Archive | Restaurant Reviews RSS feed for this section

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.


Advertisements

Restaurant Review: Ruth’s Chris Garden City

25 Oct

When my Dad called me a few days ago and asked if I wanted to have a steak dinner this weekend my mouth began to water and I could already smell the butter sizzling on top of my Ruth’s Chris filet mignon.  One great thing about Long Island is that there is definitely not a shortage of great steakhouses – the there is a strip on the north shore that is lined with one on literally every corner.  I wasn’t in the mood for a production, and I was really craving their signature sizzling butter, so we decided that it would be Ruth’s Chris in Garden City.

When we arrived we were quickly and warmly greeted by the maitre d’ who began to show us to our table.  When the phone at the host stand rang she turned around and asked us to hold on.  While on the phone she handed the menus to a server who seated us.  The situation wasn’t off-putting, but it certainly wasn’t a stellar welcome that I would expect of such a highly-rated steakhouse.

We were greeted pretty quickly by our server.  He would prove to be very kind and certainly knowledgeable, but something about him didn’t click well with me.  He didn’t try to connect on a personal level.  It seemed to be strictly business.  Not once did he smile!  Technically he did a very respectable job, and he certainly wasn’t mean or rude, but on a personal level I didn’t feel that he made the attempt to connect to us as his guests.

I enjoyed his selling of the specials; for our appetizer we started with a barbecued shrimp scampi.  I didn’t really know what to expect because the two styles are very different in my mind.  He assured us that the shrimp were barbecued but not slathered in traditional bbq sauce – instead they were then sauteed, scampi style.  I was impressed with how quickly the five meaty tiger shrimp came out to our table.  My Dad took one and left four to me – heavenly!  The garlic butter sauce was proportioned excellently to the shrimp.  The problem I often face with shrimp scampi is that the sauce is far too overpowering for the meat; tonight’s dish mastered the delicate balance of the savory sauce and the meaty shrimp.

Barbecued Shrimp Scampi

The entree course was just as good-tasting as the appetizer.  I ordered a filet mignon and my Dad ordered a T-Bone, both cooked medium.  I really enjoyed our servers suggestive selling skills when we were ordering entrees – he suggested my Dad get his steak cooked medium instead of medium-well because the steaks were served on 500 degree plates so he could literally sear it a bit on the hot plate if he wanted it cooked further.  The steaks arrived a perfect temperature and were accompanied by a 1-pound baked potato and a dish of garlic mashed potatoes.  With the entrees I also had a glass of wine – a Spanish Tempranillo Rioja.  The flavor of both steaks was excellent.  As noted, Ruth’s Chris’s signature is serving all steaks on a very hot plate with butter sizzling on top.  The aroma I had hoped for filled our enclosed booth and created our own wonderful world of steak.  Eating it, tasting it, smelling it; the aura was magical, even if only for a minute or two.  I was very upset with the presentation of both steak dishes – as seen in the pictures below, they were simply strewn on the plate.  There was grease all over the rim of the plate and no side dishes to mask the running steak juices.  It did make up for that in flavor, though.  Additionally, the sides were great – two types of potatoes cooked with an equally tasty technique.  My wine was a perfect pairing to the steak: dark berries, plum, and dark chocolate.  It was well-structured and very tannic and held up well to the juicy steak.

Filet Mignon

T-Bone

After dinner was cleared and I was already over-stuffed, I thought what better way to relax than to enjoy a nice rich dessert?  I was impressed with their selections of after dinner drinks – it was a much more in depth menu than even their wine or cocktail lists.  Though I passed on having another drink, I did indulge in a warm apple crumb tart with vanilla bean ice cream.  The flavor was extraordinary – a beautiful pairing of Granny Smith apples, crumby crust, and refreshing ice cream.  Apple pie is one of my favorites, and though this was excellent in flavor, it was lacking identity.  I actually sat for what had to have been three minutes inspecting my dish before I took my first bite.  It almost looked like a purchased dessert.  By that I mean that it looked too perfect – maybe bought in bulk at Costco or BJ’s and microwaved for 30 seconds before being sent out to my table.  I highly doubt that is the case from such an established, well-regarded restaurant, but for me to even question that is a bit of a problem.

Warm Apple Crumb Tart with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Eat and Drink This!

If you’re going to Ruth’s Chris, you’re going for the steak.  I’m always a big fan of filet mignon, but if you want a challenge, go for the Porterhouse for 2.  Like most steakhouses, they serve this behemoth expecting their guests not to finish, so don’t eat lunch and come prepared!  Also,  if you’re a shrimp lover, you’ll be thrilled – though maybe not with the presentation – with the taste of the barbecued shrimp scampi dish.

Skip It

I was very upset with the beverage menu.  For such a well-known, established steakhouse, I would imagine the wine list to be phenomenal, there to be a selection of beers that pair well with their dishes, and a cocktail menu worth even mentioning.  They had none of that.  I was shocked to see Relax Riesling offered by the glass – one of my favorite, cheap rieslings to buy at my local wine shop for a Friday night at home with friends, but certainly not what I would expect at Ruth’s Chris.

Where To Sit & When To Go

I have been to this location quite a few times and have always sat in the main dining room.  I was never a fan of the main dining room because it was carpeted and open and too living-room-esque.  Today we sat adjacent to the bar in a secluded booth for two.  Great place to bring a date, have a business meeting, or even have a great steak with a friend or family member.   The booths were very versatile and could be a good setting for many types of occasions, so if you’re a party of two, I would certainly recommend checking it out.  In terms of when to go, Sunday night at 6:30pm was fairly crowded, so unless you have a reservation, I would recommend going on a week night.  If you’re an OpenTable user, book a 1,000 Point table on Sunday-Wednesday.

Special Events

I didn’t dive too far into this, but on my way to the bathroom I did see that they have a fairly large private dining room which would be excellent for corporate events, holiday parties, or even upscale, large family gatherings.

Overall

Both my Dad and I enjoyed myself at Ruth’s Chris.  The food and wine were very tasty.  The main bone of contention that I have is that the restaurant felt ‘corporate’ to me.  It was present in our interaction with the server, with the maitre d’, and with the manager.  About 3/4 of the way through our entrees the manager came to ask if we had enjoyed our meal.  Her coming to our table felt very forced, very unnatural.  It was by no means smooth, and she too did not smile at us.  It was as if she was trained at corporate HQ that she had to touch tables – as well she should – but her execution and intent seemed to lack a genuine, personal touch.

Rating

An overall very good experience.  37 points.  2 Stars.


Restaurant Rating System

19 Oct

A big part of what I’m going to use this blog for is to review and rate restaurants.  I want to keep a pretty recognizable system for my ratings, so I’m going to stick with a system of stars similar to the NY Times: the maximum being 4, the minimum 0.

Here is the breakdown of  how restaurants will be rated:

  • Food will be rated out of 16 points
  • Hospitality will be rated out of 10 points
  • Beverages will be rated out of 8 points
  • Service will be rated out of 8 points
  • Decor/Design/Atmosphere will be rated out of 8 points

There are a total of 50 points available for a given restaurant.  The star rating will be determined by the following breakdown:

  • 4 Stars: World-Class – 47-50 points
  • 3 Stars: Excellent – 41-46 points
  • 2 Stars: Very Good – 36-40 points
  • 1 Star: Good – 30-35
  • 0 Stars: Moderate – 0-29

Finally, the following is a breakdown of each category on how points are awarded.

Food Score:

  • Flavor Profile of Dishes – 4 points
  • Freshness of Ingredients – 3 points
  • Originality of Dishes – 3 points
  • Menu Variety – 2 points
  • Temperature of Food: 2 points
  • Timeliness – 2 points

Hospitality Score:

  • Manager Greeting/Warmth: 3 points
  • Server Personality and Knowledge: 3 points
  • Maitre D’ Greeting/Warmth: 2 points
  • Accommodations to Special Requests: 1 point
  • Reaction to Mistakes/Problems: 1 point

Beverage Score:

  • Depth of Wine List: 2 points
  • Depth of Beer List: 1.5 point
  • Depth of Cocktail List: 1.5 points
  • Depth of Liquor List: 1.5 points
  • Depth of After-Dinner Drink List: .5 points
  • Originality of Cocktails: .5 points
  • Beverage Menu Suited for Given Restaurant?: .5 points

Service Score:

  • Accuracy of Order: 2 points
  • Suggestive Selling: 2 points
  • Cleanliness and Table Maintenance: 2 points
  • Correct Table Markings: 1 point
  • Bathroom Cleanliness: 1 point

Decor/Design/Atmosphere Score:

  • Music Selection: 1.5 points
  • Architectural Design of Restaurant: 1.5 points
  • Color Scheme of Restaurant: 1.5 points
  • Artwork, Fixtures: 1 point
  • Plate, Glass, Silverware: 1 point
  • Temperature of Restaurant: 1 point
  • Menus: .5 points

The reviews will be critical and will highlight four main categories after the rating is given out:

  • Eat and Drink This!
  • Skip It
  • Where To Sit & When To Go
  • Special Events

Finally, I will award up-and-coming restaurants the Shooting Star Award.  This is for restaurants in spectacular cases that are newly-opened and not quite there yet but I believe to be on the right track towards success.


The Shooting Star Award

%d bloggers like this: