Weeks ago when I learned that Union Square Cafe would be relocating from the space it’s held since 1985, I decided we had to make a visit to the original space. Many have noted the ironic fact that the restaurant is being priced out of their original space when they helped to put the neighborhood on the map. As this article states, it’s ironic that a restaurant that has been there since before the area was trendy is now being priced of an area it helped to build.
Danny Meyer’s first restaurant (which he opened at the age of only 27) has received much praise over the years, including multiple nods from the prestigious James Beard Foundation. In honor of the final weeks at their original location, they did a special two-week, three-course prix fixe offering of all of the favorites from their 30-year run, which ended this past Sunday, December 6th. Guests could do a special pairing for an additional charge (we did not indulge). For this special event, they coordinated pours from a very elite subset of their wines, with vintages dating back to 1978, for a $65 supplement. You could also order by the glass from that special wine list from $27-$48.
The space is very unassuming from the façade and signature glowing neon sign. After walking by multiple times over the years, I didn’t realize quite what was waiting on the other side of their original doors. The restaurant was multi-level, with a room splitting off to the left and another one located up a set of stairs. The upstairs level, where we were seated, was only a small seating space, which overlooked their L-shaped bar. It allowed for a fun aerial view of the space – from our fellow diners upstairs to the more casual guests who popped in sans reservation and waited for room to open up at the bar.
To start, I chose their New York deli beef tartare: pastrami spices, latke chip, and beet pickles. The pastrami spices made this dish unique as the dish tasted like a fresh flavorful take on the deli staple. The latke chip was a fun addition. I found the crunchy texture of the chip was an appropriate nod to the crunch of the rye bread in its namesake. My husband had the chili crab: kabocha squash, finger lime, and puffed rice. Surprisingly, it was sweeter than it was spicy, but the mix of flavors was another interesting start to the meal.
For my entrée, I had the rack of pork: market cabbages, colatura (an Italian fish sauce made from anchovies), and crispy polenta. The crispy polenta was an interesting addition and were almost mozzarella stick-shaped. The pork was a bit rarer than the medium rare ordered, but it was still a lovely dish. My husband’s dish was interesting as well – a squab breast accompanied by foie gras stuffing, farotto (essentially farro cooked risotto-style.), black kale, and cranberries.
Choosing a dessert was a bit challenging. I ended up having their apple crostata with an Armagnac anglaise. I loved how light and crispy the crust element was on top of the dessert and the ice cream was a slightly sweet addition to offset the richer anglaise. My husband went with the Paris Brest: crème pâtissière and caramel ice cream. The dessert was a large circle of profiteroles different from anything I’d ever seen.
All in all, it was a lovely treat of a night out and much deserving of the hype surrounding Union Square Café. I feel very lucky that we were able to get a reservation during this special event series.
If this all sounds great to you, you’ll unfortunately have a bit of a wait to visit until they relocate. In Spring 2016, they’re scheduled to re-open in their new space at Park Avenue South and 19th Street (where they’ve already procured a 15-year lease), formerly home to the City Crab & Seafood Company.
In the interim or if you’re not in NYC, you can get the Union Square Cafe cookbook to make some of their signature dishes in your own home. You can also find the recipe for their much lauded bar nuts here online. Danny Meyer himself is quite a fixture in the NYC restaurant scene. He has a number of other restaurants you can also check out, including my favorites – Gramercy Tavern, Marta, and Maialino.