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Fat Guy

Union Square Cafe 2009

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Next year Union Square Cafe will be 25 years old. It is routinely number one or number two on the Zagat survey's list of New York's favorite restaurants (periodically trading places with Gramercy Tavern). The Union Square Hospitality Group, which grew out of Danny Meyer's work at Union Square Cafe, now operates enough restaurants that we'd need to have a whole discussion about how to count them (does the Hudson Yards catering company count, how do we count the concessions at MOMA . . .?). There is now a Union Square Tokyo. And here in New York, Union Square Cafe recently appointed Carmen Quagliata as executive chef, with Michael Romano taking on the title of chef-partner. So I was thinking, it might be a good time to check in on Union Square Cafe. But there's one problem.

Union Square Cafe has excellent service. So excellent is the service at Union Square Cafe that it's difficult to remain objective about the food. While there are restaurants that offer more service, and restaurants that have more evangelical servers, the servers at Union Square Cafe are the foremost practitioners of casual, effortless, New American hospitality. But I'm tired of all discussions of Union Square Cafe being tied to service. Thus, today I decided to go in and ignore the service, to focus only on the food and to forget the rest.

So I will not dwell on how amazingly gracious the service today was. Our party arrived late and in stages. In addition to a record-setting long arrival, we had an amazingly long departure. We lost a coat-check ticket. Our three-year-old son, who arrived in the first wave, had to be maintained through the bitter end. That the staff, under the leadership of general manager Christopher Russell, dealt with all this with the utmost aplomb is not relevant to today's undertaking. That they immediately brought our son potato chips to snack on, that Danny Meyer was there and somehow managed to chat with every table, that the greeting at the door couldn't have been more enthusiastic had I been Barack Obama . . . all beside the point.

What is not beside the point is how excellent the food was, even viewed in the coldest possible light I could bring to bear on it.

In defining excellence in the context of Union Square Cafe, it's important to remember that this is not Per Se, Le Bernardin or Corton we're talking about. Union Square Cafe does not serve the high cuisine of any culture. Rather, the food at Union Square Cafe is straightforward, upscale American comfort-ish food that reflects some Italian influences and leans heavily on the Union Square Greenmarket, local suppliers and first-rate ingredients in general. It is food that is designed to be liked by people who like to eat good food. There is nothing cerebral about the experience (although there's more complexity to some of the underlying preparations than meets the eye). I think, looking back at the many conversations I've had with people about Union Square Cafe's food, not to mention my own thoughts about it, most of the disagreement comes because some people just aren't into that sort of food. I know I'm not. If I'm eating upscale, I typically spend my limited dining budget at places that offer more on-the-edge creativity. When eating comfort food, I rarely want to spend Union Square Cafe's prices, which are not terribly high but are much higher than I can afford on a casual, frequent basis.

Evaluating what we ate today on that basis, everything we had was as good as it could have been. Not a single misstep I could identify, not a single ingredient that I thought could have been better at the price point. One could call much of what we ate prosaic. In particular, the lunch menu has many offerings that could easily find a home, in lesser versions, on a diner menu. I had a tuna-salad sandwich for lunch, for crying out loud. But it was the best tuna-salad sandwich I've had, bar none, and I've had a few. So, you know, if you're a person who says, "I don't care how well made a tuna-salad sandwich is; it's just not interesting to me and I like my meals to be interesting," then Union Square Cafe is not likely to win you over (well, the service will win you over, but not the food). But if you're in the camp that says a great tuna-salad sandwich is something worth talking about, then this is your kind of restaurant.

I have never had better potato chips than the warm garlic potato chips at Union Square Cafe. They come from a section at the bottom of the menu labeled "vegetables," but over the years I've come to use this section as a source of appetizers, as do many customers. Although, on this occasion, they just brought a basket of them for our son without prompting. But there I go again with the service nonsense. As for the potato chips themselves, I can say as someone who has tried to make decent potato chips at home and typically wound up with a less-than-impressive product that it is not the easiest thing in the world to make good potato chips. That's why I buy them in bags. Even the few restaurants that make their own potato chips often don't do better than what comes in a bag -- though the warmth of fresh potato chips can give an inferior specimen an illusory edge. (This is a good time to reveal the best trick for serving potato chips at home: heat them up in the toaster oven; your friends will be amazed.) Union Square Cafe's potato chips are, however, categorically better than anything I've had from a bag or from another restaurant.

Another swell item on the vegetable menu, again repurposed as an appetizer today, is the "Creamy Anson Mills Polenta, Walnuts and Gorgonzola." The Anson Mills corn products (grits, cornmeal and polenta in various formulations), from South Carolina, really do seem to be in their own league. Enhanced with walnuts and gorgonzola, it's another dish that rises to the "I can't think of how it could be improved" standard.

Finally from the vegetable department, the grilled sweet red onions. Talk about a simple dish: big fat slices of red onion, cooked until they're almost onion candy but still retaining their appearance and structure. Over the years I've had these many times. They're so memorable to me that whenever I touch a red onion in the supermarket or in my kitchen I have a mini episode of that show Medium in my head. You know how when Allison shakes hands with the bad guy all of a sudden she sees images of the crime in her mind? I get that with red onions: I touch one and I see Union Square Cafe's onions.

Of the two real appetizers we had to round out our assortment, the most delicious was wild mushroom sformato with roasted garlic crostino and aged balsamic. I had no idea of the existence of the term sformato before today, but it turns out to be something between a souffle and a flan -- sort of a mushroom custard in this particular presentation. This was the most technically ambitious piece of cookery of the day, and it was executed faultlessly. It was also really good. The dinner menu has a little more stuff like this, but for the lunch menu this is the end of the spectrum of complexity.

Finally there was what was probably a special (I wasn't there when it was ordered and didn't see it on the menu). Whatever its official designation, I'll call it creamy orzo with chunks of artisanal bacon. Enough said.

At this point our group was dropping like flies in terms of stomach capacity and attention span, so there were only three entrees ordered. First, the signature lunch-menu item of Union Square Cafe for as long as I can remember: the tuna burger. I remember reading in the original Union Square Cafe cookbook that they came up with the tuna burger as a way to utilize the trim from their tuna steaks, but that the tuna burger became so popular they quickly found it necessary to buy tuna just to grind for that. The tuna they buy is far better than what you see at almost any American restaurant and as good as what a lot of good Japanese restaurants are using. The difference being, at Union Square Cafe you get a piece that at a Japanese place would be made into a dozen pieces of sushi. Of course there's tuna and there's tuna. Union Square Cafe is not using bluefin o-toro for tuna burgers. But the restaurant is using very fine yellowfin. The tuna burger is glazed with ginger and mustard and topped with pickled ginger. It comes on a wonderful brioche-like bun, and is garnished with the aforementioned grilled red onion and creamy coleslaw. You can't get it at dinnertime. One of the great things about lunch at Union Square Cafe is that you can get actual lunch food as opposed to just smaller portions of dinner food. So few high-end restaurants do a real lunch. It's refreshing to see it done right.

We also had a tuna-salad sandwich. The tuna salad is served on Tom Cat's country white bread with slab bacon and lettuce. The warm garlic potato chips make an appearance as a garnish. This is the most elevated tuna-salad sandwich I've had. It may be that there are examples of rare Italian canned tuna that cost $15 per ounce that are better than what Union Square Cafe is using, but there is surely no better $15 tuna-salad sandwich out there.

Finally, the sliced steak and arugula salad with mushroom vinaigrette and Parmigiano Reggiano. Again, everything done just right: the salad dressed with an expert hand, the steak impeccable and cooked exactly as ordered.

With the attrition continuing, we had two desserts: the warm apple crostata (in the tart/pie family) with applesauce and sour cream ice cream, and Union Square Cafe's signature banana tart with honey-vanilla ice cream and macadamia brittle. There was a lot of disagreement at the table about which was better. I sided with the banana, but respected those who chose apple. The only mistake was ordering both, because they're aesthetically similar. We should have replaced one with something chocolate, probably. I think our server tried to help us reach that conclusion, but we weren't focused enough to benefit from her guidance. Did I mention the service was great?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I hope I'm not getting off topic here, but I wanted to throw out a follow-up comment on how the staff treated your son: Union Square Cafe might be the single best restaurant to take your children for their first New York"fine dining" experience. They treat the kids with respect, but not at a pandering level. They're treated as "almost adults." The waitstaff works to engage the children, to get them invested in their meals and dining experience. Plus, the food is top-notch and diverse enough that there's something for everyone. And if you have really picky eaters, well, there's always the garlic potato chips, right?


Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Of the two real appetizers we had to round out our assortment, the most delicious was wild mushroom sformato with roasted garlic crostino and aged balsamic. I had no idea of the existence of the term sformato before today, but it turns out to be something between a souffle and a flan -- sort of a mushroom custard in this particular presentation.

You should definitely try the sformato at Otto. It is secretly hidden under "salads"

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i'm sure dm will be very happy to read this review. as a longtime devotee of the place i know i am!

btw, one time sitting at the bar and waiting for my wife's potato chips before the kitchen formally opened, i had to ask what makes them so incredible. the answer: clarified butter. nice.

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I fell in love with USC when I was in New York for classes a couple of years ago. I had a 3 hour break between my daytime and evening class and rather than go back to my hotel room, I wandered in to USC. In the middle of lunch. In the middle of Restaurant Week, which I had no clue was going on. With no reservation.

I waited maybe 5 minutes, and they sat me at the bar. The bartender, despite being incredibly overwhelmed with staff and customers, took a great deal of time to go over the menu with me, and get me drinks. I was in no hurry, so I took out my text book to read while waiting. It happened to be a culinary textbook. Danny Meyer wandered by. Ok, Danny doesn't actually wander, but you get the idea.

By this time I was head over heels in love with the red wine risotto I'd ordered at the bartender's recommendation. I'd never had risotto before.

Danny, stopped, and saw the textbook and asked several questions about how I liked the school, what course was I taking, and just cooking in general.

When I gushed about the risotto I was eating, and how I'd like to be able to make it, he thanked me. I figured that was it.

20 minutes later, he returned with a signed copy of Second Helpings, with the recipe flagged. No charge.

Two years later I attended the Gourmet weekend in NY at which Danny Meyers was a speaker. I attended his seminar, and was sitting second row back. He looked directly at me, and spoke into the microphone. "Did you ever make the risotto?"

I go to USC every chance I get when I'm in New York.


Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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on a first trip to nyc, some girlfriends and i dined at union square cafe. one of our starters (all ordered to share) was the polenta with gorg and walnuts. we were NOT ladylike as we fenced with our forks, fighting for the last bites. i make a version of it in memory of that great dinner, and that great trip, and eagerly await our next visit.


"Laughter is brightest where food is best."

www.chezcherie.com

Author of The I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook ,The I Love Trader Joe's Party Cookbook and The I Love Trader Joe's Around the World Cookbook

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I fell in love with USC when I was in New York for classes a couple of years ago.  I had a 3 hour break between my daytime and evening class and rather than go back to my hotel room, I wandered in to USC.  In the middle of lunch.  In the middle of Restaurant Week, which I had no clue was going on. With no reservation.

I waited maybe 5 minutes, and they sat me at the bar. The bartender, despite being incredibly overwhelmed with staff and customers, took a great deal of time to go over the menu with me, and get me drinks.  I was in no hurry, so I took out my text book to read while waiting.  It happened to be a culinary textbook.  Danny Meyer wandered by.  Ok, Danny doesn't actually wander, but you get the idea.

By this time I was head over heels in love with the red wine risotto I'd ordered at the bartender's recommendation.  I'd never had risotto before.

Danny, stopped, and saw the textbook and asked several questions about how I liked the school, what course was I taking, and just cooking in general. 

When I gushed about the risotto I was eating, and how I'd like to be able to make it, he thanked me.  I figured that was it. 

20 minutes later, he returned with a signed copy of Second Helpings, with the recipe flagged.  No charge. 

Two years later I attended the Gourmet weekend in NY at which Danny Meyers was a speaker.  I attended his seminar, and was sitting second row back.  He looked directly at me, and spoke into the microphone.  "Did you ever make the risotto?"

I go to USC every chance I get when I'm in New York.

That is a crazy story, but I believe it. He somehow instills that attitude and approach in all the staff I've encountered over the years at his restaurants. Which reminds me, I need to read his book.

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Did I mention the service was great?

Likely as a result of this post, I actually went and sat down in the USQ dining room for the first time in over a year, me and my wife on a Saturday evening. I've eaten about 5 times at the bar in the interim, and always enjoyed it for the comfort of it all. Food wasn't ever "fantastic", but was always well executed, always hit the spot, and yet perhaps a tiny bit beside the point. Burger here, steak there - all good. The bar is something I can see being on my mandatory list of stops if I ever leave the city, just to stop and soak in "New York'ness".

My reaction to the more formal dining was nothing special, some new highlights, some new lowlights. Our waiter referred to us exclusively as "friend" or "friends", I felt like a Quaker half way through dinner. Kind of uncomfortable, maybe that's just me. I'm for people genuinely being themselves when serving, it's usually the best form of service, but being called nothing but "friend" by a complete stranger seems disingenuous to me. Perhaps not for everyone.

The real depressing change is the bread basket. This was a downer, it's a total recession basket now. Again, it's been probably a year at very least, but I recall this bountiful basket with a sesame seeded roll of some sort, ciabatta, flat bread galore, italian sliced bread - it was, no joke, my favorite basket in the city. Now? It's basically what you get at the bar (sliced & toasted loaf bread and olives) plus a small section of flat bread. Our waiter said it changed almost a year ago (so hard to tie it to a recession related change). To his credit, noticing my bread driven stupor, he put in for another order of it, so we got bread for 4.

We ordered the USQ Calamari, whose breading scraped off whenever I tried to dip it into the somewhat cold sauce, and the new chicken tortelloni in brodo, which frankly was USQ at it's finest. Homey, comforting, tasty, market driven - fantastic. It's part of their campaign to give back, every Hospitality Group restaurant featuring a take on "chicken soup" in their own style, with $2 going to City Harvest for every order sold. Great idea, even better soup. Entrees were the lasagna, a meticulously assembled tower of thin layers (would definitely recommend the appetizer size) and a scallop dish with bacon "farroto" (faro risotto), which was fine. Dessert was crepes which were good.

The bill was nice, a fair price for the food. Perhaps derailed by our "friend" and bread service, nothing about the place seemed different or special. Calamari should be perfect in their sleep and wasn't. But we did get hints here and there of the highlights. Perhaps if we were recognizable, toted a kid around and got the best the place has to offer, then yeah I can see it being better.

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Did I mention the service was great?

We ordered the USQ Calamari, whose breading scraped off whenever I tried to dip it into the somewhat cold sauce, and the new chicken tortelloni in brodo, which frankly was USQ at it's finest. Homey, comforting, tasty, market driven - fantastic. It's part of their campaign to give back, every Hospitality Group restaurant featuring a take on "chicken soup" in their own style, with $2 going to City Harvest for every order sold. Great idea, even better soup. Entrees were the lasagna, a meticulously assembled tower of thin layers (would definitely recommend the appetizer size) and a scallop dish with bacon "farroto" (faro risotto), which was fine. Dessert was crepes which were good.

Interesting. We had a similar lunch last weekend - lasagne, scallops with farrotto, pappardelle with osso buco ragu, and mushroom sformato. Like you, I normally adore lunch at USC, but this meal had two problems.

First, the mushroom sformato, which literally tasted like someone spilled a salt shaker into the custard. I'm a poster boy for excess sodium intake, and I tend to be dismissive of people who complain about overly salted food, so if I say something is salty....it's salty.

Second, I initially requested an appetizer portion of the lasagne, but our server suggested an upgrade to the full portion because she thought the half portion "might not be enough for me". I'm a big guy (6'3", 220 lbs.), but I don't exactly look like an NFL linebacker or a Sopranos cast member. The half portion would have been more than adequate, and I think that would probably be true for most diners, especially at lunch.

On the plus side, the osso buco ragu is a great dish, and this place really has a great touch with homemade pasta at the moment - perfect balance of delicacy and texture. I didn't count but the lasagne appeared to have about ten layers of pasta and still didn't feel heavy.

For what it's worth, I also think the "friends" thing is a little creepy :)

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Since my "same as I've always remembered it, nothing too special" type dinner at USQ Cafe a few months back, I've circled back there for lunch in the main dining room 3 times (both business & pleasure), and found all three to be really outstanding. Is it possible or even likely that a restaurant is more or less likable depending on the time of day, or meal that they are serving? I'm guessing it's a personal thing, with the light of day flooding in, lunch seems like a real treat here.

Today's meal consisted of a wonderful plancha'ed octopus, with white & green asparagus, and some really delicious crispy roasted potatoes. My wife had some Sugar Snap Pea “Tagliatini”, which were also outstanding, snap peas cut to look like pasta, just ever so lightly blanched, shocked, then served with some guanciale, parmesan & mint. We always pair our tuna tartare with a side order of garlic chips, making it substantial enough for an entree, and this has never failed us once.

Today's dessert wasn't great to look at, in fact it looked quite unappetizing, but was in review delicious - roasted peaches, gelatto and a florentine. I'm also happy to report that there is now a third bread in the bread basket! Happy days, and still nothing beats their flat bread in my book, it's my favorite bread in the city.

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Once again, Bruni disagrees with many USC fans here, issuing a bit of a takedown in his latest review.

Across the menu there’s a clear, pleasing commitment to seasonal produce. That’s fitting, given the restaurant’s proximity to the Greenmarket.

But it’s not so novel these days, and the menu and cooking aren’t particularly adventurous or inventive, putting a real premium on execution.

So, is it really only a 2 star now? Was it always a 2 star?


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

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Was 3 stars 10 years ago during the Grimes era, and has (by default) retained it's ranking.

I think Bruni is mostly right, with simple food it comes down to execution, which falls down sometimes - even on classics like the calamari. Only the tuna tartare and garlic chips strike me as infallible. I'm also guessing he ate dinner there mostly given his description of "7pm seating rush", which I also find to be a great deal less appealing than the lunch there.

Either way, I think it's hard to argue they are doing 3 star food, it was more of a correction than a takedown I think.

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