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LI food writer gets taste of NYC, on a roll

Newsday food writer Scott Vogel takes a bike tour of Manhattan, visiting three new restaurants: Drift In, The Bun Hut, and Baylander Steel Beach. Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware

Manhattan’s dining scene is as lively as ever, even in this autumn of the city’s discontent. Restaurateurs, as tough and undeterred as the town they call home, continue to fearlessly open new eateries, and there’s no better way to witness this profusion than by bicycle. While traffic has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, a bike remains the foodie tourist’s best friend, thanks to New York’s 1,250-plus miles of paths.

There are protected cycling lanes everywhere, some opening just this past summer, and Citi Bike, New York’s stellar bike-sharing program, has hundreds of docking stations in Manhattan alone. In its seven years of existence, riders have gone on more than 100 million trips on thousands of Citi Bike’s indestructible cobalt ramblers.

The Manhattan Waterfront Greenway — 31 miles of sunny, riverside paths — permits complete circumnavigation of the island, mostly on safe, picturesque, bike-only paths, and new eateries abound near the most beautiful of these, on the west side’s Hudson River. There, an 11-mile path dotted with attractive landscaping, offers a bevy of recreation opportunities and access to some really good food.

At 125th Street, gliding over a path that’s smooth, smart and above-all flat, a cool wind blows off the river as you keep your eyes peeled for a decommissioned Vietnam-era naval vessel docked at the West Harlem piers. Why? Since July, it’s been festooned with party lights, turned into a restaurant and re-christened the Baylander Steel Beach (baylander.nyc). Hit the bar — lovingly fashioned from an old cargo container — and order a housemade hard lemonade or margarita on-tap, along with some highly recommendable, reasonably priced bar bites, including a lobster roll and beer-battered fish tacos. Then, score one of 20 picnic tables scattered over the Baylander’s upper and lower decks, or better yet, cop a stool on the ship’s bow at sunset. To the left, Jersey stands silhouetted against a flaming orange sky, to the right, the George Washington Bridge’s ghostly white towers stand connected by a comically thin dotted-line of lights.

Continuing south, you’ll see why the Hudson is known as America’s busiest bikeway. By the time you reach midtown, you’ll probably find yourself sharing the path with other cyclists, runners, rollerbladers, the odd tourist, plus folks on scooters, mopeds and that motorized thing with one wheel. Flee the maelstrom — carefully — exiting the esplanade at West 44th Street (look for the giant "Vote, because Russian lessons are expensive" sign) head one block east to Bar Jones (600 Eleventh Ave., sushionjones.com). Part of a small and sane Hell’s Kitchen food court known as Gotham West Market, Jones opened briefly in February, shuttered and then reappeared in July with an open-air bar, sidewalk picnic tables, and a fanciful embrace of Japanese street food. On warm fall days, jonesing for a fine vodka, lime and watermelon concoction makes perfect sense, even if the name — Montauk Daisy — doesn’t. Similarly satisfying: any of a number of small plates that arrive not on small plates, but in variously sized gift boxes, in a further nod to Edo inspiration. Opening one reveals a tight bundle of irresistible nori-dusted fries, another hides a fine chicken katsu sandwich, a third offers delectable Kurobuta pigs in a blanket.

Back on the Hudson, wind your way through shaded paths lined with oak trees near Chelsea Piers till you reach Greenwich Village and a crowd of preening exercise enthusiasts at Christopher Street Pier, a sort of Venice Beach for the socially-distant yoga set. That’s your cue to dismount for yet another bar-restaurant that opened in July, the all-outdoor Drift In (389 West St., driftin.nyc). Just steps from the trail, the eatery boasts a European cafe-garden feel and nightly air of festivity Renoir might have loved. Lazily arranged tables with matching white bistro chairs encourage equally lazy romantic evenings beneath the trees and party lights, assisted ably by an active oyster bar and tumblers of watermelon frosé, a house specialty. Go early if you want to try the caviar hash browns, and you know you do.

Congratulate yourself for exercising like a real New Yorker as you roll by tennis courts and playgrounds, soccer fields, and then the tip of Manhattan, where west becomes east. The Battery Bikeway bridges the Hudson trail and East River Esplanade in spectacular fashion, its terra-cotta path slaloming through a dreamy, thickly wooded conservancy. From there, it’s on to the esplanade itself, which begins life by running beneath the busy and purple-painted underpasses of FDR Dr. Just past the Brooklyn Bridge at South Street Seaport, any detour from the trail means negotiating bone-rattling, bike-violent cobblestone streets, but only for a few blocks if your destination is the fine new Thai Farm Kitchen (21 Peck Slip, thaifarmkitchenseaport.com). Gotham is blessed with its share of Thai glory, but this restaurant, which debuted in June, distinguishes itself by an unwavering commitment to high-quality, organic ingredients. If ho-hum crab rangoon and panang curry are all you know, prepare yourself for a black-and-white-to-Technicolor conversion. The kui chai — small cubes of fried Chinese chives that explode with flavor in the mouth — is mandatory, but every dish is as beautiful and impressive as the Kitchen’s sidewalk seating area, where tables are bordered by flower-filled window boxes and discreetly separated by Plexiglas.

Farther north, departing the trail and heading west along a dedicated, if not wholly protected, bike lane at East Houston Street permits an intriguing side jaunt to the world epicenter of Bahamian bao. Confused? See what you’re missing at The Bun Hut (178 Stanton St., thebunhut.com), a quietly groundbreaking endeavor that debuted in late May. Though the Bahamas are just a three-hour plane-ride away, the nation’s food is surprisingly scarce in NYC, so don’t miss the chance to try chef Ray Mackey’s roti and other Caribbean specialties. It’s his take on Asian steamed buns, though, that makes a five-minute ride from the greenway essential. After Mackey visited China a few years back, the Bahamian made the perfectly reasonable decision to combine the two, with inspired results. The Bun Hut’s bao arrive at the table deconstructed — downy soft buns aren’t stuffed with fillings but folded over them — and reliably delicious, whether loaded with cracked conch, jerk chicken or coconut shrimp.

The East River bike path will never be as popular or unbroken as its trendy west side sibling — in Midtown, cyclists must resort to dedicated bike lanes on First and Second Avenues — but it offers sweeping views and, more to the point, ready access to still more new eating experiences. A few miles uptown, just a stone’s throw from the river in Yorkville, sits one final new spot of note, Chez Nick (1737 York Ave., cheznicknyc.com). This charming cafe’s pedigree is impeccable — its founders once cooked together at Michelin-starred Batard — and while its February debut was ill-timed, Nick’s dedication to unflashy comfort fare was prescient indeed. Adorably appointed with cute cafe tables nestled on a quiet corner — for the Upper East Side, anyway — the restaurant seems poised to morph into a perennially mobbed brunch spot. Till then, though, pair Nick’s relaxed ambience with soul-awakening shakshuka, skillet-served with dots of green tahini and fluffy pita, or a breakfast sandwich of eggs and housemade maple sausage on a buttery biscuit.

So there you have it — a two-wheel trip to a place with exciting new food around every corner, all of it crammed onto a single island.

Travel Extras