Restaurant Review: Union Square Cafe

28 Oct

I was sitting at my computer about ten days ago and a thought popped into my head: why haven’t I been to Union Square Cafe?  I’ve been to most of the restaurants that are part of Union Square Hospitality Group – Danny Meyer’s select and diverse portfolio of restaurants that all compete for ‘best in class’ awards.  After all, I did work for Danny’s restaurant Blue Smoke for some time.  As an employee we had tremendous incentive to go eat at the other restaurants – discounts through the EDP, or employee dining program.  Why, then, had I never chosen to go to Union Square Cafe – a restaurant that, for the past 25 years, has consistently vied for top honors on Zagat’s list of ‘favorite’ restaurants?

My good friend Joseph joined me on our Tuesday night excursion into the city to eat what I was anticipating to be a phenomenal meal.  We got to the restaurant just in time for our 9pm reservation and were warmly greeted at the front door by the welcoming maitre d’.  Our table was upstairs, so the host walked us past the bar, through a small back dining room, up the rustic, Colonial-feeling stairs, and seated us along the balcony overlooking the beautiful artwork adorning the wall.  We were quickly greeted by our server Jen – who turned out to be a true gem – but weren’t nearly ready to order anything.  While we were looking over the menu we devoured the delicious bread that Jen had given us.  The bread was pretty ordinary, but there was a butter spread that was drizzled with a pinch of seasoning and set our meal off on the right foot.

Right after we placed our order we were visited by Michael, one of Union Square Cafe’s managers.  I had met Michael over a year ago at Union Square Hospitality Group’s New Manager Orientation, which is an all-day event at three different venues where the new managers in the company get to know about Danny and his partners and also learn about and get to meet their colleagues from the other restaurants.  Michael welcomed us to his restaurant and assured us that we would have an enjoyable experience.  It was nice to catch up with him for a little bit; it had been a while since I had seen him last.

Our appetizers came and 3 distinct, beautiful aromas hit our noses just as the plates touched the table.  We were sharing the appetizers so we could get a taste of each, and that was definitely the best idea of the night.  Not sure if I had a favorite because all three were so delectable.

The first appetizer we ate was USC’s take on fried calamari.  Instead of being heavily-battered as is traditionally seen, the calamari here was a little bit lighter than usual.  The sauce is what made this dish: a spicy anchovy mayonnaise that was texturally hardened with the consistency of cold butter.  It was so rich that even a dab of it on the calamari provided a salty, creamy taste that made the dish jump.

Our next appetizer was a pasta dish: housemade whole wheat pappardelle with Tuscan tomato sauce, walnuts and rosemary.  I love the concept of homemade pastas, especially when it is in the form of ravioli, pappardelle, or lasagna.  Something about having everything on a plate be fresh is so appealing to me, and USC certainly stood out to me because of that very quality.  Typically I’m not a huge fan of whole wheat pasta, but it added a certain amount of heartiness to this dish.  The pasta was cooked to perfection: al dente with the perfect coming together of crunch and preparedness.  The sauce was simple yet elegant – very representative of the service style and overall culinary mission of the restaurant.  The grated cheese topped it off; this was one of the top 10 pasta dishes I’ve had in my life.

Our final appetizer was compliments of Michael’s and the restaurant’s generosity and hospitality.  We were sent a dish of seared yellowfin tuna tartare with Pantelleria capers, lemon, celery, and fennel cracker.  There’s not much explaining to do here.  Simply put, my compatriot at the table had never eaten raw fish (or any form of tuna, for that matter) in his life and he thought it was delicious.  It seemed to have a component of sea salt that gave it a crunch and a wonderful explosion of flavor.  The best part of the dish, though, was the sear.  As somebody who has (tried to) sear sashimi-grade tuna and also seen it done very well, I have to say that this was the nicest, cleanest sear that I have ever tasted.  The sear was especially crispy and taut for only being about 2 millimeters deep, and the way it complimented the meaty, soft tuna was impeccable.

For our entrees, Joe and I each ordered one, knowing full well that we were going to be trying the others for our second bite.  I ordered the day’s special: a roasted red snapper dish with a chickpea puree and a tri-color carrot salad.  I was choosing between that and the striped bass when our server told me that I had to try the snapper.  Goodness was she right!  It’s not fair to judge against the bass because I didn’t get to taste it, but I was extremely happy with the decision I had made (or that Jen had made for me).  I’m typically not a lover of chickpeas, but that is mostly because of the texture of them.  As a pureed dressing for the snapper, the saltiness and almost thick earthiness of the chickpeas was a perfect compliment.  The tri-color carrot salad was sweet and garnished with little bits of dried fruit.

For his entree, Joseph ordered the oven-roasted chicken with sunchokes, 24k nugget potatoes, spinach, and smoked oyster mushrooms.  The only thing I could say to Joseph after I tried his chicken was that I don’t typically order chicken when I go to a restaurant anymore, but this dish was one of the best tasting chicken dishes I had ever had.  The flavor was exploding in every bite, the chicken was moist and the crispy skin added a crunch that took the dish from great to extraordinary.  The side component of those four unique ingredients worked so well together, and complimented the chicken beautifully.  There was a glazed sweetness to the potatoes, almost as if they had been sauteed in a touch of honey.  When combined with the savory flavor of the chicken, this dish had everything one could hope for.

Joseph and I each enjoyed a glass of wine with our entrees.  He drank a 2003 Fihl Merlot and I had a 2008 Von Buhl Riesling Kabinett.  As soon as I took the nose on the wine I knew that it was going to be deliciously sweet – and I was right.  It complimented my snapper perfectly, not to mention the fact that I could sip that wine for days…weeks?

When it came time to decide on dessert, Joseph and I were faced with our toughest decision of the night.  Each dish sounded tasty beyond belief.  Jen first recommended a dish that I found intriguing, but I wasn’t sure about how it would taste: fresh panna cotta with raspberries and aged balsamic.  I declined because two others caught my eye and I still wasn’t sure I’d like her recommendation.  I couldn’t decide between a dessert featuring a pear and one with mint, and Jen said, with no equivocations, “You’re going to have the pear.”

The gentleman running food arrived at our table with two desserts: my Greenmarket pear upside down cake with spiced rum ice cream and Joe’s brioche French toast with roasted apples and brown sugar ice cream.  Jen followed closely behind him with the fresh panna cotta dish and told us that we couldn’t leave without trying it.  My expectations for dessert here were already through the roof, but one bite in and I was floating so high above anything that I had ever dreamed that it took a while to get back down.  How would I begin to describe these three dishes: they were creations of brilliance in flavor profile, texture combinations, sheer richness, and presentation.  We legitimately considered licking the plates and bowls after we were done as part of the “No Morsel Left Behind Act.”  Not to mention, Jen was spot on with her recommendation of the panna cotta.

Upside Down Pear Cake

Brioche French Toast

Panna Cotta

Eat and Drink This!

The homemade pastas are to die for.  Simple yet elegant and more than delicious.  Terrific wines by the glass that you most certainly should consume with your meal.  Ask your server for the best pairing.  Dessert!  You cannot leave without eating at least two desserts; I don’t care how full you are.  Also, you’ve got to try the oven-roasted chicken dish – it will be your favorite chicken dish…ever.

Skip It

There was legitimately no part of my meal that I would have wanted to skip.  It was an incredible meal; a truly memorable dining experience.  If I could do it over again, I would not eat lunch the day of my reservation and order more pasta dishes – USC has a long heritage and history of Italian chefs, including current Executive Chef Carmen Quagliata.  Take advantage of it as much as you can and try the Italian-inspired dishes.

Where To Sit & When To Go

I loved sitting upstairs.  It was quiet and our server was able to devote so much attention to us, even though she had a full section.  We didn’t get to sit in the main dining room, but it seems that that would be a terrific experience as well.  The restaurant was brimming with people even at 10pm.  A late reservation is nice, it is more laid back and relaxed.  It would definitely be interesting to see how they maintain that smoothness of their operations at 7pm on a Friday.  I’m sure they don’t bat an eye.

Special Events

USC recently (within weeks) celebrated their 25th Anniversary.  Congratulations on that!  Additionally, one great thing to see is the chef and his cooks as the Union Square Greenmarket picking out their fresh produce for the day.

Overall

I rate the dining experience as a whole.  When I got home and thought of how to describe how I felt, I decided, without a doubt, that this was a top 10 dining experience of my life.  Early in the meal I said to our server Jen that she was ‘on point’ – her service was flawless and her confidence was attractive.  She knew exactly how our meal should go and she delivered accordingly.  She took us on a culinary adventure for those two hours, and when we emerged, we were better men for having been through it.  Who am I kidding using terms like ‘been through it’ and ’emerged’?  It was a privilege and an honor to eat Chef Quagliata’s food in Danny Meyer’s restaurant being served by Jen and greeted by Michael.  Joseph and I were the lucky ones.

Rating

An overall excellent experience.  46 points.  3 Stars.


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