Saturday, January 21, 2006

Calibration New York City Entry #58

To appreciate a restaurant, one must gauge its intentions. Nowhere is this truer than at the venerable Union Square Café, which at 21 years of age has reached its maturity.

At its start in 1985 (I dined there a few years later), USC brought a culinary flash downtown. The menu often reads as if it was the equivalent of the higher spread restaurants, even if the prices or the cheery ambiance was not. USC brought "gourmet" dining within the ambit of the exploding upper middle classes, newly minted professionals with taste (real or imagined). This was a New Class who rejected the stiff formality of the grand cuisine. As others have mentioned (Frank Bruni among them), USC was revolutionary in form and fashion.

Although I sometimes speak of USC and Gramercy Tavern in the same breath, this claim is misleading, even if both are Danny Meyer restaurants, and are ranked #2 and #1 in popularity in the 2006 Zagat Guide. Tom Colicchio's GT is the more subtle, producing dishes that in their preparation can challenge three star restaurants - it is a chef's restaurant. USC is a lot of fun, serving robust dishes with interesting flavor combinations, but is limited by the preparations and the quality of their ingredients. Compared to GT, USC is (even) more casual and (even) more modestly priced, remembering of course that this is Union Square. (So informal is USC that there a Baby Changing Station in the Men's Room, a fact that says quite a lot about market niche.) Anyone who doubts that the highest quality ingredients can make a noticeable difference should spend an evening at USC after having visited a four-star restaurant (in my case, Per Se). To enjoy USC is to appreciate it for what it is: an upper-middle sanctum of the Haute. USC is a destination restaurant just as Bloomingdales is a destination emporium.

Our trio began with a pair of appetizers. The Fried Calamari with Spicy Anchovy Mayonnaise was as advertised. The calamari was tender and good. The breading and mayo reminding me of Outback's Blooming Onion (a secret pleasure). Our other appetizer had more culinary ambition: Razor Clams and Cockle Pan Stew with White Wine Tomato Broth, Calabrese Sausage and Saffron Aioli. This was robust cooking. Despite the range of exotica, the dish was not subtle. The tastes screamed, not whispered. As I was enjoying it, I thought of how Alain Ducasse might have brought out the essence of rarely found razor clams or these hermaphroditic cockles. The delicacy of these bivalves was erased by the saucing.



As a main course, I selected Seared Sea Scallops with Black Truffle, Chickpea Sauce, Braised Baby Artichoke, and Crispy Sunchoke Salad. This is quite an list and the mix was enjoyable, even if a bit of a hash in which flavors were lost. I was disappointed by the scallops, which were not of the highest quality (as well as being somewhat overcooked). This dish reflected both the virtues of USC and its weakness. Given mid-range restaurants, this is an impressive construction, it just wasn't transcendent. Even more than being slightly overcooked, it was over-designed.


The main courses of my colleagues - crispy lemon pepper duck and tuna fillet mignon were enjoyed, but in both cases - duck and tuna - these were not proteins (or prices) of the very highest order.

Our pair of desserts had something of the same quality. We selected Sticky Toffee Pudding with Cinnamon Ice Cream and Ginger-Butterscotch Sauce and Meyer Lemon Bread Pudding with Blood Orange Sorbet. I found both puddings to be heavy, edging toward leaden, but I thoroughly treasured the Blood Orange Sorbet. Once again the complexity of the dishes promise more than they deliver.



On my return to Manhattan, I knew I had to return to USC on a night on which three courses and a manageable bill ($67/person) was what was needed. Danny Meyer (and his current chef Michael Romano) deserves honor for dumbing down haute cuisine. If this seems like a back-handed compliment, it is a front-handed compliment. To know what a restaurant can't do is as important as knowing what it can.

Union Square Café
21 East 16th Street (off Union Square)
Manhattan (Union Square)

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