Danny Meyer is a restaurant legend in New York City; he’s the man behind Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Marta, and Shake Shack, to name a few. Yup, THE Shake Shack. A couple months ago, I got the chance to eat at his first restaurant, the famous Union Square Cafe, which, I feel I must mention, he opened at the tender age of 27.
Union Square Cafe serves elegant, seasonal cuisine, and as such, the menu changes. While the restaurant does feel sophisticated and it’s probably best to make a reservation, it makes its patrons feel completely welcome and well taken care-of. Since it opened in 1985, the restaurant has won numerous James Beard Awards (basically the Oscar’s of the food world).
USC is popular among my coworkers, and it’s often the spot where fancy team dinners or client lunches are held. I went for lunch not for one of those reasons, but because my friend and her mom were visiting and this friend just so happened to work at a pig farm that supplied the restaurant. Her boss knew the chef and he made a reservation for them, and they graciously invited me to tag along, which I very much appreciated. It seemed like at long last, I would get to try the place I had heard so much about. Full disclosure, it’s not so exclusive that it’s difficult to get a table here, but this was a great in to have and an excuse to go to a slightly more expensive restaurant.
The brunch, lunch, and dinner menus are pretty much the same with one slight variation. All have appetizers, pasta, vegetables/side dishes, and main courses, but on top of that, the brunch has eggs and grains, lunch has sandwiches, and dinner has snacks. These different menus are important to note because you get a certain one depending on the time. Brunch is 11 AM to 2:30 PM on the weekends, lunch is between 12 PM and 2:30 PM, and dinner doesn’t start until 5:30 PM.
We started out with the crispy soft shell crab appetizer, which was served with serrano aioli and asparagus. It was prime asparagus season at the time, so you’re going to be noticing it show up a lot through my meal.
For my main course, I got the frascatelli pasta, which had some pancetta and asparagus, and was deliciously cream and rich. Frascatelli was new to me, but it has a similar mouth feel as gnocchi in that its doughy and dumpling-like. You could also compare it to spaetzle. Remember that there is a different price for pasta depending on whether you get it as a main course or not (+$10)!
The other pasta dish that I have a picture of was specially made for my friend so she could try something with pork in it (pork supplier, remember?). It was really lovely that the waitress understood that that was the main reason for why we were here and arranged for something to be made since there was no pork on the lunch menu. This is also the perfect time to tell you that, USC is most likely going to have some special options available that day as well, so that plus the changing menu means you may be in for some unique options.
On top of all of that, we decided to share a side of asparagus. It seems simple, but it really embodies what they do here at USC–take something fresh from the farmer’s market and prepare it in a way that best exhibits the flavor of the ingredient. Crunchy and char-grilled, this aparagus dish shows that when you have a great product and now how to prepare it right, you don’t need to do much.
To wrap up our meal, of course we had to have dessert. The most famous one here is the USC banana tart, which I believe the waitress said has been on the menu since the beginning. Basically, it’s the restaurant’s classic dessert, and it comes with macadamia brittle and honey-vanilla ice cream. No, I’m not a huge fan of banana or banana-flavored things, but yes, this was delectable and we ate every last bite.
Throughout our meal, we had a great rapport with our waitress, which you might’ve suspected from that special pasta dish. She took great care to make sure we were informed as possible since this was all our first time at the restaurant and was in such high spirits the whole time that we couldn’t not have a pleasant experience. As if she wasn’t awesome enough already, she gave us a complimentary cookie plate (which is one of the dessert options). I’m sure the reason was because my friend was somehow connected to the chef, but it was a great gesture and the perfect way to end a fantastic meal.
Now for the bad news…Union Square Cafe is moving. Unfortunately, the rising rents in the area mean that USC has to leave after being in the same location for almost 30 years, and it’s actually just one of many NYC restaurants being displaced. Where is it moving to? That’s TBD. But, they do hope to stay in the neighborhood if possible, because, uh, UNION SQUARE Cafe and all, but also because of the relationship they have with the farmer’s market purveyors you can find in the square each week (see! They really do use fresh and seasonal ingredients). So friends, you have until the end of this year to dine in the original location, but even if you can’t make it to here by then, fingers crossed that they’re up and running somewhere else not too shortly after!
Crispy soft shell crab, frascatelli, asparagus, USC banana tart, cookie plate
21 E 16th St
New York, NY 10003