Union Square Cafe ~ Orderinny

Friday, April 27, 2007

Union Square Cafe

Last Sunday Dawn and I dined at Union Square Cafe to investigate the reasons why it is one of the toughest reservation to score in a city filled with tough reservations, and how it has managed to stay atop the Zagat's most popular list for over a decade in a city where a new restaurant is born every 2 hours.
The place: For a place that charged so much, I was certainly expecting a much plusher setting instead of the slightly dated room with sloping floors and a tiny bathroom located too close to the main dining area. But as I settled into our table on the narrow alcove overhanging the main room, laughing heartily at times, sharing food casually with Dawn and peering voyeuristically at the food diners downstairs were eating, I realized that in a room that makes everyday food unique and ordinary events special, there was no room for opulent furnishings and chandeliers.
The savory: A pioneer of the New American bistro since its beginnings in 1985, Union Square Cafe has spawned many copycats. I guess I am spoiled and have been enjoying my fair share of seasonal cuisine and local produce, so while the food was fair, we were not particularly thrilled by the appetizer and entrees. The batter for the frito misto we shared as an appetizer was light and the seafood fresh. My osso buco was tender and the bone marrow a rich spread for good bread but too heavy for me that I brought most of it home. Dawn's duck was tasty, but a little tough and over-salted. Unlike the duo of duck she enjoyed at Cafe Boulud, where she was still waxing lyrical over, its unlikely that she'll remember this duck by next week.
The sweet: Easily the star of the night was the perennial favorite warm banana tart with macadamia brittle and vanilla ice-cream. The alchemy the pastry chef performed on the warm banana encased in the light, barely-there pastry shell, sweet and uncloying vanilla icecream and slightly salted caramel macadamia nuts was pure magic. It was so insanely good that I almost swooned upon my first bite. This humble looking tart is easily the best dessert I've ever had. Our second dish, a baked alaskan with chocolate icecream and served with fresh and candied orange and kumquat slices was unfortunately overshadowed by the extraordinary tart and played second fiddle. Without the tart however, it would have also been a successful dish.
The service: A little slow throughout the whole meal and our server seemed to be very busy with many tables at once. But, Danny Meyer is famous for his dedication towards great service and likewise our server was professional yet friendly and helpful at the same time. I had when making the reservations mentioned that we were celebrating Dawn's college graduation and our server came up to us before the meal to congratulate her. It was such a joy watching Dawn's surprised reaction. As for the icing on the cake, one of our dessert, the baked alaskan was comped, courtesy of the restaurant in commemoration of the happy occasion. It is no wonder the Union Square Cafe is the restaurant people choose to celebrate their special days.
The verdict: The banana tart is enough to bring me back over and over again, but the polished yet personable service makes this a true gem.

Union Square Cafe
21 East 16th St (bet Union Square West and 5th Ave)

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