Taking a bite out of the Big Apple

by Ollie Barstow on 16 December 2013, 12:12PM

Nose pressed up against the glass, offering my best Charlie Bucket impression as the eyes widen and my sweet tooth twitches at the fantastic culinary creations before me, I finally come to a difficult decision… Much to the relief of the growing queue of people stacking up behind me.

Challenged by the allure of the most deliciously elaborate looking cakes my stomach has ever rumbled in the presence of, I conclude that I couldn’t possibly leave New York without a giant slice of baked cheesecake having passed my lips.  It’s an excellent choice, swiftly disappearing before my partner has even had a chance to wrestle with the same quandary and return with his selection.

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In fact, this has been a recurring theme throughout my week in New York. Wherever you go the choices are immense: Menus run to several pages, waitresses reel off specials like a rehearsed speech… simply picking a pizza topping from the shop-wide banner demands more concentration than an exam paper.

But this is because New York loves its food and its pride in culinary excellence is apparent from border-to-border, chef to waiter regardless of whether you’re simply grabbing a pretzel from a Central Park vendor or pausing to consider which knife to use on your gourmet Upper East Side steak. So, as a man who also ‘hearts’ his food and has adopted the somewhat infuriating (for everyone else at least) habit of taking Instagram photographs of my dinner to share with the world, it seemed only appropriate that my return to New York on a Travelbag holiday should be a chance to tantalise and tease my tongue like never before.

As such, I took the opportunity to book my place on one of the many food tours that have sprung up across New York, each purporting to offer a fascinating culinary adventure to celebrate the fine food borne out in this very city over the decades. Indeed, no other destination in the world is as synonymous with food as New York is, the city’s very name prefixing many well-known culinary delights to denote its own take on a popular dish. Whether it is the New York Bagel, the New York Pizza Slice, the New York Hot Dog or that New York Cheesecake, a tour of New York is as much a holiday for your taste-buds as it is for the rest of you…

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Spending a good hour perusing a litany of tempting tours online (and stopping just short of salivating on the keyboard), I settle on the ‘Flavours of New York’ excursion as offered by City Food Tours. Describing itself as an opportunity to ‘eat like a local’, the tour traverses the trendy East Village and is billed as a way of learning more about this bohemian, yet oft-ignored corner of Manhattan through the food it consumes. Helmed by our enthusiastic tour guide Susie, a successful chef who does this job simply for the love of her profession, we brave the chilly conditions for our first stop at a fairly unassuming newsagent, where we are served a cup of conspicuous looking chocolate-brown liquid, topped by a cappuccino-like froth.

Taking a sip, there is certainly a hint of chocolate, albeit fizzy and more refreshing than the texture would have you believe. We are told we are drinking ‘Egg Cream’, a somewhat perplexing moniker given the drink actually contains no egg… or cream. No-one knows the true origin of the Egg Cream or how it got its name, though the recipe of milk, chocolate syrup and fizzy soda does at least give the impression you’re drinking egg whites.

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Best described as a curious taste sensation, I finish off the rest of my drink (unlike a handful of others in our group) and make tracks to our next destination at an authentic Polish delicatessen. Though perhaps more of a novelty in New York than in the UK, a smoked ham and cheese sandwich on fresh rye bread served by our bolshie butcher host Lukasz seems authentic enough… even if his offer of some ‘Head Cheese’ (a terrine made from the head of a pig – minus the eyes but only ‘sometimes’ the brain) was met with a universal grimace.

With its large Eastern European community, the East Village is an eye-catchingly diverse neighbourhood with its Slavic delis, shops and restaurants. Even so, few would likely anticipate Ukrainian to emerge as one of the Manhattan’s most celebrated cuisines, but the success of Veselka, a family-owned 24-hour restaurant on 114th / 2nd is not only award-winning, but has spawned cookery books and city-wide acclaim since opening back in 1954.

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Squeezing ourselves into the busy lunch-hour rush, we sit down to sample its signature dish of Borscht, a beetroot stew served with chunks of pork and sour cream. A hearty dish, the Borscht receives a substantial thumbs up from myself and others, even if there is some lamenting that none of Veselka’s famous patrons, including Julianne Moore and Jon Stewart, make an appearance to pick up their lunchtime pierogi.

Not to deny my sweet tooth, we continue on to one of the globally-renowned Momofuku Milk Bar bakeries, an offshoot of the Momofuku restaurants that have earned founder chef David Chang a reputation for exceptional oriental cuisine.

Though reservations for those restaurants are notoriously difficult to secure, a visit to the Milk Bar is a chance to sample its signature ‘Compost Cookie’, where we are invited to guess which five principle ingredients go into making it. Save for the obvious chocolate chips, our attempts to guess what else comprised of this tasty delicacy came to a dead-end. As it happens, the cookie contains butterscotch (lovely), oats (healthy), pretzels (interesting), coffee grinds (explains the texture) and… chips! Well, ‘crisps’ actually, as we soon realise.

After a few more bites (just to check, of course), we were informed that the seemingly derogatory term ‘Compost’ is used to denote throwing leftovers into the mix and experimenting with the results. We didn’t, however, ask what was contained in the $44 Crack Pie that was also available on the menu…

Even so, while the tour had so far been an opportunity to sample tastes from less assuming locations, no visit to New York could have been complete without sampling its most iconic takeaway treats – the Hot Dog and the New York Pizza Slice.

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Stopping off at Papaya King, we are regaled with tales of the Hot Dog’s origin. As the name suggests, Papaya King originally offered just tropical juices, but the arrival of German-American immigrants in the neighbourhood during the 1930’s would see it experiment with the sale of the Hot Dog. Though the Hot Dog became hugely popular (far more than the juices), the Papaya moniker stuck and even bore a few competitors, such as Gray’s Papaya and Papaya Dog. These days, you can specify beef, as well as pork, in your bun, but whichever you choose there is nothing that says ‘New Yorker’ quite like slathering it in relish and sinking your teeth into a proper ‘dawg’… at least, unless you’ve opted for that other great New York culinary institution, the New York slice.

While the ever-popular pizza is attributed to its native home of Italy, many locals feel the New York variation is superior thanks to a hand-tossed base ‘enhanced’ by the minerals found in the city’s water supply. True or not, there is little denying its popularity having been a staple of New York’s culinary culture since 1905, and as I wrap my mouth around a slice dripping with tomato and mozzarella, I am not in a position to argue…

Concluding our culinary journey with a spot of ‘dessert’ at a nearby bakery (where my aforementioned indecisiveness prompts a chorus of ‘tuts’), Susie – who grew up in Korea - explains to me why she thinks New York is the world’s capital for fine food, remarking that the diversity of the city’s culture and nationalities has created an incredible ‘melting pot’ for fine cuisine to flourish, more so than anywhere else in the world. She has a point. During my time in New York, my ‘foodie’ endeavour saw me travel the culinary world, sampling American, Italian, Korean, Mexican, Caribbean and Eastern European fare with barely having to leave my Times Square base.

Even beyond the promise of free samples, a food tour is an excellent way to better understand the origins of some of New York’s most popular and unusual treats, as well as give you the chance to explore neighbourhoods you may have missed on a first New York holiday. Furthermore, at little more than £25, it’s also an excellent alternative to a humdrum lunch, while food tours specialising in just desserts, beers, cheeses, sweets, bakeries  and wine are also readily available for those with particularly discerning taste-buds.

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Appetite suitably satisfied, remnants wiped from my cheeks and jeans unbuttoned ever so slightly, I look over to my partner – who is still finishing off his chocolate gateaux -, and ask him just the one question:

So, what’s for dinner?

To discover more about New York City, go to www.nycgo.com.

For more information on holidays to New York, visit www.travelbag.co.uk/holidays/usa/new-york


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