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/.
The French Culinary Institute, SoHo
For more than two decades, the French Culinary Institute has launched the careers of top chefs like Bobby Flay of Mesa Grill New York, David Chang of NYC's Momofuku restaurants, Wylie Dufresne of WD-50—and Top Chef season one contestant Lee Anne Wong. Season three chefs had the opportunity to visit the renowned school and create a chicken dish for an all-star judges panel that included FCI founder Dorothy Cann Hamilton and famed alums André Soltner and Jacques Torres. Casey's attempt to label her dish "coq au vin" prompted an outcry from the judges (since the French dish is classically made with rooster, not a hen), and Hung's sous vide bird (cooked in an airtight bag submerged in almost-boiling water) was declared the winner. See what's cooking now by dining at L'Ecole, the school's contemporary French restaurant and home to one of NYC's best meal deals: $42 gets you a five-course dinner with dishes like juniper-smoked rack of lamb or seared scallops—all prepared by FCI students (at 8 p.m., the second seating, Mon.–Sat.). The seasonal prix fixe menu changes every eight weeks. 462 Broadway, 212/219-8890, frenchculinary.com.
Harlem Gospel Choir, Times Square
The legendary Harlem Gospel Choir treated contestants to an impromptu kitchen concert during season five's Christmas episode. As chefs drew knives denoting which of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" would be their dish themes, singers belted out corresponding lyrics. Hosea's 11 Pipers Piping smoked pork dish—a play on the idea of pipers smoking instead of playing bagpipes—stood out from a chorus of mediocre dishes like Ariane's Six Geese A-Laying deviled eggs. Though the Harlem Gospel Choir won't be singing Christmas carols now, you can hear them live at the group's weekly Sunday Gospel Brunch at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square. As you enjoy soulful gospel standards like "Oh Happy Day," chow down on cornmeal-crusted fried catfish, mac and cheese, grits, biscuits, and sausage links from the all-you-can-eat Southern-style buffet ($40 in advance, $42.50 day of show). 237 W. 42 St., 212/997-4144, bbkingblues.com.
Perilla, Greenwich Village
Back in 2006, likable Long Island native Harold Dieterle out-cooked uptight Bostonian Tiffani Faison to win the very first Top Chef title. After the show, Dieterle returned to NYC and opened Perilla, a Greenwich Village bistro that serves seasonal American cuisine. The cozy restaurant's 18 tables fill up fast (make reservations two weeks in advance to guarantee a spot). But many regulars prefer to sit at the bar anyway, where they can chat with bartenders, people-watch through the big front windows, and order from the full menu. Make like the locals: Grab a bar seat and order Dieterle's signature spicy duck meatballs ($13). Dieterle fans should note that the original Top Chef is usually in the kitchen Monday through Friday. There's a chance of spotting him if he comes into the dining room. Or, if you ask nicely—and if the restaurant isn't too busy—the waitstaff might bring you into the kitchen to give Dieterle a quick hello. For more potential Top Chef alum sightings, stop into 24 Prince (owned by season four's Nikki Cascone), Sólo (helmed by season three winner Hung Huynh), or Café des Artistes (where season three's Joey Paulino is chef de cuisine). Perilla, 9 Jones St., 212/929-6868, perillanyc.com; 24 Prince, 24 Prince St., 212/226-8624, 24prince.com; Sólo, 550 Madison Ave., 212/833-7800, theprimegrill.com; Café des Artistes, 1 W. 67th St., 212/877-3500, cafenyc.com.
Astor Center, East Village
Astor Wines & Spirits is a downtown institution, thanks to its vast inventory and knowledgeable sales staff. Astor Center, the swank culinary education and event space above the wine shop, was created to celebrate the tastes and pleasures that come with swirling and sipping vino. It's also where Top Chef contestants cooked for some very harsh critics—each other—in a brutal fifth season elimination challenge. If you're hoping to train your palate to be Top Chef-worthy, take one of Astor Center's one-day wine or food classes. No less an expert than Astor Center president Andrew Fisher helms the class, Elements of Wine: Wine Tasting, Wine Pairing, and More ($75). And in The Fundamentals of Cooking ($125), you'll learn how to wield knives and prep food like a top chef. For a cheaper alternative, attend a free wine tasting at Astor Center, held most afternoons and evenings Wednesday through Sunday. Tip: Buy a bottle of whatever you've sampled and receive 15 percent off the price. 399 Lafayette St., 212/674-7501, astorcenternyc.com.
Brighton Beach, Curry Hill, and Chinatown
New York's not called a melting pot for nothing; the city's immigrant neighborhoods are unparalleled in their breadth and scope. So it's fitting that season five's chefs were dispersed to various ethnic areas to find cooking inspiration. Hosea created a smoked fish and potato dish after visiting Brighton Beach, a seaside Russian enclave in southern Brooklyn. For a taste of Little Odessa, head to M & I International Food, a family-owned shop and restaurant in business for more than 30 years; pickled potato salad ($4 a pound) and slabs of massive, creamy Napoleons ($8 a pound)are among the offerings. Stop at Café Glechik for a heaping plate of pelmini (from $5) or vareniki (from $6), two types of small dumplings stuffed with meat, cheese, cabbage, or potato. M & I International Food, 249 Brighton Beach Ave., 718/615-1011; Café Glechik, 3159 Coney Island Ave., 718/616-0494.
Hawaiian chef Eugene hadn't cooked Indian food before the challenge, but he wowed the judges with a lamb dish inspired by food he sampled in Curry Hill—a slice of the Manhattan neighborhood Murray Hill so nicknamed for its density of South Asian shops and restaurants. Find the perfect spices for your own cooking at Kalustyan's. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi is a fan of the two-story ingredient emporium, which is crammed floor to ceiling with bags of Eastern spices, grains, sauces, and nuts (small bag of Kalustyan's curry powder, $5). Kalustyan's, 123 Lexington Ave., 212/685-3451, kalustyans.com.
Chinatown's Oriental Garden will satisfy any Chinese craving. The superb seafood restaurant serves dishes like salt-baked prawns ($19) and braised sea cucumber ($29). Not sure what to order? No need to worry: Whatever you choose will be infinitely better than the gloppy Chinese-inspired salmon noodle dish that got culinary student Patrick eliminated from the show. Oriental Garden, 14 Elizabeth St., 212/619-0085.