Field Report & Review:
Chelsea Market, New York, NY

Diana, MaceVindaloo, SuSu, Sparticus

"Waterfront property" normally elicits thoughts of summer homes on the beach. Or perhaps scenic lake or river views. But in large cities like New York, waterfront means wharves and docks, and in the post-ship-only era, many waterside areas are disreputable or even derelict. New York's was like that into the 1970s, and the waterside areas consisted of warehouses and old factories, and scary crime statistics.

But then real estate became expensive and even property in undesirable sections of town looked attractive. During the "dot-com" era, the building was renovated not only with Internet services, but also with independent power, so diesel and water tanks were installed so that large warehouse buildings could function, even in a power outage. Such was the fate of a particular building which is the birthplace of the Oreo cookie.

Originally, the building which became the Chelsea Market was a cookie and cracker factory, and contained not only the machinery areas, but also a railway depot. It's a large amount of contiguous, rambling space, and Irwin Cohen bought it and in a stroke of prescience, he created what amounts to a multi-use mall. The ground floor contains bakeries, retail shops, and restaurants. The hyper-secure upper floors contain cable television networks (Oxygen, Food Network), the offices of Major League Baseball, an Internet company, government offices, etc.

Cohen apparently has eclectic tastes in building design, embedding things like re-painted water towers or metal sculptures of baseball bats into walls and elevators. Here, he made a waterfall out of a big-ass pipe and drillbit pieces. Walls and floors are very "industrial" looking and even include glassblock lighting on the floor. A lot of wood, wire, metal things, and seats carved from stone line the crooked hallway, which goes through brick walls which have been punched-through as if a large superhero had to pass through them quickly (and left a clock, so we can all tell what time it is). The dormer-like continuous strip of factory windows still is controlled by a winch and rod system, and great big industrial floor fans, but these are mounted on the ceiling, caged to prevent things from being sucked in (or falling out, one would imagine).

Most of the stores renting space on the first floor involve food: the Bowery Kitchen Supplies sells not only home kitchenware, but also supplies professional equipment like sinks, ovens, etc. They even supplied the kitchen setting for The Sopranos. Amy's Bakery was reportedly one of the few bakeries still open and working during 9/11 and they make superlative breads, sandwiches, and big bold cookies — our favorite is a cornbread sugar cookie with a lime glaze. Ellen's cookies store gives away a cookie and shot of milk every Wednesday afternoon, and they make the funniest decorated cookies. We were very impressed with cookies decorated in the likeness of a bridal party!! We're going to use this idea the next time we get married!

There are other novelty bakeries too, including the Fat Witch Brownies (a name close to the heart of those who write recipes for the Hut's own Two Fat Saxon Witches), though there is nothing witchy about the brownies other than they are hexingly good! High-end baking is represented here by Goupil & DeCarlo Patisserie; you know the type, they make frou-frou, intensely flavored moussey small cakes and tarts. Perfect for a dinner party or a hostess gift type of thing. for those who love the idea of breakfast, even if you skip if, Sarabeth's has their famous jams and muffins to go (the better to impress those who would have breakfast in your bed!). But avoid Ruthie's. They apparently make good rugalach and mega-expensive cheesecakes, but their service stinks — we went in for coffee and the guys behind the counter acted like it was our fault they got the order wrong and were snarly for the whole transaction.

There is also Buon Italia, which sells raw materials and cooked final products from Italy, as well as dishware and tools, too. We still can't figure out the $300 can of anchovies, and we're not flush enough to try them. We're hoping they're simply awesome. And the Manhattan Fruit Exchange sells some of the freshest produce around, for a reasonable cost, too. They also have things like smoothies and juices, and they only take cash — that explains the ATM just outside the door.

For fish, there is the Lobster Place, which really does have beautiful cut and presented fish. They will sell you those, take orders, assemble a clambake, or for those who are really cheating, they have fish, etc. already en papillote for you to pop into your oven. You can win back points for your hunting/gathering mojo by going to the Ronnybrook Farm Dairy for as fresh-as-possible-within-legal-requirements milk in bottles. And they sell ice cream and yogurt too, like the milkmen of olde used to do.

There are more "café-like" eateries here too, it's not all take-out, though much of the market leans to collecting your stuff to serve elsewhere. You can watch Hale & Hearty Soups make their many vats to be delivered around the city to their outlets all over the city; it's their commissary, in a sense. There is also Chelsea Thai, which we have to admit that none of us are brave enough to try, since Thai is usually a badly misrepresented cuisine. And 202 Café is one of the more confusing places. It's apparently an eatery with tables and chairs and silverware, but it's also a clothing, housewares, and furniture shop, though some of the furniture is for display only. We ended up not eating here because of our confusion!

There are high end restaurants here, too. Masaharu Morimoto, the only Iron Chef to grace both the Japanese and American versions of the show, has a place here, And Stephen Starr, the financier who owns Morimoto's place, has brought Philadelphia's popular Buddakan (sic) to New York on one end of Chelsea Market. Across the street is Del Posto, Mario Battali's attempt at a four-star Italian restaurant (it's currently got three stars). In the middle of the 800-foot long crooked corridor is Frank's, that Gansevoort meat market mainstay.

This area of town was once the meat market, where butchers came to buy their primal cuts, working under the cover of night. Work started at 2am, with sawdust scattered everywhere to absorb the blood from the drippy carcasses. By dawn, the work is done and Gansevoort street was clean and dry ... Frank's was the favorite place of one of us for Tripe à la Frank, a rather oddly named dish somewhat like the Mexican menudo, and great at 7 in the morning ... but that was long ago when we were younger and more dangerous ... Now the meat market is up in a new, cleaner, under-cover facility in the Bronx, along with the former Fulton Fish Market, too. That's probably better and safer for all, but it's much less romantic!

And if picking up ingredients, or replating or heating up prepared food is just too much to handle, then you can always have the meal catered by Cleaver & Co. Or just make up a nice gift by picking up something from Chelsea Market Baskets, picking up some wine from the Chelsea Wine Vault, adding something from the Chelsea Flower Market, or a Moroccan-inspired gift from Marrakech Imports ... you get the idea. There isn't any reason you shouldn't be here for your gift and entertaining needs!

The Food Network cable channel has its studios upstairs; the filming of many a cooking show is actually done in this building — a good use for the building's telecommunications and power features. They feature shows which feature this location and the stores within. Manhattan Fruit Exchange is often touted as the source of the fruits, herbs, and veggies sliced and diced by the celebrity chefs, and Amy's Bread is often featured in holiday meal shows.

It's worthwhile comparison shopping because the prices here are not exactly the cheapest around, but the stuff here is generally very high quality. Still, it's a bit of a haul to get here. If you're anywhere near 14th Street, you can take the M14D, which travels crosstown, and loops around the building to stop in front of it. Quite frankly, we find it cheaper and much simpler to share a cab between us. That certainly makes it easier to get our groceries home, too!

Is it worth coming here over the various Farmer's Markets? The main advantage is that it's enclosed and climate controlled. There are a couple of bathrooms if you know where to find them (make a right just before the waterfall as you're heading eastward) — they are unmarked and sometimes they are locked! They're also past a couple of elevators but before a janitorial area which, if you're not careful, will result in a proximity alarm going off on you ...

You can also just spend your day here. They do feature live music with buskers playing their tunes down by the waterfall. There isn't a food court per se (being that nearly everything here is about food and there are tables and chairs set out in the wider parts of the central corridor), but the stone benches are a good, cooling place to sit and enjoy. Be sure to put money in the open guitar-case, of course, since that's how they get paid. There is also always an art gallery on the hewn walls, so take a peek and enjoy this unusual space. Oh, and there's free wi-fi, too!

It's a delightful place in that it feels like history is preserved, but in a cheeky, durable way. And it does feel like a bit of a vacation coming here, as far west as it is from other parts of Manhattan. But this place is booming these days, and is no longer derelict.

We especially like standing by the big windows to watch the Amy's Bread bakers go about their business, and we love the "Saturday Bread" and the coffee. It's a great way to spend any day, though beware that it doesn't stay open long — about 7 or 8pm most nights. That's rather early when you consider that if you work midtown or downtown, it might take you quite a while to get here, and so it's hard to stop by to pick up something for dinner. So go early and have breakfast here instead.

Despite the windy, remote location, Chelsea Market has found itself during a culinary renaissance in the United States as the star of many a foodie's dreams. It's come a long way from it's youth as a factory churning out cookies and crackers! And if you're lucky, you can cadge tickets to be in the audience of Emeril Live or Iron Chef America, or even to wander the halls as The Next Food Network Star. So, whether you are a foodie, a tourist, a design or marketing student, a hungry shopper, a music-monger, or someone looking for the right rice and dried mushrooms for the perfect risotto, you'll enjoy Chelsea Market.

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