If I had to make a list of what I love about New York it would include a number of things; the people, the art, the food, the overall “feel” of the city itself– those to start, plus the Union Squre Hospitality Group – a team that had provided me seven meals at six different locations in the past five visits over the course of four years. Rarely one to dine at the same place twice and generally not a fan of “restaurant groups” one might wonder what it is that USHG does that keeps me coming back over and over again and to that I will say it isn’t only what they do now, but what they did on my very first visit – they made me feel like they care and despite the many changes in my life over the past four years they continue to do so now. Taking that into consideration along with the city, the food, and my friends (plus a little bit of art as it turns out) it really only made sense to end my last trip to The Big Apple at Union Square Café, Danny Meyer’s very first restaurant.
Having admittedly dined very well during each of my visits to New York it actually seemed somewhat strange to me that I’d really never considered USC on my previous visits but as is the case with much of Gotham there always seemed to be something bigger, better, flashier, or newer – especially considering the relatively downscale “Italian-esque” (my words, not theirs) menu when compared to places like The Modern, EMP, or Gramercy Tavern. Always the bridesmaid despite the fact that the spot has essentially redefined New York dining since 1985 while remaining #1 on Zagat’s list of most popular restaurants in the city for the better part of ten years I will admit here that USC almost didn’t even make the cut for this trip either, but with a late change to the ABC Kitchen menu and some time restrictions due to my flight plus ready, willing, and able co-diners the stars finally aligned.
With reservations set for the middle of the lunch hour – a table for three in the main dining room – my arrival at Union Square Café would be perfectly in step with my friends despite the gloomy weather and exchanging pleasantries now for the fourth straight day our coats were checked and we were led through the loud bar area to a quiet and cozy table in the middle of the 3/4 dining room right away. Greeted promptly on seating by our server, a friendly middle-aged man who would keep beverages and bread basket full throughout the afternoon the menu was presented and we were left to our conversations and decisions.
With wooden chairs and white tableclothed tables atop the hardwood floors and light pastels adorning the walls the feel of Union Square Café was decidedly upscale – something like Café Boulud but not quite as tightly spaced – and with a large menu our decision process became one of capacity more so than what sounded best, a decision process helped along by not only our server but General Manager Sam Lipp, an absolutely wonderful host well known to my friends from his long tenure with the Union Square Hospitality Group.
With decisions finally made, essentially two appetizers to be shared as appetizers, two appetizers to serve as my main, and an entrée for each of my friends the first item to arrive from the kitchen was the bread basket and a sizable bowl of olives along with butter topped in celery salt. Having always been impressed by the USHG bread selections this offering would again prove quite good with a tasty Fennel-Seed flatbread and crusty whole wheat holding up their end while the baguette was somewhat flavorless and soft. In addition to the bread the olives were a nice touch while the butter was smooth, grassy, and slightly sweet.
Nibbling on bread while chatting amongst ourselves and again with Mr. Lipp who stopped by with Michael’s wine our first plates to arrive were a pair of dissimilar bedfellows – the first titled “Chinese 5 Spice Fried Duck Meatballs – French Fried Confit, Snow Pea-Cabbage Slaw” and featuring five succulent golf ball sized rounds of tender duck confit blended with ample notes of cinnamon and anise and fried to perfection. Paired with a mild slaw and topped with sweetened fermented soy sauce, soy seeds, and carrot vinaigrette the plate could have stood to be a little warmer in my opinion, but for a restaurant leaning toward Italy their take on Eastern flavors was quite good.
For the second shared appetizer of the afternoon we opted to go with the house specialty as recommended by our server and arriving with more than a dozen creamy dumplings the “Ricotta Gnocchi – Tomato-Basil Passatina, Pecorino Romano” was every bit as good as billed. Amongst my favorite foods whether in the form of potato, choux, spinach, or cheese these smooth balls of mild cheese could not have been lighter and adecorated sparsely with mildly sweet tomato sauce and a hefty grating of Pecorino the flavors were like a hint of spring – vegetal, fresh, and delicious.
Making short work of our appetizers it would be perhaps twenty minutes before our main courses would follow and with the business lunch crowd now heading back to their workplaces the pace of the restaurant as well as the volume in the bar became much more relaxed. With a second wine poured to go with my friend’s main course his choice was “Wild Striped Bass alla Barcaiola – Soft Polenta, Broccoli Rabe.” Featuring easily 12 ounces of nicely prepared fish alongside smooth yet textural polenta blended with aged cheese and tender broccoli rabe the most interesting aspect of this dish actually proved to be the sauce, a blend of anchovies, capers, and garlic that we were told came from a nearly quarter-century old recipe and the sort of flavors I’d have never thought to pair with such a mild protein, but flavors that none-the-less worked and brought out some of the heavier meaty tones of the fish.
Moving on to Rosalind’s selection this meal would once again see her order the Lamb Chops – and this time there was enough to go around and then some to take home. Titled “Lamb Chops “Scotta Dita” – Swiss Chard, Potato-Gruyère Gratin” and prepared just past medium these ample slices of young lamb were nicely charred on the grill and full of flavor on their own, but adding nuance was a glaze/sauce described as an admixture of mustard, balsamic, and garlic that simply made the flavors all the more savory and bold. With the protein’s flavor profile so pronounced, the plate mates in this case turned out to be largely overshadowed but tasty, on one hand bitter chard kissed with olive oil and balsamic and on the other a crispy au gratin potato with very mild cheese and a bit too little salt for my tastes.
Moving on to my selection – two half-portion appetizers actually – my first choice was described as a house favorite and on tasting the “Lasagna alla Bolognese – With Sunny Side Up Knoll Krest Egg” I instantly understood why. First off, beginning with the noodles and the sauce – the first perfectly al dente and the second zippy and slightly acidic with an almost chorizo smokiness to the pork – stopping there it would have been one of the better lasagnas I’ve ever tasted. Then add an egg – a smooth and runny one at that – let’s just say I mopped the plate clean.
Speaking of wiped the plate clean, as good as the lasagna and first plate of gnocchi may have been, my second entrée was perhaps the best pasta of the bunch; Potato Gnocchi – Gorgonzola Fonduta, Radicchio, Vin Cotto. Beginning first with the pasta, this time a potato based dumpling even lighter than the first, they were as good as any I’ve had in New York. Moving next to the toppings – the word “inspired” jumped to mind immediately as the saline cheese proved a perfect foil to the peppery flavors of the Radicchio while the sweet wine served to give everything a bit more pizzazz and a dusting of basil breadcrumbs added just a bit of crunch.
Full but not stuffed and having already scoped out the dessert menu on the way in our server returned to inquire if anyone wanted coffee and with a trip to the airport ahead of me I declined while Rosalind opted for decaf. Knowing for sure that USC’s signature Banana Tart was on our my list to try we inquired about the other options and when no concensus could be reached for which three sounded best we did the only logical thing we could and ordered four.
Beginning first with the aformentioned tart – a recipe that has apparently been being served since USC first opened – the Banana Tart, Macadamia Brittle, and Honey-Vanilla Ice Cream proved every bit worth its designation as a signature dish with the base formed of buttery shortbread studded with Macadamia nuts supporting what was likely an entire banana sliced and coated with a crackling caramel shell. Certainly not a dessert for those with loose teeth (or fillings) the intensely sweet tart was nicely complimented by the ice cream and five lovely caramel coated macadamia nuts who also joined the party.
With the first banana dessert a resounding success, the second would prove perhaps even better – a dessert described as Banana Pretzel Cream Pie with Calvados Caramel and Milk Chocolate Ice Cream and stacked top to bottom with sweet cream atop a layer of sliced bananas supported by soft yet crunchy cake comprised of rich dark chocolate and crushed salted pretzels. Again substantial in sweetness and in portion the dish was finished with a boozy and smoky caramel sauce plus mild chocolate ice cream – an ice cream that despite its great flavor actually proved to serve as a balance to the otherwise intense sweetness of the dish.
With no more bananas left on the menu another dessert we sampled was the Mascarpone Cheesecake with Fennel Shortbread, Meyer Lemon Confit, Grapefruit Sorbet, a dish that was clearly not my choice given my overall laissez-faire attitude about citrus, but a dessert that was none-the-less impressive particularly for the textural aspects of the cheesecake and the manner in which the mild fennel tones served to balance out the acidity of the lemon and grapefruit.
Moving on to our last dessert, my personal selection amongst the four, I opted for the Brioche French Toast with Roasted Apples and Brown Sugar Ice Cream – the least “wowing” of the four in terms of presentation, yet simple and delicious with an airy custard soaked brioche resting in a pool of cinnamon and sugar kissed roasted apples and a quenelle of maple-toned ice cream. It could have been breakfast were it five hours earlier or it could have been dessert five hours later; it was and would be delicious any time.
With desserts plates now vacant our server once again stopped by to see if there was anything else we needed and declining the bill was left to be paid at our leisure. With my friends near to their apartment and myself with time to kill before going to pick up my bags to head to LGA we spent the next twenty to thirty minutes again chatting about the many great meals of my last two trips to New York and once again Sam Lipp stopped by to make sure all had gone well and inviting us to return any time as most of the menu changes frequently – something I would definitely consider given the quality of the meal and the service, both of which were not the same as EMP, The Modern, or Gramercy Tavern but something very warm, familiar, welcoming, and exactly what I’ve come to expect from the Union Square Hospitality Group.
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