St. Louisan Danny Meyer’s first restaurant, the Union Square Cafe in New York, hit the jackpot for him when it opened in 1985. But rent hikes were inevitable, and the original East 17th Street location closed at the end of 2015. The new one, at Park Avenue South and East 19th Street, opened in December. Two months into their new digs, it was time to visit again.
In the new location, David Rockwell, who designs for the stage as well as for restaurants – the two are not so different – has used colors, art work and a few other remnants of the first USC to mark the continuity. Two levels, with what is neither a second floor or a balcony, but really a mezzanine, double the capacity. Cherrywood floors pair well with the white walls, lots of light and accents in British racing green. Two bars offer dining as well as drinking, downstairs where there’s lots to see and upstairs, which is rather more intimate.
Once seated, aperitifs appeared, including one with apple, mint and vermouth, from a Brooklyn company called Uncouth Vermouth. The drink itself, cool and not at all sweet, was an unexpected delight. Ditto the bread, sourdough with a good portion of whole wheat flour in it. The house refers to it as sprezzatura – Meyer has always said the Union Square Cafe was a “sort-of-Italian” restaurant. It’s very much like the French miche loaf, the generous (and soft) swirl of butter with it the sort of detail that endears a house to its guests.
Sformato (pictured above), savory custard, showcases cauliflower puree, the vegetable taste very light, the consistency perfectly tender. A few pieces of roasted romanesco, Italian broccoli that looks like tiny Christmas trees, act as accent. Sauteed maitake mushrooms, sometimes called hen-of-the-woods, crowned some excellent polenta (at right), almost buttery from the mild, rich soft Crescendo cheese in it, the dish punctuated with a little pesto to punch things up slightly.
In the Italian style, pasta is available here as a primi, or first course, or as a secondi, or main. We split a small order of candele, rather like fatter rigatoni, sauced with carrots both as a sauce and pencil-sized babies that were roasted, green onion, a little Fresno chile, all over some drained Greek yogurt so rich it could pass for ricotta. Topped with bits of frizzled pancetta for a little salt and a little crispness, the dish was a perfect example of al dente pasta, still nicely chewy but not dry.
Could Union Square Cafe be serving the best lamb shank ever? It’s possible. Not only was it exquisitely trimmed, no connective tissue visible, the bone Frenched until it was as clean as an ivory handle on an antique knife (see above), the lamb was tender but not disintegrating, full-flavored with pan juices that seemed to be nothing but uber-lamb-ness. Salsa verde in the Italian style, parsley, capers, a little garlic, and some anchovies, minced to within an inch of obliteration, met the acidity of wine vinegar to bounce off the savory meat. Slices of roasted new potato waited to wipe up some of the juices, and a little arugula dressed with some of the same juice, crowned the top.
A little more complex was some grilled red snapper (above) that had been drizzled with a chili-orange oil, along with some chickpeas. Topped with ribbons of puntarelle, an Italian variety of endive with crunch and a slight, refreshing bitterness, it rewarded diners with its unexpected combination of flavors and textures. Speaking of textures, brussels sprouts lovers should head for the fried sprouts. Very brown, with lots of crispy leaves, the shower of colatura brought things to a peak. Colatura is a product of salting and aging anchovies – the anchovies go on to other uses, but the resulting liquid is decanted and used for pasta, salad dressings, and such. For an anchovy product, it’s surprisingly subtle for all its complexity.
One of the house’s signature desserts, the banana tart, has made its way up from the old cafe. It’s been re-thought, morphing from slices of a larger pastry to an individual one, but the key brilliance has been kept. Slices of banana are bruleed, yes, like a crème brulee, here over a macadamia nut crunch on a short crust. It’s an absolute winner, overshining the chocolate pecan tart. The chocolate’s intensity was rather like milk chocolate, toasted pecans rode alongside, and so did a bit of maple-bourbon jam, which didn’t up the game. Some coconut ice cream did, though. They’re making ice cream in-house; the banana tart had honey-vanilla alongside, and we also sampled clementine sorbet, an excellent buttermilk ice cream that was nicely tart, and gingerbread ice cream, pretty forthright for an ice cream flavor that usually ends up wimpy.
This is a very serious wine house, but the by-the-glass list isn’t neglected. Our server was happy to give us tastes of anything we were curious about. For anyone who wants to the difference in a California chardonnay and a French white Burgundy – they’re the same grape, but vinified differently – here’s your chance, and if you’re interested, leap in immediately. I ended up with a glass of wine from a grape I’d never tasted, frapatto, a Sicilian red of medium weight, just enough to stand up to the lamb, a little fruit in the nose. My pal, he of the red snapper, went with the white Burgundy, from Nadine Ferrand in the Maconnais.
One of the reasons Meyer made such a splash in Gotham was not just his food but his service, and that hasn’t changed. Ours was excellent, friendly, deeply knowledgeable, not hovering at the table or rushing us. The front of the house gives a cheerful greeting and shows flexibility whenever it’s feasible.
One new thing has emerged. Next door, on 19th Street, they now have a shop that sells the house breads, as well as coffee, breakfast pastry and sandwiches. Daily Provisions twists the cash-only routine to no cash; payment only with credit cards or mobile systems like Apple Pay. I grabbed coffee and a kouign ammann there the next morning. I regret not taking home some of the sprezzatura bread.
Dinner, lunch, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday, and what they call an “interim menu” after lunch or brunch until 5:30 p.m.
Union Square Cafe
101 E 19th
New York City