“Over the River and Through Midtown”

Our annual holiday season dinner in New York is a much anticipated tradition. This year, we skipped the seasonal glitz of Midtown for a food focused experience in Greenwich Village at Danny Meyer’s flagship restaurant: The Union Square Cafe. Opened in 1985, the Cafe was Meyer’s first restaurant and has remained the foundation of his multi-unit restaurant empire.

Meyer loves restaurants. He’s not a chef or a celebrity, just a guy who wants you to have a great meal. His restaurants consistently offer great food, guest focused service, and a level of innovation that lies just below trendy, but ensures excellence. When it opened, the Union Square Cafe was remarkable for its out of the way location, reliance on fresh seasonal ingredients from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket, beautifully presented food, and a daily menu that followed the seasons. Meyer was a pioneer and the restaurant was a hit, immediately known for a high level of cuisine and a casual, unpretentious atmosphere, that drew sophisticated diners from midtown to the wilds of Greenwich Village for a new kind of dining.

The Union Square Cafe has been in the Zagat top 10 most popular restaurants in New York every year since 1990 and has held the top spot for 9 of those years. Its success has  fostered the creation of an empire of innovative restaurants including Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, The Modern, Cafe 2 & Terrace 5 at the Museum of Modern Art, Maialino, Untitled at the Whitney, North End Grill and the wildly successful Shake Shack hamburger chain. For all these reasons we journeyed to East 16th Street for our first visit.

As we were being seated, we met Managing Partner Sam Lipp and quickly discovered a Cornell connection with our friends from Ithaca. His warm greeting set us up for a delightful evening. Sam turned us over to Christian, our charming and expert waiter who guided us through the menu. He explained which dishes were routinely on the menu and which were new this evening while pointing out the house made pastas as a specialty along with favorites from each section.

We’re a table of sharers, so four appetizers and entrees were chosen by consensus – no duplicates allowed. The Mushroom Sformato, a wild mushroom custard with sherry vinegar was a big hit for its deep earthy flavors.  The light and crisp Fried Calamari with Spicy Anchovy Mayonnaise was another winner. Two salads were fresh, crisp, lightly dressed and showered with Gruyere and Pecorino Romano.

Two unordered dishes from the Snack Menu appeared as a gift from the kitchen before our appetizers. There were intriguing choices here but we had skipped this section, saving room for dessert. Salt-Baked Sunchokes matched their creamy texture with a tart Lemon Aioli that had a notable and unadvertised pepper kick. Crispy Pigs Ears turned out to be addictive despite being somewhat “higher on the hog” than we usually go. Sliced into strips, fried crisp and served with a sweet and sour Tarragon Mustard – we couldn’t stop till the plate was clean. The phrase “Just one more bite” lost all meaning.

Fettuccine Bolognese included chunks of sweet Butternut Squash in a savory sauce.  Butternut Squash Tortelli were little pasta foldovers filled with squash and sauced with Balsamic Vinegar, Sage Brown Butter and cranberries – tying together two fall classics.  Delicious Duck Confit Ravioli glistening with Cider Brown Butter were topped with shaved Brussels Sprouts and Almonds. Roast Chicken is a test for any restaurant kitchen, and the Pan Roast here was beautifully cooked – crisp yet juicy. But the real draw in the description was the Parmigiano Bread Pudding, which delivered on its intriguing promise. Plates were shared, all were delicious, but we all thought our choice was the best!

It was desserts for all, even though our fullness meters were nearly at the red line. The Chocolate-Marshmallow Cake got chocolate on the plate four different ways, all delicious.  The Union Square Cafe Cookies & Biscotti included at least six little bites, great for tasting, but easily portable for a doggie bag too.  The more unusual dessert choices were The Spiced Date Cake with Toffee Sauce, Poached Pears and Espresso Ice Cream.  The exotic taste of dates and the toffee sauce were the triggers here and seemed right for the season. The USC Banana Tart was glazed with Macadamia Brittle (crisp and crunchy) and Honey-Vanilla Ice Cream – a banana dressed for an elegant night out.

We started with a couple of featured cocktails. The Applejack Rabbit with lemon, orange, and maple was well flavored, but pretty sweet. An Airmail including light rum, honey, lime and Prosecco was much more tart and refreshing. With the guidance of Wine Director Chris Nelson we had an Aglianico del Vulture 2005 from the south of Italy bottled by LeLuSi in Barile. It was full bodied with bright berry flavors, just right with the pastas and chicken.

The weeknight crowd included a few tables dressed to kill, some business groups, locals both couples and singles, and a few tourists like us – a very New York mix. Original art and murals by Judy Rifka grace the walls in both the low-ceilinged dining room and the double-height bar area. A smattering of Christmas decorations brought in the holiday season with taste and discretion.

New York dining is marvelous, especially at Christmas, and well worth the trip. I wonder where we’ll go next year?

Union Square Cafe  (212) 243-4020
21 E 16th St, New York, 10003