New York Times’ Pete Wells Revisits Union Square Cafe
When I first moved to New York City, I waited tables at a relatively popular (but short-lived) restaurant in Tribeca. Wide-eyed and eager to eat my way across the city, I was shocked when we developed regulars. How could anyone return week after week for the red snapper or fried rice when new spots were opening every day?
Now that I’ve lived here a few years, I realize I was wrong. I’ve developed my own circle of trusted restaurants and gotten to know servers, bartenders, and owners as their own ring of friends. However, I still haven’t reached the level of Union Square Cafe, the site of Pete Wells’ latest New York Times review.
A regular at the old location, she had some pointed questions about a certain item on the menu.
“Is it the same?” she asked. “Exactly the same?”
The bartender assured her that it was. “If we ever took it off the menu, we’d have a riot on our hands,” he said.
The item in question was a salad of red-tipped oakleaf and Bibb lettuces, with some fresh and springy croutons and whitecaps of grated Gruyère on top. It is a very nice salad, a model of good behavior. It does not bring to mind images of mob violence. This is Union Square Cafe, though, a place that from the beginning has inspired attachments of a peculiar intensity.
I’ve never argued with a server about a dish being removed from the menu or lamented the loss of a salad. But then again, I’ve never followed as a restaurant rebuilt itself from the ground up. Moving the 27-foot 1-inch bar from one location to the other. Hanging pendant lamps to mimic the former location’s ceiling heights. Rehanging the art collection in a familiar way.
Fortunately, what worked at the original location works in the new iteration. The gnocchi is pillowy perfection, and the misto fritto is “ideally crunchy.” Wells does chafe a bit at the effusiveness of the waitstaff. (Note: Don’t offer him ice-cold milk with his chocolate cake.)
The risk in churning out old recipes like this is that the kitchen becomes bored, and the food boring. That’s not happening at Union Square Cafe right now; the cooks seem to have dialed right in on the qualities that made these dishes favorites in the first place.
Union Square Cafe has always been the offspring of a mixed marriage between a trattoria and a bistro, with an American bar and grill somewhere in the family tree. In the current phenotype, the trattoria genes are dominant.
This is the fourth time the Gray Lady has visited Union Square Cafe. The first review firmly placed one star on the door, then in 1999, three were bestowed, and Frank Bruni lauded the space with two in 2009. A new location may have breathed new life into the business-lunch stalwart: three stars.