New York City is more than the Empire State Building

and the Statue of Liberty. It's the center of gastronomy, boasting 18,000 restaurants in its five boroughs. "The Big Apple" nickname, which dates from the 1920s, referred especially to Harlem, considered the jazz capital of the world. But today, the food appellation is most apt. New York is the restaurant capital of the world.

Restaurants and food dominate metropolitan culture. As the greatest melting pot in the world, New York City is envied for its variety of ethnic restaurants and availability of foods from around the globe. Consumers here demand quality, which makes markets and restaurants compete fiercely and strive for perfection. It's a survival instinct.

For the "foodie," a person whose every waking moment revolves around eating, New York is paradise. I discovered this gastronomic nirvana during a recent gourmet tour of the city. Did I visit New York's famed Museum of Modern Art, the Empire State Building or Radio City Music Hall? Absolutely not. I've seen them before. This avowed foodie went there to eat and to get an insider's view of the food chain.

I hadn't been to New York for 20 years, and the changes were remarkable. The city's image now is one of safety, efficiency and cleanliness, thanks to the efforts of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Addie Tomei, owner of Savory Sojourns (and mother of Oscar-winning actor Marisa Tomei), left a career in teaching to follow her dream and start her gourmet touring company. The New York Convention and Visitors Bureau hired her to prepare an itinerary for a group of food journalists that would go beneath the outward glimmer and glamour of dining in only the five-star establishments. Slogging around the water runoff from fish at 6 a.m. at the Fulton Market is far from the glitz of Le Cirque 2000 or Lutèce. But products from the market ultimately end up in one of those premier dining emporiums.

Thanks to Tomei's efforts and expertise, it was easy to wend our way through markets, wine and cookware shops, bookstores and restaurants that would have been impossible to navigate or to schedule during a five-day stint.

meridian1.JPG (24973 bytes)Restaurants

Located in the New York Palace hotel, Istana provided the first gastronomic adventure. The exotic, Arabic-inspired decor was reminiscent of places I've visited in Morocco. Exquisite hors d'oeuvres, like the lamb chops with spicy tomato jam and sherry, graced our palates. Best was the olive bar with no less than 30 varieties of olives hailing from six countries.

We drove from Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge to The River Café which sits tranquilly beneath the din of the traffic. Looking more like a flower shop than a restaurant with its myriad floral arrangements, The River Café offers a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline across the East River, and equally spectacular cuisine. The pan-roasted monkfish with celeriac, chanterelle mushrooms, garlic confit, young kidney beans and whole-grain mustard jus became a culinary triumph, thanks to chef Rick Laakkonen. For the chocolate lover, the chocolate marquise "Brooklyn Bridge" leaves you awed with visual and gustatory delight.

Canal House, the restaurant inside the SoHo Grand Hotel, hosted our continental breakfast - an array of homemade breads and pastries and a plenitude of fresh fruit. Undaunted in our quest for sampling as many restaurants as possible, we marched toward Zoë for a luncheon. Here, the outstanding features for me were chef Kevin Reilly's crab cakes with corn relish and his superbly piquant remoulade sauce. Wine aficionados can have a sampler of three wines in 2-ounce servings.

Almost as postlude to lunch and prelude to supper, hors d'oeuvres and champagne were the offerings at that temple of fun-filled gaudiness, Tavern on the Green in Central Park. Executive Chef Michael Schenk prepared the delicious foie gras with apricot chutney, the smoked Copper River salmon with aquavit, and a tomato-aquavit gazpacho granite (a type of Italian ice) to cleanse the palate. The tavern is the quintessential celebratory restaurant to mark any holiday or significant personal, family or business event.

A short walk to within sight of Lincoln Center led us to Picholine, the hot spot for pre- or post-theater dining, named for the green olive from the Gard region of southern France. The custom-made Limoges porcelain china with its olive motif bespeaks the refinement of Terrence Brennan's restaurant, where we had the honor of dining in the "working cellar." Beyond the perfection of chef David Pasternack's poached Maine day-boat halibut with a purée of organic carrots, the cheeses at Picholine provide the crowning glory. The cheese cart weighed in with 45 cheeses and there were still some 25 more in the cheese "cave." This is where food journalists become aggressive over the last bite of French Vacherin.

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A cup of freshly brewed coffee at Agata and Valentina's market proved sufficient nourishment (I should say caffeine) for the morning. For lunch, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Jo Jo surpassed its simple moniker. Plain decor gave way to inspired, yet simple cuisine. Even a salad of roasted beets with goat cheese and vinaigrette, and 27 vegetables boiled in a light broth, produced raves, as did my veal tenderloin with artichokes.

Mercifully, we were spared dessert. But this was a ruse, since we were about to embark upon a most extravagant dessert orgy. Payard Pâtisserie and Bistro regaled us with platefuls of pastries in every shape and variety. But the pièce de résistance came with the finale of "New York, New York" - cake covered with a fondant icing and the skyline of New York dusted (with what looked like cocoa) onto the sides of the delicious confection. As a bistro, a complete menu is available for light or heavy meals.

As usual, not much time elapsed between meals. The evening found us at American Park at the Battery for cocktails in the open-air dining area, from where I beheld the glimmer of the Statue of Liberty at sunset - a reminder of the ethnic tapestry that is New York City.

meridian4.JPG (22603 bytes)Aloft at 107 stories, we dined at the newly refurbished Windows on the World, which has the most spectacular view anywhere in New York. Looking up from my appetizer of fresh caviar with corn blini and crème fraîche, I marveled at the glimmering lights that outlined Manhattan and extended to the boroughs beyond.

Little Italy in the Bronx, not to be confused with Little Italy in Manhattan, is like visiting a small American town, except that English is a second language. Most signs in shops and storefronts are in Italian. Mario's, which started as the first Neapolitan- style pizzeria in America in 1919, an

chors Arthur Avenue's shops and businesses. Like Mario's, many are still owned by fourth- and fifth-generation families. Mario's offers la vera cucina italiana real Italian cooking - in, Mario's case, from Naples and Calabria.

Off in the afternoon for more appetizers, this time at Cena in the Flatiron district, where the sleek, modem look of chrome and glass in the dining environment and perfection in food are the dominant themes in Steven and Thalia Loffredo's entry to the food world. The hors d'oeuvres were sublime homages to culinary art.

For our understated grand finale, Rita and André Jammel's La Caravelle regales in a stately, yet unpretentious, manner. We quietly begged for small portions as course after course seemed to surpass the preceding one in visual impact and flavorful delectation. Thirty-eight years old, La Caravelle can consider itself established in New York's dining scene. Who could discern which was better: chef Cyril Renaud's salmon with mango, crème fraîche and chives, or his French sea bass with zucchini and green gazpacho?

And how did this little gourmet excursion end? As an exclamation point to the preceding evening, Union Square Café, currently New York City's most popular restaurant, stood steadfast against all the others. USC won't wow patrons with the inventiveness of its cuisine, but with the preparation and the freshness of its ingredients, for which it is justly renowned, having won "Best Restaurant" awards from Zagat for the last two years. After all the pretty presentations, savory sauces and divine desserts, I was ready for a good, oldfashioned hamburger. What more can I say when I ate the best hamburger and fries I've ever encountered? UK undeniably proves that New York City has a restaurant and an ambience for every whim and taste.

Markets

meridian5.JPG (37142 bytes)Chelsea Market is in a former Nabisco warehouse, where red bricks and an industrial look provide charm and nostalgia. The market is a food emporium consisting of 21 shops, including Elena's Cookies, Amy's Bread, the Lobster Place and Chelsea Baskets. Chelsea Market sells wholesale and retail. Items from these specialty shops can be found in major department stores and are served in well-known restaurants.

Local farmers bring their products to Union Square Greenmarket four days a week, year-round, and restaurants like Union Square Café, buy their

produce directly from the farmers. When it opened in 1987, Union Square Greenmarket became the flagship of 24 greenmarkets throughout the city.

Started in 1821, Fulton Fish Market has provided local purveyors and restaurants with the freshest and largest array of seafood available. It stands as one of New York's many dichotomies - Wall Street skyscrapers are just a block away.

As for wine, Mount Carmel Wines and Spirits in the Bronx has a vast collection of Italian wines, while Best Wines sells about 100 excellent-value wines for less than $10.

For one-stop grocery shopping in Manhattan, where meats, seafood, bakery goods, delicatessen items and produce are to be found, Dean and Deluca's is a well-established tradition, as is Agata and Valentina's, where food preparation is done in view of the customers.

Food-related stores

Foodies usually are passionate about cookbooks and books about food and wine. So 1, along with the other tour members, had to be pried away from Kitchen Arts and Letters, where at least 10,000 volumes fill the shelves in the limited space. Bridge Kitchenware is another "must stop" shop, catering to professional and home gourmets with the best in everything for cooking or baking.

Hotels

For grand opulence, few hotels can rival the New York Palace, home to Istana and Le Cirque 2000. For Old World charm and refinement, The Regency offers dignity in an unhurried atmosphere. Sleek, chic and contemporary with a bow to SoHo's architectural influences, the SoHo Grand Hotel is up-to-date class. Owned and operated by Hartz Mountain Industries, the pet supplies company, the hotel is pet friendly with room service (bows, toys, pillows, food, birthday parties) for Fido or Felix and black-and-white goldfish (to match the neutral-toned decor) in every room (by request). Incidentally, the four penthouse suites already are booked for the millennium.

Tours

For information on dining, the NYCVB can assist visitors. For a more personal touch, Savory Sojourns offers visitors or even natives truly memorable tours that include some of the city's most delicious and delectable destinations. Call 888-9-SAVORY.

 

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