Somewhere between Le Bernardin and bagels, Neil Perry scouts out the best of New York’s modern diners.

New York is a city that feeds you at all hours and on all budgets – perhaps it’s that celebrated lack of sleep. On my last visit, I pounded the pavement, seeking the best sandwiches, noodles and bagels the Big Apple has to offer; this time, I focused on the contemporary dining scene. And basing myself at Lower Manhattan’s Mercer Hotel meant I could walk to just about every restaurant on my list.

I began at Estela, around the corner from the hotel. Dark, sexy and intimate, it was the ideal welcome to the city and it set the tone for the trip. Here, it’s all about sharing and the small plates allow for many tastes in one sitting.

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I started with an escabeche of mussels, presented on grilled bread in a pool of sharp green juice. The sauce, herbal and spiked with vinegar, was the perfect match for the creamy bivalves. A thinly sliced celery and celery-leaf salad served with raisins, pistachios and thin curls of blue cheese was a splendid layering of texture and taste. And the razor clams with XO sauce were meaty and jammy, the heat and sweetness from the XO marrying superbly with the clams. Gosh, I adore those razor clams; I wish we could get them in Australia! 

Modern Dining in New York with Neil Perry

The dish of the night, however, was fried arroz negro with squid and romesco. The rice was crunchy, chewy and nutty, while the dark, inky squid melted in my mouth; I’d happily eat it every day. Add a bottle of 2011 Vieux Télégraphe, a superb Rhône wine, and you have a sensational combination.

Santina, in the Meatpacking District, proved great for a quick lunch (and the shopping in that part of town is epic). You have to try the Tuscan chickpea pancake. It arrives in the pan it’s cooked in and you order dishes to spoon on top. Of these, I loved the Calabrian tuna – raw with a hit of chilli – and the squash carpaccio, warm slices of sweet pumpkin with agrodolce (sweet-and-sour) dressing and crunchy roasted pepitas. The house-cured anchovies sat delightfully on the pancake, too. I finished the meal with a bowl of rigatoni Norma – the quintessential Sicilian dish with eggplant, tomato, a little chilli and grated salted ricotta – and a glass of Ancarani sangiovese.

Modern Dining in New York with Neil Perry

Across town, in Union Square, is Shuko, a fantastic sushi restaurant. You can choose between omakase (the chef’s selection) and kaiseki (a traditional multi-course meal). Don’t fret the decision, though; both are amazing. I started with a couple of salads to share then added fried chilli lobster and lotus root – incredible. But it was the delicate nigiri that really stood out; there was tuna and tuna belly, uni, mackerel, sablefish, yellowtail, salmon belly, baby shrimp, scallop and more. This was seriously good – as you’d expect from chefs Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau, who were trained by Masayoshi Takayama, founder of Manhattan’s three-Michelin-starred Masa restaurant. It may be a weakness of mine but chilled saké (Kanbara Bride of the Fox and Fukucho Moon on the Water) and raw fish is a heavenly match.

Then there’s the ultimate neighbourhood restaurant, Via Carota, in the West Village. If I lived in New York I’d be there every week. The menu offers so many good dishes yet I found it hard to venture far from the vegetable section. A salad of thinly shaved porcini mushrooms with julienne of pear and an agrodolce dressing was the best thing I ate on the trip. The raw artichokes with pecorino, mint and orange came a close second. And the tagliatelle – with prosciutto, peas and a little cream cheese holding it all together – was excellent. Along with a couple of glasses of Chianti and a jam crostata and an affogato to finish, it was a dream lunch.

Modern Dining in New York with Neil Perry

NYC really does have it all, from the humble sandwich, burger or lox bagel to the impeccable food and service of Le Bernardin, Per Se and Masa. As I discovered on this visit, there’s much to be loved in the middle, too. No wonder New Yorkers don’t sleep. 

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