There’s this psychedelic art installation near the loo at Union Square Cafe. A vertical flat-screen plays a kaleidoscopic video of odd shapes and random colors. Look closely and you’ll see a moving pattern of disembodied hands holding tiny iPhones. Then you’ll realize a camera is affixed to the television, that the iPhone-holding hand is your own, and that you’re part of the exhibit. You’ll think about this for a minute, and then the door of the bathroom will open and you'll go do what you came here to do.
This little interlude is the most exciting thing that will happen to you here.
Danny Meyer’s flagship restaurant — reborn after a yearlong shutter and relocation — isn’t about excitement. It isn’t about reinvention. It’s about staying the same and satiating regulars.
What was once a charming bi-level space on 16th Street is now a charming bi-level space on 19th Street. Every piece of art that hung at the original location hangs in the new location. The downstairs bar is the same length as the old bar. The upstairs bar even uses the original bar top, which I suppose makes it "reclaimed wood." And the walls sport the same cream-colored tones to remind you of those chinos your preppy Georgetown buddy wore as a Congressional intern.
Union Square Cafe is an ode to main courses — those aging primetime news anchors of gastronomy. It’s about serving old gems from the old menu — yellowfin tuna burgers and spiced chicken — as well as debut dishes that would not have been out of place on the old menu.
There is no sea urchin here. There is no avocado toast. When a strongly flavored ingredient like bottarga makes an appearance on spaghetti, it’s shaved in such minute quantities that its flavor is almost indiscernible. Chicken soup, a menu item that appears at modern restaurants with the same frequency as tuna fish sandwiches (which is to say, not very often), comes laced neither with chiles nor fish sauce. It’s just plain old tortelloni in brodo. The broth steams your face with a perfume of carrots, poultry, and parmesan, while a bite into the dumplings reveals a fluffy, liver-laced mousse. It doesn’t wow as much as it warms. And whenever I find myself here, it’s what I want.
USC was Meyer’s first restaurant. He opened it in 1985 and it helped established Union Square as a destination neighborhood. It’s where New Yorkers embraced dining at the bar in a proper restaurant. It paved the way for a more relaxed style of ambitious American dining. And it was a driving force, along with Peter Hoffman’s Savoy (established in 1990), in making New Yorkers passionate about menus driven by greenmarket fare.
Fast forward to 2015, when Meyer announced he was moving the venue following a massive rent hike, which he mused about in a New York Times op-ed. "It’s hard to come to grips with the notion that our success has, in part, contributed to our inability to remain in our neighborhood," he wrote.
It’s a fascinating point that prompts the question: Can a restaurant thrive if the envelope-pushing ideas it helped propagate are now commonplace, and its once-distinctive cuisine is now ubiquitous? I’ll never forget the thrill of my first meals in the bar room at The Modern, Meyer’s small-plates place that gave this young gourmand a crash course in contemporary gastronomy. I’m not sure I’ll ever experience those same thrills at Union Square Cafe, a restaurant that hasn’t been in its prime for a decade or longer. And yet it thrives, filled with the crowd that could have been regulars during that '90s heyday.
I’m tempted to argue that New York doesn’t need yet another mainstream midrange brasserie, but I confess I’m stupendously happy with the bread, olives, and butter that mark the beginning of every meal.
Those Gaeta olives, served in a tiny ramekin, come laced with orange rind and chiles. The butter, from Beurremont, spreads as smoothly as Marshmallow Fluff. And head baker Justin Rosengarten's bread, a whole-wheat miche with a caramel exterior and an open crumb, might even be the restaurant’s best dish. Collectively, these three items could command $13 at a hip downtown spot, but here, they’re gratis. Though it’s factored into the restaurant’s overall prices, it still feels like a gift.
You need gifts when prices are this high. The chicken soup runs $19 as a midcourse or $29 as a main. One of the driving forces behind the slightly-higher-than-average cost of dining here is that USC is a no-tipping restaurant, which allows Meyer to pay his staff fair wages and provide more comprehensive benefits — including one of the most generous parental leave plans in the hospitality industry.
The culinary world has seen more than a few non-tasting menu venues give up on service-included policies as of late, but that Meyer can charge elevated prices and still pack the house at his midrange restaurant makes me wonder why the Balthazars and Lafayettes of the world can’t make no-tipping work too. It’s enough to make you think: Maybe Union Square Cafe isn’t so conservative after all.
Be Prepared for Deliciously Mushy Food
Under the leadership of Carmen Quagliata, the kitchen relishes in textures that a diner might associate with pudding. Cauliflower sformato, a holdover from the old location, is essentially a panna cotta appetizer with the brassica a conduit for the intoxicating aroma of winter truffles. Polenta, typically a side dish, is billed as a starter. Topped with maitake mushrooms and pesto, it glides down the throat with the hot silkiness of porridge.
Gnocchi are closer to gnudi here: Slicked by tomato sauce, they nearly fall apart when forked. Lasagna is a study in soft noodles and the bliss of bechamel. Butter-roasted monkfish, nearly as soft as foie gras, arrives with croutons that should be soaked in mushroom jus and left to dissolve on the tongue.
Quagliata Is a Master of Italian-American Macaroni
There are envelope-pushing pasta chefs like Mark Ladner, Michael White, and Rich Torrisi, who want to provoke you with techniques, unexpected ingredients, and freely associative flavor combos. Then there’s Quagliata, who would rather serve something traditionally delicious. Nothing wrong with that. He dishes up a standard — pappardelle Bolognese to fill you up. He sends out lobster ravioli with butter to remind you how powerfully this regal crustacean can taste of the sea. He uses tart yogurt to counter the fatty saltiness of pancetta and the unrestrained sweetness of roasted carrots. It’s a beguilingly complex, clean-out-your-pantry preparation that will surely do a few deserved tours on the Food52 recipe circuit.
Union Square Cafe Serves One of NYC’s Best Burgers
We live in an era when a burger can easily cost more than a skirt steak. Perhaps this is why there are only about three restaurants where I order expensive burgers on a regular basis, and all three of them are run by April Bloomfield.
This might become the fourth. Union Square’s burger ($27) isn’t a study in dry-aging or exotic blending. It is bovine exuberance by way of restraint. Quagliata packs a loose blend of short rib and brisket, which puts up all the resistance of cake, with a medium-rare interior that’s juicy and intensely beefy. The cheddar and the bacon don’t overpower with smoke or tang. Rather, they add salt and texture while letting the meat shine.
The fries are fine.
Expect Safety Dance Dishes and an Emphasis on Main Courses
Fried calamari isn’t reimagined here. It’s just fried calamari and it’s not very good — underseasoned and paired with an anchovy aioli. Mackerel crudo, in turn, is a gorgeous and safe sashimi plate, with the neutral fish basking in the salty puree of olives and artichokes.
Main courses — remember those?— make up about a third of the menu. Red snapper with orange zest is a tasty-enough rendition of crispy-skinned fish dressed with aromatics. Leg of lamb, at $46, is great for those who want this typically gamey meat to pack all the blandness of chicken breast. Chicken, in turn, is a preternaturally juicy half bird seasoned with 13 spices: "Paprika and twelve other spices," says a waiter. It evokes a tamer version of the powerfully delicious Moorish fowl at La Vara. It’s a steal at $31, easily feeding two.
Desserts Are Pure American Indulgences
Pastry chef Daniel Alvarez traffics in exalted basics when it comes to sweets. Chocolate and pecan tart could pass itself off as an Entenmann’s brownie. Yet buttermilk panna cotta is a counterpoint to the leaden riffs that poison too many dessert menus. It trembles as you breathe on it. And with the silky banana tart, a single scoop of ice cream is worth the price of the entire dessert; the frozen treat shows how Alvarez prefers to dial down the aromatics of vanilla and amplify the egg and cream.
Like everything else here, it’s nothing life changing. It’s good food that fills you up and offers a place for your uncle to take you to dinner.
Cost: Apps are $13-$19; pastas are $18-$29; mains are $27-$31. Prices are inclusive of service; there is no tip line on the bill.
Sample dishes: Oysters, fried calamari, ricotta gnocchi, lobster ravioli, tortellini en brodo, burger with cheddar and bacon, spiced chicken.
Bonus tip: Daily Provisions next door serves a serious breakfast. More on that soon.