United We Eat, Divided We Pay: The Union Square Cafe

On Amazon.com’s restaurant page, one may grow depressed to learn that The Outback Steakhouse, The Cheesecake Factory and Applebee’s rank significantly higher than The Gramercy Tavern and The Union Square Cafe in terms of menu-viewing popularity. On a practical front it makes sense—-when most American families go out, they want reliable, moderately priced and familiar food. Actually, reading those statistics kind of puts things in perspective: it puts one on the defensive. How do you justify a lunch for two at The Union Square Cafe that would pay for dinner for four at Applebee’s?

Let’s begin with atmosphere. The Union Square Cafe is quaint and beautiful. Big neon sign out front:

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Inside, there are lavish floral arrangements, friendly hosts/hostesses, a crowded bar, and white walls with abstractly painted designs. We–(Lauren and I; she’s visiting this weekend)–were seated in the back room in a banquette near much more distinguished-looking people. They sat us so we were both facing out. At first, I thought this was cute, but it got to be irritating after a while.

Service.

Have you seen the Applebee’s commercials where they show the waitress going to work, but first she visits a little old lady who invites her to dinner and the waitress says she can’t she has to work and the old lady crumples in disappointment, and at the end the waitress surprises the old bag with dinner from Applebee’s? Or the one where the football team loses the game just as Applebee’s is closing up in a rain storm and the van pulls up with the players and they get out and see it’s closed and begin to feel even more defeated when the manager opens it up for them?

What the fuck ARE these commercials? Lessons in morality from a corporate giant that excels at mediocrity? “Come eat at Applebee’s, we believe in your eternal salvation and our food only sucks a little!” I find it so depressing that corrupt institutions (Applebee’s, George W. Bush) can exploit religious devotion for their own gain. Halleluljah!

But I digress. The service at The Union Square Cafe was a bit phony. Here’s what I mean by that. I was telling Lauren that I had to watch five movies this weekend for school and that I’ve yet to find a local Blockbuster. Lauren said, “I think there’s one in Union Square.” Just then the waitress came over. She said, “Are you looking for something in Union Square?” “A blockbuster,” I replied. “I’ll find out for you right away,” she said and scampered off.

She was gone for 10 minutes and she came back and asked if we were ready to place our order. Either she forgot or she has short-term memory loss. In any case, she took our order and then disappeared for huge lengths of time. Our meal went incredibly slow. Where’s Jesus when you need him?

The Food.

But, of course, the food was delicious. The best thing was this calamari:

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Really tender, wonderfully seasoned batter. The sauce was this anchovy dipping sauce which may seem gross to some, but it was really among the best dipping sauces I’ve ever had for calamari. This dish was a winner on all fronts.

Lauren ordered the tuna burger:

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I’m not sure she was in love with it, but she really liked the presentation. She liked the pickled ginger that came on top. She also liked the garlic potato chips.

I ordered the halibut special:

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The seasoning that formed a crust on the top of the halibut was terrific. Everything else was slightly bland. Or maybe it was subtle? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

I enjoyed the mushrooms and the spinach mixed in the sauce beneath.

Interestingly…

As I took these pictures, two older gentlemen stared at me with fascination.

“Aren’t you going to take our picture?” they said when I was finished.

“Haha,” I laughed.

“No seriously, take our picture,” they said.

I’d already put my camera away.

“A little bit later,” I said.

Then later, when I’d gone to the bathroom and the check had been paid, I came back to find Lauren talking to these men. They had asked her why I was taking pictures; she told them about my website. The larger of the two men asked, “Are you a cook?”

I said, “Well I like to cook; I’m still an amateur…”

“Bah!” he said. “You have to develop your tastebuds, otherwise you’ll always be an amateur.”

Duly noted.

“Do you know Marcella Hazan?” he asked.

“Well yes,” I replied, “she was featured in Saveur Magazine last month.”

“I was at her 80th birthday party,” he bragged.

“Wow,” I said, “that must have been amazing.”

“Unbelievable,” he replied.

“She teaches at the French Culinary Institute,” I attempted.

“Yes,” he said, “the founder of the FCI was sitting next to me.”

I looked at my watch.

“Well it was nice to have met you both,” I said, and shook their hands. Lauren and I hurried off.

I forgot to take their picture.

The Burger Joint

‘Twas last night I had tickets to see “Opening Doors,” a celebration of Stephen Sondheim, at Carnegie Hall. Arrived there much earlier than necessary and ’twas at a loss for where to eat dinner. Then I stumbled into the Parker Meridian hotel and a light went off in my head:

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“Hey!” I realized. “Here’s the Burger Joint; that place where all the celebrities go to hang out and eat burgers. They say the burgers are among the best in the city! Let’s do this thing!”

The Burger Joint is sort of hidden behind a curtain near the front desk. You go in there and it’s like you are whooshed into another place and another time. It feels like a cross between Archie comics and a sordid room on a dilapidated cruise ship.

Naturally, the whole gang was there—Ashton, Paris, Tobey, Leo. They beckoned me over and suggested I order the hamburger with the works.

“Except I get mine without the meat and the bun,” explained Paris.

“Shut up, ho,” chastized Ashton.

“Who ya calling a ho?” shouted Tobey.

Leo played with the ice in his glass and kept whispering, “Rose…Rose…you’re gonna live Rose.”

I ordered the burger with the works:

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To quote the Scissor Sisters (who I’m listening to right now, they’re awesome!): “You’re filthy / but you’re gorgeous.”

I scarfed that baby down with a lemonade and a greasy bag of french fries. Literally they give you a brown lunch bag filled with fries. The whole thing totalled to $8 which isn’t wildly expensive for this sort of soul-satisfying food in Midtown.

So next time you’re with a gaggle of celebrities waiting to see a Sondheim show, I recommend the Burger Joint. It’s, to quote Paris, “mega-yum.”

The Hurricane Dining Sessions: BLT Steak

Seems that God (or whomever it is that controls the weather) (Al Roker?) must be a fan of this website. As my parents are propelled North to escape the mighty winds of a series of successive hurricanes, I get to eat out a lot and you get to read about it. Score!

Last night was a bit of a compromise. Dad likes steakhouses, I like gourmet food. Alas, there’s the new BLT Steakhouse—the perfect answer for our convoluted needs. (Mom has needs too, but they’re not so much content-based as context-based. BLT fit her trendy quotient).

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There are two ways to read our evening.

1) We are nice humble people and arriving 30 minutes early we were treated terribly by waitstaff who refused to seat us for 20 minutes despite the fact that we called first and they said its ok.

2) We are bad evil people who showed up 20 minutes early and demanded a table despite lack of availability.

Either way, we were sat by a freckly redhead and were soon greeted by a rather stiff waiter. We asked for help with the wine list and after mom asked, “How’s this?” pointing to a red that looked nice, he shrugged and said: “That’s a good one.”

We were served chicken liver mousse. (No picture taken, but this was nice. Foie gras-ish with a red wine layer on top.)

Then killer pop-overs:

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These were mighty filling but mighty enjoyable. Mom snatched dad’s away so he wouldn’t ruin his dinner. I exhibited self-control and only ate half.

My appetizer was the waiter-recommended figs wrapped in ham with goat cheese:

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Rich and delicious. Notice how the presentation echoes presentations at Jean-Georges and Per Se. This is a Frenchified steakhouse—very formal, very pristine. Dad ordered a lobster salad and mom tuna tartare. All of us were equally satisfied.

Then for the steak. Mine came out beautifully:

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Mom’s was a bit more problematic. She ordered it medium rare (“red center,” she told the waiter when she ordered) and, cutting into it, saw gray and pink. Not medium rare at all; not even medium.

She called a waiter over and she said, “This isn’t medium rare.” And he said, “It isn’t?” as if to challenge her. But he caught himself mid-argument and agreed to remove it to the kitchen since for the money we were spending we should get the food that we ordered. Soon he returned with a properly cooked steak. Mom was happy.

I’ll be honest, the steak was just fine. Not terrific. What upped the ante, though, was a series of dipping sauces that came with the meat. I ordered two: horseradish and red wine. Dad ordered peppercorn and mustard trio. Mom ordered Bernaise. The dipping sauces added a lot to the steak, but the steak itself could have been more flavorful.

As for sides there was creamed spinach, Hen of the Woods mushrooms, and onion rings:

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All expertly done but not as thrilling as the first course. Maybe because steakhouse food is so standard that even the most glorious preparation will always seem somewhat uneventful. I’m not sure. But there’s talent in the kitchen at BLT Steak, that’s for sure.

Next hurricane, we’ll have to try Peter Luger’s…

Panini at Murray’s Cheese Shop

Murray’s Cheese Shop is awesome. There was a huge article about it in the Food Issue of The New Yorker a few weeks ago and I think it’s safe to say that Murray’s is one of our nation’s greatest purveyors of cheese.

Of course, it’s rare to be walking through Greenwich Village on a hot day and say to oneself: “I could really go for a slice of Gouda right now!” So I’ve walked past Murray’s many times peering through the window, admiring the displays and scurrying on by. I almost did that today:

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But then I noticed, in the window, a sign that said they also sold paninis. I was hungry. It was lunch time. So I got the Italian panini with prosciutto, mozarrella and Italian dressing. It rocked!

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The bread was great, the meat was great, the cheese was great. All in all, it was great.

Next time I’ll go with the intention of buying a block of new and exciting cheese. Then I will eat it and tell you about it. For now, though, please accept my panini post.

And then of course there’s Serendipity.

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What’s frozen hot chocolate?

Funny you should ask. Serendipity recently came out with a cookbook where they apparently revealed the secret recipe for their frozen hot chocolate. I ran to the bookstore and charged my way to the cookbook section so I could learn the great secret. What is the great secret? “Choose your favorite hot chocolate mix, put in a blender with ice.” Ummm… that’s like Steven Speilberg telling his film students that the way to make a great film is to hit “record” on the camera.

No matter. I’m glad the secret’s not really out. Now you have a reason to go to Serendipity and experience the frozen hot chocolate yourself. It defies description.

Lauren and I sat at a round table like Archie and Betty or Jughead and Veronica, savoring the joys of a sodafountainy New York relic (that Andy Warhol and Jackie O frequented too):

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What’s that other dessert on the table?

A Broadway sundae with black chocolate cake and whipped cream and vanilla ice cream and fudge:

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It was way too much. But that’s the point isn’t it? When you take a cab 30 blocks uptown for ice cream, you don’t want a small cup and a dipstick. You want to binge. And binge we did. That, my friends, is Serendipity.

Lauren’s Here, We Ate At Zoe

Remember my old roommate Lauren? Old readers will. She came in yesterday (her family lives on Long Island) and tonight she met me for dinner in between my graduate playwriting workshop and my graduate drama lab (as opposed to dinner between Civil Procedure and Torts; a custom from the not-so-very-distant past). We had to eat quick and near NYU, so we went down to SoHo and discovered a place called Zoe—it was across the street from the Apple store where Lauren finally decided to accept her fate and become (like her former roommate) a full-fledged Apple owner. She ordered her 12-inch Powerbook and I’ve never been prouder.

The calamari at Zoe was great. Totally tender, not a bit rubbery. How do they do it? Do they beat it with a large polo mallet? Not sure. But there was Vietnamese dipping sauce too:

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We shared a pizza of heirloom tomatoes and shaved Parmesan. Pretty tasty:

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Should you run to Zoe next time you come to New York? No. It’s one of those “only if you’re in the neighborhood” places. Eat there if you’re in the neighborhood.

I Ate At Jean-Georges

Look, I’m not a restaurant critic. It takes a great deal out of me to write my pseudo-restaurant reviews. I’m pseudo-foodo. Not the real deal. I just like sharing either my (a) enthusiasm or (b) disappointment. So let me share my enthusiasm for our meal last night at Jean-Georges. It was wonderful. Put into context–with Per Se and Charlie Trotter’s in the backgrond–Jean-Georges was surely the best. The flavors were exciting, the room formal but not stuffy, and the presentation beautiful. Plus, we didn’t feel overstuffed at the end. What follows are some pictures from the meal to give you an idea. I didn’t photograph each course so as to enjoy the experience more. It’s my suggestion that if you come to New York seeking a 4-star dining experience you go to Jean-Georges. You won’t be disappointed.

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Amuse Bouche (If I remember correctly (from left to right) sashimi with radish and mustard, fig on a spoon with tamarind paste beneath, yogurt on top and olive oil, and tomato gazpacho):

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Egg Caviar:

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Young Garlic Soup with Thyme, Sauteed Frog Legs (Mom was grossed out by the idea of frog-eating, but I liked it—“tastes like chicken”):

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Courses I didn’t photograph:

Sea Scallops, Carmelized Cauliflower, Caper-Raisin Emulsion, Grated Nutmeg

Turbot in a Chateau Chalon Sauce, Tomato and Zucchini

Lobster Tartine, Lemongrass and Fenugreek Broth, Pea Shoots

Broiled Squab, Onion Compote, Corn Pancake with Foie Gras

Then dessert. You have a choice of one of four dessert flights: Chocolate, Rhubarb, Local Berry or Strawberry. I went with local berry:

[Chocolate-Cherry Linzertorte, Sour Cream; Raspberries, Lemon Verbena, Framboise Sabayon, Warm Alond Cake, Blueberry-Tarragon Compote; Cherry-Berry Soup, Yogurt Glace, Sesame Tuile]

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Mom and dad chose the chocolate:

[Jean-Georges’ Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream; White Chocolate Mille-Feuille, Praline, Almond Gelee, Plums; Bitter Chocolate Parfait, Citrus, Meringue; Thai Iced Tea, Tapioca, Chocolate-Coconut Milk Cream]

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There were also homemade marshmallows:

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All in all, a splendid dinner. Well deserving of that fourth star.