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.