New York City: be a part of it

Fashion Window Walking Tour

It might be famous as “the city that never sleeps”, but as Sherelle Jacobs discovers, New York is a place that never stops reinventing itself

I was in New York this summer and I was determined to experience an “untypical” luxury city break. One in which would get underneath the skin of this multilayered and complex city, and deliver some insights into some of New York’s best kept secrets, and the biggest culinary and entertainment trends sweeping the city.

With that in mind, the hotel needed to be just right. Rather than opting for a luxury chain hotel, I anchored my stay at Sanctuary Hotel, a glamourous and quirky boutique establishment smack in the middle of New YorkÂ’s theatre district, and just a few strides from Times Square. The dark colour scheme of the entrance immediately made me wonder whether the hotelÂ’s interior designer had intended the place to be a calm, classy antidote to the garish neon glare of Times Square, as the walls and floors were a shade of thick, black ebony. The floors had been polished so vigorously that they had a mirror-like gleam. Other features peppered the room with colour and the sparkling chandeliers, purple orchids and luscious brown velvet chairs added to the splendour.

My room’s decor had a daring, theatrical edge with striped beige and cream walls, a red leather bed head, and a glass rain shower cubicle in the bedroom, partially concealed by heavy red velvet curtains. There were some nice finishing touches, including an iHome on the bedside table, complete with “bedside beats” such as the sound of birds and percolating water, which I listened to in the evenings to help me drop off to sleep.

On my first evening in Manhattan, I got to work on my mission to experience a more alternative, edgy side to luxury New York. With that in mind, I dined at one of the cityÂ’s most inventive establishments. Brushstroke, on Hudson Street, is the only dining establishment in North America with two kitchens, each with its very own Michelin star. The innovative eatery is a joint project by the chef David Bouley and the Tsuji Culinary Institute, which is a leading culinary school in Japan. Kaiseki food is the order of the day at Brushstroke; the tasting menus change with the seasons. It has wooden padded walls and wide counters looking right into the kitchen. For a Michelin- starred establishment, Brushstroke has a warm, cosy vibe.

Highlights of my meal included an array of impeccably prepared sashimi featuring kanpachi, sea bream and juicy shrimp, and divine, melt-in-the-mouth colorado lamb chop with summer greens and satoimo puree.

Getting deep

One of the biggest trends on New York’s Broadway scene at the moment is immersive theatre. So after my wonderful meal at Brushstroke I arranged to experience the award-winning drama And Then She Fell. The immersive theatre show pulls 15 spectators into an utterly absorbing – if undeniably warped – world that fuses a hospital ward and the stories of Lewis Carroll. The performance takes place late at night at an eerie property in Brooklyn. The experience was completely gripping – I was able to explore different rooms to uncover secret papers and clues relating to the history of the hospital, as well as extracts from Lewis Carroll’s intimate letters. I interacted with characters, from doctors in the mental asylum to the Mad Hatter and Lewis Carroll himself. The overall experience was dreamlike; I drifted through a fragmented, hallucinatory and yet utterly compelling narrative with a confounding beginning and inconclusive end. And if my jetlag threatened to get the better of me, alcoholic shots dressed up as “medicinal elixirs” dealt out by the resident “nurses” certainly kept me going until the show finished in the early hours.

The next day, I had decided on a food tour of the city with a difference. My appointment was with Famous Fat Dave. A New York foodie legend, Dave Freedenberg has been a cheesemonger, pickleman and bread truck driver in past lives, and now spends much of his time cruising around in a 1982 Checker Marathon taxi that he has named Sweetness seeking out New YorkÂ’s greatest foodie secrets.

Famous Fat Dave runs a number of food tours, from Brooklyn to Queens, but my tour with Dave focused on Manhattan Island. Among the unlikely establishments we sampled was a pickle store on Lower East Side, dedicated to pickling everything from the conventional cucumber to pickled hot tomatoes, pickled okra, pickled mangos and peppery pickled pineapple. We also enjoyed fresh dollar dim sum at one of China Town’s best hole-in-the-wall eateries, and New York’s “tastiest” egg cream (a drink made from milk and soda water) in the most surprising of settings – a newsagents-cum-tourist shop, where the store managers also happen to have inherited the art of making the best egg cream behind the counter from earlier proprietors.

After the tour, and some free time exploring some more of Manhattan, I headed to Tocqueville to sample another of New York’s cutting-edge high-end restaurants – this one specialising in “American cuisine with European sensibility”. The restaurant is a wonderful space with lemon coloured walls, white tablecloths and soft grey seating. The food is even better. Whatever you do, make sure you try the asparagus soup starter, with poached egg and crispy shallots. It is a fantastic deep emerald colour and full of intense creamy flavour, and the shallots add interesting texture. I also went for the sea scallops with foie gras. I was slightly concerned it may be a heavy choice for the day-time on a frantic city break but the foie gras had an airy, slightly whipped feel to it which complemented rather than overwhelmed the subtle taste from the scallops.

Exhilarated by my fantastic experience of And Then She Fell, I was all the more excited to attend an interactive performance by the Drunk Shakespeare Company that evening. They may refer to themselves as a collective of “professional drinkers with a serious Shakespeare problem” but the actors that lead each performance are incredibly talented – and crucially they know their Shakespeare backwards. One of the most impressive episodes during the hilarious evening was when one of the female actors managed to recite a whole monologue from Hamlet straight after downing a pint of beer and two shots of vodka. Not only that, but her performance was so passionate that she managed to bring herself, and a couple members of the audience, to tears. This was an interactive show; members of the audience were invited to take part in various drink-related challenges and directly drawn into the on-stage banter, to the effect that it felt like we were all enjoying the company of friends rather than expertly trained actors.

Sanctuari's Hotel roof terrace

SanctuariÂ’s Hotel roof terrace

Window shopping

The next day, I spent the afternoon on a shopping tour with a difference – a walk around Manhattan’s most spectacular window displays with a company called WindowsWear. It was a beautiful sunny day but thankfully Manhattan’s skyscrapers provided plenty of shade during the walk. With my guide from WindsowsWear we inspected the window displays of New York’s most famous department stores and high-end shops, including an intriguing scooter inspired window display at the establishment of fashion designer Elie Tahari, and an uplifting floral, secret-garden style display at Saks on Fifth Avenue. It was a fascinating insight into the deep thought and artistic vision that goes into every window display on the high street. This tour is a must, not only for shopping enthusiasts, but also people interested in design, fashion and luxury brands. My guide also led me into the Tifanny Fifth Avenue flagship store to see the Tiffany Yellow Diamond, which is displayed on the main floor. Tiffany has never sold the 128-carat stone, which was discovered in 1878.

I had dinner at the recently-refurbished Michelin-starred French restaurant Picholine. The pretty purple-themed interior of the main dining room, with pastel walls, and deep plum carpets, is an interesting contrast with the bar at the back, which has a more Mediterranean feel.

I opted for a five-course tasting menu, which was a sheer delight. It included tuna cru with a zippy Sauce Antibois, alive with the taste of juicy olives and salty anchovies, and perfected with a delicate basil tempura. Another highlight was a poached egg served with charred leeks and pickled mushrooms, which had a fantastic earthy quality, and some nice sweetness courtesy of the leeks in particular.

But my favourite dish was undoubtedly the squab served with wild snails, buttermilk curd and nettles. The squab was nice and moist, with plenty of flavour locked in, and a delicious crisp skin. If the buttermilk curd and nettles had a soft, subtle flavour then the snails had a more intense bite that really bought the dish to life.

The excitement was far from over after the main savoury dishes; we still had the cheese course, which is one of Picholine’s biggest strengths. The establishment not only has its own cheese cart, but also its very own maître fromager, Max McCalman, to wheel it around Some of the more “out there” choices included a delightful rind cheese that had been bathed in absinthe.

In the evening, I also enjoyed my final immersive theatre experience of the trip – Ziegfield’s Midnight Frolic at the Liberty Theatre. Set in 1920s New York, the play’s setting is split between Paris and a club run by Florenz Ziegfeld. The latter was a veteran theatre producer known for his Broadway spectaculars, which ran between 1907 and 1931, and were known as the Ziegfeld Follies. They were particularly well remembered for their glamorous and ill-fated female performers, or chorus girls, known as Ziegfeld girls. The play recounts the death of one of the most famous Ziegfeld girls – the actress Olive Thomas, in Paris, her life as a Ziegfeld girl, and the resulting cloud of suspicion that formed around her husband Jack Pickford, the little brother of Mary Pickford, one of the first great silent film stars. This was a less intimate show than And Then She Fell, with dozens of people in the audience, who, upon arrival were given a role and a task – for example to interact with a particular character and extract specific information from them relating to Ziegfeld, Olive or one of the other major characters. Glittering displays of song and dance, including everything from cabaret and red-shoed ballet solos to ladies dancing from the chandeliers – were ingeniously weaved into the plot of the play. In between all of this, the audience were free to wander between the theatre, exploring the “scene” of Olivia’s death in Paris, and the Ziegfield club in New York. The ending is ambiguous, and harrowing. However, the show delivers enough energy and sparkle that you will end up feeling moved and stimulated rather than emotionally drained.

Central Park

Live like a local

The next day was a Sunday and I had promised myself some respite time exploring Central Park. I brunched at the Tavern on the Green restaurant, which is situated in the middle of Central Park. It was a steaming hot afternoon so I sat out on the terrace under a large umbrella. The lobster salad with new potatoes and olives is fabulous here. If you go for breakfast, then make sure the devilled eggs with trout roe and smoked Applewood bacon feature in your order.

I had pledged to spend at least part of the day doing something that a local, rather than a tourist would do. With that in mind, I had signed up for a session at the Painting Lounge in Chelsea. The organisation runs trendy “bring your own booze” group painting lessons. They have become all the rage with New Yorkers looking for something different to do on a day off. The idea is you come along to a painting session armed with your own bottle of wine, and then the artist instructing the class will show you how to paint one of the world’s most iconic paintings step-by-step until you have a masterpiece to take home with you. I have not painted since I was in secondary school, but this was tremendous fun. There was something deeply relaxing, meditational almost, about painting a Santorini sunset in between sips of Prosecco, comparing wonky brushstrokes and dubious colour mixes with your neighbour.

I spent my final evening in New York at the fabulous Michelin-starred Tori Shin Japanese restaurant, which specialises in yakitori skewers. With an open kitchen at the centre of the room, fortressed by eating counters that allow diners to view the chefs in action whilst eating their meal, the place is pumping with energy. Yakitori refers to skewered meat and is one of the most popular styles of cuisine in Japan. It is also on the rise in NYC. Among my favourite yakitori sticks at Tori Shin was a chicken yakitori flavoured with plum and sprinkled with shiso, which was succulent, tangy and had a nice herbaceous flavour to it, courtesy of the shiso.

Another stick not to miss is the chicken-duck combination served with a dipping raw egg – juicy, carnivorous and utterly delicious. That said, you dare not pass on the vegetable-based small plates at Tori Shin either. Make sure your order includes the crisp okra served with throat-warming horseradish, and cooked avocado with sweet soy sauce. Tori Shin also has an impressive range of the highest quality sake. Being largely inexperienced with sake, I went for a lighter option, Born Muroka Namagenshu, which was sweet with a nice silky texture and a refreshing after-taste.

Like most fleeting visitors, I left New York a fair few pounds heavier. But I also departed feeling like I had caught a glimpse of a city that few tourists manage to see – from its hidden pickle stores and most creative new restaurants to its lesser-known immersive theatre productions. It may be known as the city that never sleeps, but it also struck me as the city that never stops reinventing itself too.

But donÂ’t take our word for it. Find out for yourself. Book your tour here!