Union Square Cafe

What do you say about a restaurant that does everything well?

One of my (many) pet peeves is the lack of professionalism in most, if not all, suburban restaurants and bars. And our dinner (at the bar, of course) last night at the 22-year-old Union Square Cafe highlighted the painful differences between what we in the hinterland accept as service and what real restaurants demand from their employees. From the moment I walked in, I was treated as though I were a regular and excellent customer which I am most decidedly not (well, maybe I am excellent…). And I was wearing a sweater and a pair of not-quite-clean khakis (The dirt was a result of spending a lovely several hours in the bowels of JFK, helping my sister and her life partner track down some stuff they had shipped from Morocco.). My wife, as usual, looked lovely, so maybe they thought I was a charity case and took pity on me. The maitre d’ took my name, told me “30 to 35 minutes,” followed up a few minutes later, and was pleasant and practiced in everything he did. When my wife arrived, he suggested that we have a drink, telling us that the bartender would know that we would be eating at the bar. And she did. And she also made an excellent martini. Yeah, yeah yeah. It’s an easy drink to make. Just try to make one and you will realize that any bartender (bartendress?) who can make a superb martini is far ahead of about 98% of the world’s bartenders.

After we sat down, I noticed, happily, that there was plenty of room around each of the bar stools. No cramped and elbow-room-less dining this night! The bartender rapidly set our places and left us with the menus. When she returned, we had several questions about the food, which she answered well and honestly. She actually gave her opinion about the dishes. I was shocked! Oh, one of my other pet peeves is the standard boilerplate that most waiters will spew out when asked about a particular dish. “That’s excellent!” “One of my favorites!” “You can’t go wrong with that choice!” So I followed her advice and got the Pappardelle with Rabbit Ragu, instead of the Black Bean Soup with Sherry (which she said was very good, but nothing special). I love pasta, I love ragu, and I love cheese. And all of these were in abundance on my plate. I was very happy. My wife got some silly salad that was nonetheless very good.

One of the challenges of eating in restaurants with my wife is her inability to appreciate red wine. It doesn’t matter how good it is; she will scrunch up her face and look like she is sucking on a lemon when she tastes reds. So joints that offer good wines by the glass are always fun, because I get to taste reds that I wouldn’t drink normally, and she gets her usual Chardonnay (yes, boring, but what can I do?). Union Square Cafe did not disappoint. But what I really liked were the tastes and advice that the bartenders (Victoria and Beth) were happy to supply. They chose well, and we were both happy with our wines. They made us feel as if we were special guests, and that was during an evening when the restaurant was packed, both tables and bar.

Our main courses were perfectly executed, but I expected nothing less. I had halibut with some weird (but good) greens that seemed to have been lightly fried, accompanied by beets and sunchokes. The fish was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Just what the menu said and just what I wanted. My wife got the Tuna Tartare, but she couldn’t decide which side to have. So the bartender offered to bring her small portions of each. The garlic potato chips were spectacular, and the whipped potatoes with a fried leek garnish weren’t far behind. Even dessert was good, and I’m not a fan of restaurant desserts. And once again, they accommodated us by bringing small portions of two desserts. The little woman likes chocolate chip cookies, and these were certainly good, but nothing out of the ordinary. But the other half was doughnut holes with a lemon curd that was great fun to eat and great tasting too!

Union Square Cafe has had 22 years to wear a huge rut in the New York restaurant scene. But the service is as good as ever, the food is excellent, and the restaurant shows no signs of losing the edge that has made it one of New York’s favorite places to eat for so many years. I just wish that Danny Meyer would open a restaurant in my town.

10 Replies to “Union Square Cafe”

  1. Cheese and rabbit sounds like an odd pairing but I love cheese and I really like rabbit. I conducted toxicology studies with nice plump New Zealand Whites when I was in graduate school. I would consume the unexposed controls and tried numerous variations but never thought of a ragu. By the way, it sounds to me like your sister and her “life partner” owe you a meal.

  2. The ragu is a deceptively simple dish. there are lots of flavors and textures, and it compliments the Parmegiano Reggiano very well. I am going to make this dish and force my sister and her life partner to eat it. And that’s just the appetizer. I think a duck shepard’s pie will be the main course. A nice, light meal.

  3. Based on the sketchy details you have offered thus far, it appears that her life partner is a large angry swine who will likely bite off your hand as you try to back him into the corner with a whip and a proferred corn dog and/or a “haystack” of fries.

  4. I have not fleshed out the description because my readers would know immediately that it was a fiction. No human behaves the way her life partner acts. He is unique in his mannerisms. He reminds me a bit of a character in an otherwise forgettable book called “A Confederacy Of Dunces.” Or Koko. I’m not sure.

  5. Your wife’s love of chardonnay, I must admit, is worrisome.Have you tried offering reds that were served at an appropriate (chilled) temp? I’m of the opinion that the reason it took me so long to warm up to reds, pardon, is because everyone serves them too warm. I really like rabbit. I had a rabbit ragu at I Trulli in NYC some years back and just loved it. A hard sheep’s milk cheese and you’re all set.However, I have a fair amount of rabbits living in or near my yard these days, and they’re just a bit took cute for me to eat anymore. Tasty, but cute.

  6. It’s a problem for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that it gets boring after a while. But good chardonnays are also very expensive, much more than the equivalent red.I store my wines at 56 degrees, so anything she drinks at our table is going to be at the appropriate temperature. She just doesn’t like ’em!We have a few of the little critters in our back yard. I keep threatening to shoot them and make something wonderful, but in reality they are just too cute to eat. On the other hand, the store bought version …marinated in some mustard and garlic and grilled? Fantastic!

  7. As I think about that amazing rabbit ragu I have to restrain myself from pulling out the trusty .22 and heading for the back yard. Great taste trumps cute!

  8. Hysterical…I logged on to the site for the first time in over a week (sorry!) and as soon as I saw the BUNNIES realized there would be mention of a rabbit dish. I think it’s riotous-as long as you keep the trigger lock on the .22! 🙂

  9. I promise that I will practice good gun safety, although I have a sneaking suspicion that my neighbors might not like it if I decide to hunt for my dinner…in the back yard.And thanks for checking in! By the way, did you notice the San Marzano post? I finally answered your question! Sort of.

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