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Union Square Cafe - What a mixed bag! (long review)

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Union Square Cafe - What a mixed bag! (long review)

Nikitenka | May 9, 2008 08:39 AM

Having lived in Union Square for over a year I kept getting chastized for never having tried USC. So last night I was walking by on my way home and decided on a whim to see if I could get a table. It was 7:45PM on a Thursday and so I was not expecting any luck, but the hostess very graciously said she could seat my friend and me at the bar for dinner in about 20 minutes. We decided to give it a try. No sooner had we ordered our drink then a table freed up – apparently there had been a no show – and we were seated in the front room at around 8PM. The timing is important here as you’ll see.

Since this was a celebratory dinner of sorts we started out with some cocktails. My friend said his dirty martini was flawlessly mixed and my blood orange wallbanger was delicious. At that point we apparently fell into some sort of alternate dimension where our server was unable to see us and completely forgot about our existence. We sat with menus closed for over 20 minutes, begging him with our eyes to come and talk to us each time he neared, but no dice.

Finally my friend actually had to stick his arm out in front of him as he passed and say, “Please, we would like to order and have a few questions for you” for him to notice us. He seemed surprised that we were there. Once we had ordered the food we opened up the wine list and my friend began, “So I was thinking of ordering an Italian red and we were wondering if you could help us choose between . . .” at which point our server turned on his heel and left us mid sentence. We were very turned off at this point and rather then drop a few bills on a big bad Tuscan we settled with a more basic, and cheaper, primitivo. I figured if the restaurant doesn’t want to sell me a good wine with my meal, I’ll not pay for one.

Now I get to the bright spot. Our appetizers, when they came 40 minutes later, were two of the best dishes I’ve had in a restaurant in a long time, probably since I visited Italy. I had the homemade tagliatelle with duck ragu. The pasta was perfect in every way – thickness, flavor and most important texture. It had that slight roughness on the surface that trapped just the right amount of sauce. The ragout itself was much more finely ground then the traditional chunkier ragouts I usually see but it worked marvelously. My friend’s caramelized onion risotto was an example of how a dish can really distill and showcase a simple flavor – in this case the sweet tangyness of onions – into something incredibly satisfying and even soothing. Despite the overall tone of this review, I must stress that both of these dishes were really top notch, and I would love to get my hands on their pasta guy because he has a real talent

We waited almost another hour for our mains. Though we were conversing and enjoying ourselves, that is really pushing it in my opinion. Finally they came out – duck confit for my friend and hangar steak for me . . . . except, my steak did not look or taste at all like a hangar steak, which is one of my favorite cuts. While it appeared to be rare (which is the temp I ordered it) it felt cooked through, and didn’t have any of the nice flavor and texture I associate with hangar steak. Rather, it was uniform consistency and quite bland. The only flavor I detected was a hint of bacon on the outside . . . maybe it had shared a grill surface? Extremely disappointing. The giant heap of mashed potatoes that accompanied it were equally bland, and seemed like they hadn't even been salted. Not even a token vegetable to speak of, which apparently we are meant to order separately, which I would have known if my server and I were on speaking terms. I mostly grazed on my friend’s duck confit which was crispy and flavorful, if a little rich for my taste. By the time our waiter showed up about 10 minutes later to say “By the way, sorry that took so long”, midstride mind you, I had had enough of him and we had determined we were too tired to wait around for desert.

Conclusion: Overall, the experience was not worth the pricetag or the time investment. I feel like you can do better in the neighborhood and certainly be treated better. A few truly excellent dishes were marred by glacial and negligent service, and I still don’t know what the hell cut of meat I was served. I would say it is definitely worth a visit to sit at the bar and have a few drinks and graze on those magnificent appetizers and pasta dishes. The bartenders seem to know what they’re doing and it’s a lot harder for them to disappear for long stretches of time.

Anyone else have a recent experience at USC to share, either positive or negative? I'd be interested to hear if others have had similar experiences. I would also like some more favorite dish recommendations as I think I might have to go back soon for more of that risotto and tagliatelle!

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