PACK YOUR KNIVES AND GO
A DIY "Top Chef" Tour of New York City
Craving more Top Chef? We've got the dish on the show's most memorable New York moments—along with smart tips for experiencing some of the city's best culinary spots.
Craft, Flatiron District
Head judge Tom Colicchio made his culinary name in NYC, and season five contestants had the honorable—and nerve-racking—challenge of cooking lunch at Craft, Colicchio's flagship restaurant, in Manhattan's posh Flatiron District. Meals at Craft stress fresh, fine ingredients and don't come cheap; entrées start around $25. In keeping with the times, Damon Wise, the restaurant's executive chef, just launched Damon: Frugal Friday, a weekly food and drink series made especially for recession-weary wallets. Every Friday from 5:30 p.m. to midnight, guests can lounge in Craft's private dining room and order small plates like smoked beef tartar and spiced flatbread ($5), escargot and smoked bacon on a stick ($5), and fresh ricotta, black cabbage, and truffle vinaigrette mini pizzas ($7). Nothing on the food or drink menus will set you back more than $10. Can't make it on Friday? Try splitting a few items from Craft's regular à la carte menu. Start with the beet and tarragon salad ($10), add sides like roasted Hen of the Woods mushrooms ($13) and Jerusalem artichokes ($8), and splurge on a hearty entrée like Colicchio's signature braised beef short rib ($30). 43 E. 19th St., 212/780-0880, craftrestaurant.com.
Season five contestants first sized each other up aboard the Coursen, a ferry that whisked them to Governors Island, a former military base 800 yards offshore from Lower Manhattan. Upon arrival, chefs competed in a surprise apple preparation challenge at the north shore courtyard between historic buildings 111 and 112. Recent culinary school grad Lauren's uninspired apple and spinach salad sent her home before she even set foot in the Top Chef kitchen. Governors Island, a favorite day trip for many city-weary locals, is only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from May 30 through October 11. The free ferry departs at least once an hour from Manhattan's Battery Maritime Building and takes seven minutes to reach the island. Once there, rent a bike from Bike and Roll and pedal six miles of trails while savoring upclose views of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan's skyline (2008 rates were $5 for a half hour, $10 for up to two hours, $15 for the day). Governors Island also hosts dozens of free events that have ranged from kayaking and concerts to festivals like Figment, a multi-day, interactive art celebration (June 13-14, 2009). Pick up a jerk chicken sandwich from the popular Jamaican food cart ($5) or a sandwich from the Pyramid Coffee cafe, located on the main promenade (from $4). Then walk 20 minutes, bike, or hop a free tram to the island's newest picnic spot: eight acres on the southern end directly across from Lady Liberty. govisland.com.
Those gorgeous skyline views made it clear that season five's living quarters weren't in Manhattan. The contestants stayed across the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Hipsters have gradually gentrified this once gritty immigrant neighborhood; galleries and restaurants occupy former industrial buildings, and ultramodern, glass-sheathed condos tower over older row houses. No. 20 Bayard, the luxurious 18-story apartment building that housed the chefs, is indicative of Williamsburg's changing scene. Contestants shared two $2.5 million duplex penthouses, each with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, three terraces, and floor-to-ceiling windows that conveniently allowed cameras to catch Hosea and Leah smooching. The building sits on the edge of 36-acre McCarren Park, where newcomers and old-timers alike gather to picnic, play soccer, and jog around the track. Grab a sandwich from Urban Rustic, a locally sourced organic café across from the park, take a seat on a park bench, and soak in the neighborhood's flavor. No. 20 Bayard, 20 Bayard St., 718/302-3030, twentybayard.com; Urban Rustic, 236 N. 12th St., 718-/388-9444, urbanrusticnyc.com, sandwiches from $5.
The Today Show, Rockefeller Center, Midtown
They may be on reality TV, but not all Top Chef contestants are cut out for live TV. In a season five challenge, each chef demonstrated a recipe during a two-and-a-half minute cooking spot—which yielded some disastrous, under-cooked messes. Judges deemed Jeff, Ariane, and Fabio most camera-ready, and the three chefs prepared their dishes at Rockefeller Center's Sea Grill for the Today Show hosts. Kathie Lee Gifford practically gagged on live TV when she tasted Jeff's shrimp roll before she, Meredith Vieira, Natalie Morales, and Hoda Kotb declared Ariane's watermelon salad the winner. To get up close with the ladies of the Today show yourself, secure a spot outside the ground-level Rockefeller Center studio at least one hour before the live filming starts at 7 a.m. Afterwards, grab a table at the Sea Grill when it opens at 11:30 a.m.; if you visit during winter, you can watch ice skaters glide by right outside the restaurant windows. Refuel on a shrimp sushi roll ($12); its flavors could teach Jeff a thing or two about seasoning. The Today Show, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, today.msnbc.msn.com; The Sea Grill, 19 W. 49th St., 212/332-7610, patinagroup.com/east/seagrill/.