Union Square Cafe
One chef quietly updates a New York institution.
Thu Oct 9 2008
Photograph: Jeffrey Gurwin
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Union Square Cafe, Danny Meyer’s groundbreaking New American bistro, has been serving many of the same signature dishes for more than two decades. Though most have been relegated to once-a-week specials, executive chef Carmen Quagliata knows better than to kill them off entirely—lest the restaurant’s loyal (if not particularly adventuresome) regulars call for his head.
The devotion to these trademarked “USC” standards was on full display at 7:30pm on a recent Monday night, at which point the lobster shepherd’s pie special had already sold out. Like that iconic entrée, the place has barely changed over the years. Its most endearing qualities—generous, accessible food served in a relaxed tavern setting—make it time and again Zagat’s most popular restaurant. The packed bar—still one of the city’s great spots for solo dining—gives way on one side to a soaring nook with balcony tables, and on the other to the cozy main dining room awash in a cacophony of conversation and jazz, and festooned as ever in vibrant abstract tableaux.
Despite its landmark stature, chef Quagliata—a veteran of top Italian kitchens in Boston, New York and Napa Valley, who officially took over last fall—has been quietly working to put his stamp on the menu. Rolling out a roster of simple, lusty old-country fare, he’s been steadily transforming the place into a stealth trattoria.
You can eat very well skipping the restaurant’s dated classics and sticking only to Quagliata’s contributions. Instead of fried “USC” calamari—a novelty before it became everyday bar food—begin with the sirloin carpaccio. The dish, whisper-thin raw beef showered in a traditional potpourri of condiments (olive oil, lemon juice, shaved Parmigiano, baby arugula), is the sort that never goes out of style. It features one wild-card element—fried parsnip curls that add just enough crunch without distracting for a minute from the top-quality meat.
Pristine raw materials have always been the stars here—the restaurant was an early trailblazer in Greenmarket-driven seasonality. Instead of the Tuesday “USC” tuna filet mignon special with very mid-’80s wasabi mashed potatoes, try Quagliata’s timeless tuna loin entrée, featuring three thick slices of exceptional fish seared on the edges and beet-red within. The sushi-grade tuna, topped with bright basil pesto and fanned on a bed of warm chickpea puree, stands up beautifully to its black-and-blue treatment.
Though the restaurant already had an Italian bent under its chef Michael Romano—still a consulting partner—Quagliata’s long-running predecessor had eclectic tastes, also borrowing from Japan, France and the U.S. The new chef swaps in a far purer approach, fitting enough given Meyer’s long-standing connections to Italy (he spent a good deal of time there before becoming a restaurateur).
The chef’s fine homemade pastas—available in whole or half portions—include delicate pork-and-rabbit-filled ravioli drenched in butter, with a confetti-like sprinkle of the last sweet summer corn. Though just right as a starter, those little half-moons are far too rich for a main. More entrée-friendly is fresh spaghettini, topped with a fried runny egg, which make the leap into autumn with a wild-spinach tangle and an earthy thicket of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. While both dishes are outstanding, neither seemed like big sellers the recent times that I dined.
Casually taking the temperature of the room one night while watching dishes zip by, it seemed that Quagliata’s most intriguing creations still need time to catch on. As the tables around me consumed timid green salads and grilled salmon fillets, I happily tackled his Gulf shrimp in tomato brodetto (a traditional seafood stew). A delicious fiery cross between Fra Diavolo and scampi, it featured eight medium shrimp and a big grilled hunk of spongy filone (Italian sourdough for soaking up the garlicky sauce).
Like the rest of the meal, desserts remain torn between the restaurant’s new mostly Italian ethos and its more eclectic past. In this case, however, nostalgia wins out. Too-dry zucchini bread pudding with ricotta gelato isn’t even in the same weight class as the menu’s one remaining “USC” sweet—a salty caramel-crusted banana tart surrounded by nuggets of macadamia brittle. Even 23 years in, not everything, it seems, is ripe for an update.