turned to rain and highs of 15 degrees Celsius – the pelting rain dashing away my hopes for foraging in New York.
But there’s always next time (and I will make certain there will be a ‘next time’). So with our New York food pilgrimage to all the iconic New York highlights now complete, we could afford to turn our attention to the New York insider venues and find out what the locals were excited about.
(Lower East Side) 205 East Houston Street (corner of Ludlow St), New York
Tel:(212) 254-2246 or 1-800-4HOTDOG
Open Mon–Tues 8am-9:45pm; Wed-Thurs 8am-10:45pm; Fri-Sat 8am -2:45am; Sun 8am – 10:45pm
The Pickle Guys
(Lower East Side) 49 Essex Street, New York
Tel: (212) 656-9739
Open Sun-Thurs 9am-6pm; Fri 9am-4pm; Sat – closed
More locations listed on website: www.pickleguys.com
Russ & Daughters
179 East Houston Street, New York
Tel: (212) 475-4880 or (800) RUSS-229 from outside the NY tri-state area; email: i...@russanddaughters.com
Open Mon–Fri 8am–8pm; Sat 9am–7pm; Sun 8am–5:30pm
Murray’s Cheese Shop
254 Bleecker Street (between 6th & 7th Ave.), New York
Tel:(212) 243-3289 or 888.MY.CHEEZ
Open Mon-Sat 8am-8pm; Sun 10am-7pm
More locations listed on website: www.murrayscheese.com
Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Avenue at 16th Street, New York
Tel: (212) 255-5672, option 2
Open Mon-Sat 9:30am-8pm; Sun 10am-7pm
More locations listed on website: http://lobsterplace.com
Chelsea Wine Vault
Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Avenue at 16th Street, New York
Tel: (212) 462-4244; email: i...@chelseawinevault.com
Open Mon-Sat 10am-8pm; Sun 12pm-7pm
Sheep Meadow, Central Park
West side/mid park from 66th to 69th Streets, New York
Open from May – mid October
Top of the Rock Observation Deck
30 Rockefeller Plaza, entrance on 50th Street, New York
Tel: (212) 698-2000
Open daily 8am-12 midnight (last elevator goes up at 11pm)
The High Line
West Side from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, between 10th & 11th Avenues.
Section 1 of the High Line, runs from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street. The newly opened Section 2, between West 20th and West 30th Streets.
Tel: (212) 500-6035
Open daily 7am to 11pm. Last entrance to the park is at 10:45pm
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