Jim’s book, Leaving Dirty Jersey, came out last Tuesday and it was a hell of a week. On Wednesday I got off of work and ran to sit in the studio for his public access TV show, where thankfully he didn’t faint (although he looked about to). On Thursday he had a reading and book signing in Princeton and on Friday he had another reading and signing in Greenwich Village. To top it off, the past week has been one of bad allergies and asthma for me (my sister said something about the 1-12 allergy index being at an 11.9 this week). However, on our hectic Friday, amidst all the giddiness from a Lexus picking us up for the city, the nervousness for his reading, and my inhaler puffs, Jim and I did manage to sneak in a dinner at Union Square Cafe (thank you Mr. and Mrs. Salant).
Union Square Cafe
21 East 16th Street
New York, NY 10003
Danny Meyer opened the Union Square Cafe in 1985. Since then, he has opened an eclectic string of eateries, from swanky Gramercy Tavern to everyone’s favorite NYC burger joint, the Shake Shack.
Meyer is not dogmatic about fine dining. Some New York City cafes pride themselves on casual atmosphere with fine food, yet feel as stuffy as their big brother counterparts (I’m thinking of Cafe Boulud touting itself as the comfortable alternative to big brother Daniel). At Union Square Cafe, however, the atmosphere is easily, unpretentiously, casual, and the food is certainly fine. When I learned about Meyer owning the Shake Shack after our meal at USC, it then seemed obvious.
Though I’ve never been to cafe in France, Union Square Cafe played on my American fantasy of what it would be like. The tables are lined with white linen and placed far enough apart to be comfortably loud and giggly over dinner. The decor includes fresh flowers, big sunny windows, and wicker. The waitstaff wear striped shirts and are boisterously friendly (one waiter called Jim and I “the kids”, receiving great laughs from his parents).
The table appetizer was fried calamari with anchovy mayonnaise. Considering that I was eating with three health conscious people and the entire thing was scarfed down in no time, I’ll say it was damned good calamari. The batter was perfectly fried yet not greasy. The squid had none of the dreaded rubberiness. Anchovy mayonnaise instead of marinara sauce was a happy alternative. You only needed a dab of the stuff for a mouth full of salty sea-scented bliss.
Jim’s first dish was veal cheek ravioli. Delicious, but I prefer Babbo’s beef cheek ravioli with less sauce and (maybe) more cheek flavor.
His second dish, the special of Red Snapper, was by far the best fish dish I have ever tasted. It had the full-bodied consistency of a meat dish with the crisp lightness of seafood. How is that possible? I haven’t quite figured it out, but it had something to do with the mashed potato hidden underneath the fish, creating the illusion of weightier bites. Unbelievably good. Please, go to this restaurant, and call ahead to make sure the snapper is on special.
Our desserts, a Tiramisu and a “Chocolate Croquant with Salted Caramel Mousse and Devil’s Food Cake” were delightful. The rum soaked ladyfingers of the Tiramisu were sweet, moist, mouthwatering. I should have read the menu however, when ordering the chocolate croquant. Salted? Yes, salted. Big crystals of sea salt throughout the tower of devil’s food cake and caramel brittle. I’m guessing it’s an acquired taste.
I highly recommend the Union Square Cafe to anyone who has something to celebrate but doesn’t want to sit through the stuffiness of most fine dining establishments. Go sit at this cafe, have a drink, a few belly laughs, and order the snapper.