At the old location, I was more an admirer than a fan. I was never quite as amazed by the food as it seemed I was supposed to be. But then, fluctuation is normal in a long-running restaurant. Over the years, reviews of Union Square Cafe in The Times have ranged from one to three stars. In the most recent appraisal, in 2009, Frank Bruni landed right in the middle, awarding it two.
The Rockwell Group, the architecture firm, was given the job of evoking the old address in a space that is much roomier, without the narrow passageways and sunken dining room. Some of this is done subliminally: Pendant lamps downstairs hang at the height of the 16th Street ceilings. I could swear the original downstairs bar was smaller, but that’s probably because I could almost never get a seat there. Mr. Rockwell swears that the new one is the same length: 27 feet 1 inch.
The upstairs bar top where my cocktail rested was precisely the size of the old upstairs bar top because it was, in fact, the same piece of wood with a fresh coat of varnish. The art collection has come along for the ride, too, and one of the pleasures of the Rockwell layout is the way you seem to bump into a Frank Stella or a Claes Oldenburg or a Judy Rifka every time you turn around.
The cellar stocks wines from Italy, France and the United States, and nowhere else. As Jason Wagner, the wine director, explained one night, those are the countries that were on the list when Union Square Cafe opened in 1985.
The menu does not go so far as to point out all the old showstoppers — some from Michael Romano’s reign in the kitchen and others from that of the current chef, Carmen Quagliata — but the servers are happy to help. Do I even need to say this? It’s the most famous thing about Union Square Cafe: The servers are always happy to help.
I hadn’t realized the salad was a cult object, but I did know about the gnocchi. In this case, I stand with the cult. They are not so much gnocchi as little cushions of ricotta that have been tricked into holding their cylindrical shape only for as long as it takes to move them from the plate to the mouth.
Consider me a fanboy when it comes to the ideally crunchy fritto misto, and the polenta, too, a $13 bowl of warm fluff that has absorbed its weight, and then some, in milk and creamy young cow’s milk cheese. With maitake mushrooms and shiny green pesto, it’s so filling and likable that you could make a meal of it and walk away more content than if you’d had a 12-course tasting somewhere else.
The risk in churning out old recipes like this is that the kitchen becomes bored, and the food boring. That’s not happening at Union Square Cafe right now; the cooks seem to have dialed right in on the qualities that made these dishes favorites in the first place.
Union Square Cafe has always been the offspring of a mixed marriage between a trattoria and a bistro, with an American bar and grill somewhere in the family tree. In the current phenotype, the trattoria genes are dominant.
There is a wonderfully tender and gentle rabbit sugo, tossed with bands of pappardelle. Mr. Quagliata’s pasta work can be just as satisfying when he carves out new traditions, tossing tubes of rigatoni with roasted carrots and sizzled scallions and chiles, then brightening the flavors with a spoonful of yogurt.
A little less thrilling was a lasagna Bolognese that has been rotated off the menu for the time being; while the pasta sheets were as thin and light as any Italian could hope for, the flavors in the meat sauce weren’t as developed as they might have been.
Though I split that lasagna with somebody else so we could have traditional appetizer-primi-secondi meals, the mains are so imposing that a simple two-course plan is the wiser path. I was nearly done in by a braised lamb shank, although the bright salsa verde helped spur me along. Even the choices that sound lighter, like red snapper sandwiched between a thatch of shaved puntarelle and a bed of chickpea purée, or a flattened half-chicken, with cumin and dried chiles embedded in its surface and slabs of white sweet potato peeking out from below, are best tackled with an undented appetite.
After all: There will be dessert, and it will not be a minor event, especially if somebody at your table has strong memories of the panna cotta (beautiful; the pastry chef, Daniel Alvarez, surrounds it with citrus segments and granola), or the pumpkin bread pudding (more bread than pudding when I last saw it), or the fantastic tart topped with a caramelized puff of banana so soft it seems to have blown apart.
Sometimes Union Square Cafe’s eagerness to please has something close to the opposite effect. When a server suggested with wide-eyed eagerness that I might like “a very cold glass of milk” with the espresso-chocolate cake, chills went down my spine, and not chills of anticipation. The last time I drank milk with a meal, I was wearing footed pajamas.
Then I’d remember how happy the service had made one of my guests, who had shown up before me, but still about 30 seconds too late to grab a seat at the downstairs bar. She spun around in agitation for a moment, but a manager spotted her and offered to call upstairs to see if there were any open bar stools there.
This empathic attunement to disturbances in the Force defines the Meyer brand of hospitality. While it flows through all his restaurants, it functions in its purest and most effective form at Union Square Cafe.
The restaurant is far too nice to be polarizing, but it won’t be everybody’s cold glass of milk. Diners from the Instagram generation might want more crunch, more adventure or more spontaneity. I hope that as it settles into its new home, it gets a little less self-referential. But even now, it has a combination of energy and well-honed familiarity that’s rare in Manhattan. It’s rare anywhere, and it lifts this restaurant above fashion, to a plateau that it occupies all by itself.
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