Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Union Square Cafe; or, Mmmmm, Vintage Champagne

Favorite things I ate yesterday: bread with butter and olives; bibb and red oak leaf lettuce salad; vintage champagne

Yesterday I had the pleasure of going to the Union Square Cafe, a restaurant that has been on my "List" for a very long time. My List is made up of several dozen great restaurants in NYC that are either so expensive or so difficult to get into that I don't consider them for an average weekend-night-out spot. The only times I get to cross one of these places off the List are: a) special occasions (birthdays, etc.); b) when my parents come to town; and increasingly c) when my boss/company is paying. This particular go-round falls under option c; I was tasked to plan an event for my group at work, so I chose a nice dinner at a longtime List restaurant.

My immediate supervisor was sick yesterday, so it ended up just being three men and me-- quite the amusing setup. We arrived at the restaurant separately, so I was the first one to be led to our table, giving me a few moments to look around the place. The sunken dining room was really pretty and rustic. The two things that stood out were the fact that it was quite bright in there-- very well-lit, nary a mood-light in sight-- and the fact that the wooden floorboards creaked and depressed a little bit every time anyone walked on them (which was all the time). Overall, aside from the constant slight shaking courtesy of the floorboards, the restaurant was very appealing.

Once the rest of our party arrived, our waitress took our cocktail order as we looked over the wine list. One of my colleagues suggested champagne, and frankly, who's going to say no to that? They left the wine ordering to me, so I chose a relatively (very relatively) reasonably-priced bottle of vintage sparkling wine-- nothing crazy, just a 1995, but still, I believe that's the first time I've drunk non-non-vintage bubbles. It was good: dry but not cottony and an appealing dark-golden color. Lovely.

We placed our order and they brought out a wooden cutting board with four slices of toasted rustic white bread, a ramekin of butter with a drizzle of pesto on top, and a small dish of olives. The bread was good but somewhat puzzling, to be honest. It seemed as though they might have already buttered the bread and then toasted it, which seemed weird, although the second batch they brought out seemed less buttery. It was good bread, although not the best I've ever had, and really good olives.

My companions' appetizers arrived as I nibbled on the bread. There were two orders of tuna tartare and one salad; all were consumed with enthusiasm. Then came the entrees. Two orders of lamb and one fish for the gentlemen; a bibb and red oak leaf lettuce salad for me. My salad had grated gruyere cheese all over the top, a very mustardy dressing, and a few olive-oil-soaked croutons strewn about. It was very good, especially helped along by the delightful bottle of sauvignon blanc we ordered (again, my choice) after the champagne was finished. My colleagues liked their dishes as well; the only thing that didn't live up to expectations was the side order of wasabi mashed potatoes one of them had ordered. They were alarmingly-- arrestingly-- green, and were bizarrely un-spicy. In retrospect, it seemed like a dish out of Dr. Suess. Cross Sam-I-Am with Danny Meyer and get... Green Mashed Potatoes and Ham? No? Too soon?

Throughout the dinner, I was saving room for dessert-- my favorite part of any meal, or any day, really. Their dessert list overall skewed slightly towards the bit-too-esoteric for my taste, as I really like traditional, non-frou-frou desserts. After precisely no thought, I settled on the apple crisp, which usually comes with cinnamon ice cream but I replaced with honey-vanilla ice cream. I was envisioning a warm little crock filled with gooey apples and brown sugar crumble, a scoop of honeylicious ice cream melting over the top. What I got was a broad white dish with a small pile of diced white apples in the center, crowned with the merest scattering of pale blonde crumb mixture. I looked at it dubiously; its lack of golden color and gooiness suggested a certain critical lack of essential apple-crisp-ness. It was definitely avant-garde apple crisp, which seemed a little off-color, as it were, as apple crisp is one of the most down-homey desserts out there. In flavor, it was good, if a little bland, and the ice cream tasted like plain vanilla (no real honey to speak of). To be fair, I think my palate had been dulled by considerable amounts of wine at this point, and I did finish the whole dessert, and I did like it. But it was certainly not one of the better desserts I've ever had, and I wouldn't return for it. Those distinctions, in my mind, still fall to Finale, a desserterie with a few locations in and around Boston, which was my home up until last spring, when I graduated from college and moved down to New York. Ahh, Finale, I do miss you so.

Overall verdict on Union Square Cafe: Very Good. I would certainly go back. The service was great; the food overall was very good; and if they can spiff up their dessert menu, I'll be a happy girl. It was a great selection for a work dinner, and I would certainly recommend the place to my friends.

On tap for today: nothing special. I do have a lunch with my work mentor coming up, for which we are ordering from Just Salad, probably my favorite lunch place to hit up if I'm not bringing my lunch, which is what I try to do every day of the week. Looking forward to it-- I'm getting hungry already...

Tomorrow, I'm taking off to visit a friend in Philadelphia for the next few days, so I may not have much to say until later in the weekend. Stay tuned!

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