At Union Square Café, your meal begins with a bread basket, butter with herbed sea salt, and picholine olives.
As Danny Meyer increasingly focuses his attention on an expanding Shake Shack empire, seeding locations up and down the Eastern Seaboard, you’ve got to wonder, is he still paying attention to his white tablecloth joints? To answer this question, a friend and I returned to his first restaurant, Union Square Café, which celebrated its 27th birthday this month.
The beef sirloin carpaccio (click on image to enlarge).
It was one of the city’s first farm-to-restaurant establishments, showcasing the produce of the farmers’ market at Union Square, then in its infancy. The emphasis was on New American cooking with prominent Italian influences, a mix of styles still popular among new restaurants today. Yet rumors of the restaurant’s decline have been common, as newer places were added to the Meyer portfolio, which includes Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke in several permutations, Maialino, North End Grill, and Untitled.
As we stepped inside the semi-subterranean space at lunchtime, we recognized much of the old decor in a labyrinthine space that includes three dining rooms — one upstairs on a mezzanine — plus a long commodious barroom. The rooms are decorated with vases of flowers, still-life paintings featuring food and flowers, and, in a rear room, a large mural that looks like a Matisse that the artist walked away from and never finished.
At lunch on a Friday the place was mobbed, but we were shown to a nice table near the front window. In lieu of an amuse, a bread basket was brought with a big pat of butter sprinkled with herbed sea salt. What a relief to see the bread basket appear, when most establishments these days stingily withhold it.
Sign of the season: squash soup
An adolescent octopod rides atop the brodetto, flanked by two demi-squares of fried polenta.
We chose three apps, including a beef carpaccio, squash soup, and grilled mackerel. The carpaccio was nearly perfect, thinly sliced sirloin topped with plenty of shaved parmigiano, arugula, and little curls of a woody something we first identified as plantain, but turned out to be artichoke leaf. The soup was pretty much the regular article, but supremely smooth and livened with toasted chestnuts and matchsticks of firm apple. Best of all was the mackerel, which arrived in a crock with a rich tomato-olive-oil sauce, the perfect thing to sop with bread.
The mains set a similarly high standard. Offered in a broad bowl, a brodetto (there’s that Italian influence) bobbed with in-shell Manila clams as a tween octopus lounged on top. Underneath was a small filet of a hake-like fish that pulled away in big planks. The bowl was as busy with flavors as we might have hoped, the broth rich, and the flavor amplified with thinly sliced fennel bulb, making the potage a remote cousin of bouillabaisse. (Thankfully, the chef resisted the impulse to toss in a shot of Pernod, and the dish remained resolutely Italian.)
The best of our two entrées was a magnificently crumbed chicken Milanesa topped with a perfectly dressed heap of salad so large it could have been a main course in itself. Dotted with goaty tasting pecorino, it came in a lively dressing. For dessert, we split a ginger cake with cardamom ice cream. Cutting into it, poached pears tumbled out.
In the usual Danny Meyer fashion, the service was superb: friendly, attentive, and nearly self-effacing without being omnipresent in the least, setting the perfect tone for a sometimes-rainy Friday afternoon. (Meyer is famous for hiring Midwesterners in the front of the house for their plainness and agreeability.) For my pal and me, this meal was the culinary high point of our week. The original luster of the restaurant remains.
Union Square Café
21 East 16th Street
For dessert, gingerbread with poached pears
The front room empties out after the lunch rush.