I was deeply chagrined to learn that Gray Line recently suspended its culinary walking tours in NYC but nevertheless wanted to give one of their bus tours a try. Among the cavalcade of numerous other double-decker buses plying NYC's streets, I was fortunate to experience a complimentary ride aboard Gray Line's Downtown Loop. A hop-on, hop-off circuit, I caught the bus at its Times Square stop and luckily was able to climb up to the rooftop deck for a birds eye view of all that the non-stop narrator was pointing out. I'm not usually one for tour buses exuding that oh-so touristy ambiance. The unspoken promise that ticket holders can see and do it all from comfort of their seats is wincingly cliché and rudimentary if you're a native New Yorker. However, on another level, even veteran residents are bound to gain a different perspective of NYC's ever-evolving persona with a thoroughly knowledgeable tour guide describing everything and its historical background as it wizzes by. From the tribulations of cast-iron building maintenance, views of the original (and extremely narrow) Macy's building, to a progress report of the Freedom Tower rising from Ground Zero, you're bound to learn something new while jostling elbow to elbow with vacationers hailing from Texas to Tehran.
Being a foodie, I quickly discovered that Gray Line's Downtown Loop Tour is also a great way to reach some of Lower Manhattan's most storied eateries without developing indigestion running from one to another. Grab a complimentary route map and whet your appetite! Here are 3 of my favorites in the neighborhood:
Yonah Schimmel's Knishery (Stop #14)
Based on the appearance of this shop, not much has changed since Yonah Schimmel, an immigrant rabbi, opened it in 1910. Even though the Lower East Side has massively gentrified in recent decades, The Knishery is still run by his descendents turning out soft, handmade knishes cooked in the basement brick oven. Upon walking through the doors you’re sure to be bowled over with down home cooking aromas. Choose from eight savory potato blends, Eastern-European standards kasha and cabbage, and new world innovations like mixed-veggie and broccoli. Other dishes and sides include bagels, kugel, latkes, and hefty bowls of borscht. For dessert, five sweet-cheese mixes like blueberry and apple are wrapped in the yeasty dough. The main reason this place has thrived for over 100 years is that the knishes here have a distinct flaky golden outer layer, a substantial yet fluffy interior, and are actually good for you! No butter, eggs, or dairy of any kind is used and none are fried here like at other places.
Tebaya (Stop #3)
Come to Tebaya (translated in Japanese means house of chicken wings), a tiny shop on the border of Chelsea and the Village, for super tasty Japanese-style chicken wings. To give you a preview, these ain’t the kind of wings you’ll find in Buffalo or at other Buffalo inspired establishments. It’s strictly Pacific Rim here with double fried wings encased in a crisp non fatty skin doused with a tangy sesame and soy sauce yielding to tender meat on the inside.
Their secret with these barely battered wings lies in their frying process: the first fry seals in the flavor and the second fry magnifies the crunch factor. The wings are then doused in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice wine), black pepper, and sprinkled with sesame seeds making them hot and tangy but not enough to overpower the delicate chicken.
Portions range from eight to fifty pieces but keep in mind that these morsels are super lean so be sure to order more than you think you’ll eat. And if you overestimate, you’ll have a good excuse for leftovers. Other dishes include an Asian “happy meal” featuring a trio of potemochi (extremely dense, gummy potato cakes).
L'Ecole @ French Culinary Institute (Stop #8)
L’Ecole’s kitchen and dining room have been a premier culinary training ground since 1984 for French Culinary Institute students. Cooks in training, under the watchful eye of top chefs turned academics whip up prix fixe meals range from a 3-course lunch for $28 up to a 5-course dinner for $45.
Your plate is their homework as these cooks in training craft French standards like bouillabaise, sweet breads, escargots with herb butter or panfried cod with yellow tomato coulis. You’ll also have your pick of more contemporary fare like seared bluefin tuna with ginger and coriander in a pepper crust. Best of all, L’Ecole offers the thrill of sampling a future master’s work. Eating here also means you are an integral part of their education. Chances are you’ll feel extra gratuitous since the students are hard at work in the kitchen. If so, give them some feedback on the “report card” provided at the end of the meal.
photos courtesy of Steve Mirsky, Gray Line Tours, and L'Ecole