Born-Again: Union Square Café
I was never a certifiable Union Square Café fan. Gotham Bar & Grill opened about the same time as Union Square Café and once Alfred Portale moved in and wrestled the kitchen into shape, that became my go-to American bistro.
But I’m a Danny Meyer admirer and an irrepressible David Rockwell enthusiast. I got caught up in the romance of the design project when Meyer decided to move it: recreating a classic in a very different new space just blocks away. How the light would mark the height of the stunted original space and the bar would be as long as the earlier bar down to the quarter inch.
It was already impossible to book anonymously long before it opened, so I asked David to work his sway. I went early and was knocked out by the height of the room, the vast expanse of window, the chance to revisit the great art I’d forgotten to look at on my last dismal dinner at the now shuttered café. I admired the bold use of a carpet and the effect of painted tile.
The $18 cocktails strike me as aggressive, indeed, all the prices do at first, but maybe not, when I’m reminded the tip is included. Meyers has taken the lead in a move to include service in the menu pricing as a way to reward the kitchen crew.
The view from the corner booth felt like a private box at the Opera. The house sent out a welcome of salmon roe on cuts of potato pancake with sour cream, alongside the usual little olive amuse. None of us could stop eating the crusty warmed brown bread, sharing a creamy wave of butter in the long pause before starters finally arrived.
I credited serving lapses to rawness in those early days — it was unfair that I came so soon — and my pals were quick to call out flubs in Danny Meyer hospitality.
There were dishes I liked in my first two visits. The adorable little tortelloni in life-affirming chicken broth with Swiss chard and Meyer lemon. The ricotta gnocchi so feathery they might float away were it not for an assertive tomato sauce. The caramelized 19th street banana tart with honey-vanilla ice cream and macademia nuts.
One of my guests inevitably ordered the bibb and red oak lettuces in mustardy vinaigrette with sour dough croutons and grated gruyère. I had no idea it was a classic on the menu for decades.
I was reminded why Union Square had never seduced me. The dishes I liked were good enough — I especially enjoyed the tuna burger at long ago lunches with my agent, a USC regular — but everything seemed merely agreeable in those years of culinary innovation and dazzle.
Luckily for the reborn USC, I didn’t feel pressed to write about it after my third visit. That was a nightmare. The air conditioning had konked out on a steaming July evening. Why wasn’t someone fixing it? Couldn’t someone have warned us?
We are settled into a stifling corner and assigned to a server may have been pressed into service without the celebrated Meyer hospitality training. Shouldn’t we be offered a taste of the wine by the glass? Shouldn’t ice cubes be replaced when melted. Should there be a spoon with the third glass of iced tea? Shouldn’t the empty tea glass be removed when the second or third glass arrives?
I can only imagine the suffering in the kitchen revealed by the hapless spiced chicken. I’d sampled it twice before but this time it tastes as if the paprika box exploded on it. I blame myself for ordering lamb shoulder on saffron pappardele in the monster heatwave. Would the rose rare duck have been less chewy if we weren’t sweltering? Would the calamari and halibut fritto be less soggy? Would dishes have cleared sooner and desserts taken less than forever to arrive?
Then I got distracted by aRoqa, the appealing simplicity of Pinch Chinese, the elegance of the Pool and lobstermania at NoMad and the new Burger & Lobster just off Times Square. I’d need another outing at Union Square. Ironically I’m led to the same far corner we simmered in last July. It’s still a little claustrophobic but at least, air is flowing and the seats are padded. The server is chirpy and perhaps overburdened, but somehow seems to appear when we need her.
I’m aware that Pete Wells has beaten me to a review. His three stars seemed focused on Meyer’s hospitality I’d not actually seen. Wells was less impressed with “the déjà vu” of the food, some classics of Michael Romano as well as those introduced by the current chef Carmen Quagliata.
Now in September, I’m pleased to find the house feels more settled. The fritto misto still seems lame compared to my favorite at Osteria Salina in Wainscott. But the rich and creamy polenta made with fresh corn and maitake mushrooms drizzled with pesto, is like a dream of summer in my mouth. I hold onto the dish for myself. I know I must pass it along to my friends but first another spoonful for me, and then another.
To savor a tremble of sweet corn soufflé with buttered lobster, chervil and lime on the same go-around completes the conquest. It’s an orgasm of corn. Even the weirdnesss of carrots, Fresno chiles and yogurt on curls of candele pasta seems both brave and brilliant.
I forgive the overcooked swordfish even though I distinctly asked for it slightly rare, even a little bit pink. I’m less likely to overlook the too-cooked pork chop — I asked for that faintly pink too — but the pork chop lover who ordered it seems beyond contented.
Normally I try to steer my companions away from ordering pavlova. I don’t like desserts dominated by crisp meringue. But this version with luscious little Tristar fraise du bois and mint ice cream is an exception. Actually, all the sweets I’ve tried by pastry chef Daniel Alvarez, are really good: blueberry pie with cornmeal crumbles, the Black Forest tart with its chocolate ganache, the rhubarb sundae, and the classic banana tart.
The host at the desk comes by to open a bottle of red Brachetto d’Acqui and pours each of us a glass of the sweet wine from Piedmont. My pals are delighted. This is hospitality, exactly.
For a moment when the bill comes, it does seem high, but then I notice the legend below: Union Square Café is a non-tipping restaurant. Hospitality included. A friend who tried to leave a tip in addition reported that the server thanked him but refused the gift. I like that dinner at Union Square seems worthier now of both its new home and its legend.
101 East 19th Street on NE corner of 19th Street and Park Avenue South. 212 243 4020. Lunch Monday to Friday 11:45 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 pm to 10 pm. Friday and Saturday to 11 pm. Lunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm.