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May 9, 2008 08:39 AM

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

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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  1. I popped in one Wednesday night at 8pm for a quick bite at the bar and felt similarly ignored. I was between 2 couples who had drinks initially, and eventually ordered. I was clear that I was thrilled to squeeze in for a quick dinner, and while my food was well prepared, I felt I needed semi-fore flags to get attention- which didn't seem the case for the folks who were there before me. Inconsistent would be the word I think... And yes- I expect more for the $.

    1. I have not been to Union Square Cafe for over 10 years but when I visited in 1997 with my family, the experience was not that different from yours this week! So I guess it's fair to say that USC is consistent in the sense that its service and the inconsistent quality of its food have not changed over the years! Ha.

      I think USC is a very popular spot so they can get away with mediocre service. I suspect your waiter might have been waiting on a bigger table with more guests (which means more tips for him). It's also possible that other guests there were frequent diners so they receive better service. It's definitely not a good feeling to be ignored but it's a fact of life in Manhattan when you are "new" (or perceived as "unimportant" in my case because it was a giveaway that we were just visitors/tourists) or "infrequent" diner at certain popular restaurants.

      2 Replies
      1. re: bearmi

        This restaurant is always fussed over, yet my experience there was just like that of the folks above. The food was okay, no big deal. Lots of okay food in NYC for better price and more courteous service. Maybe we all had the same crummy waiter?

        1. re: meinNYC

          Haha.. I would not be surprised. The restaurant is doing well and I am sure working as a waitstaff there makes decent money. If they offer insurance and other benefits it's possible that the waiter is still working there after 11 years!

      2. The original comment has been removed
        1. I went there once many years ago and liked it--but for those you who have had a bad experience there, especially with the service: You really should consider complaining to the highest-level person there that you can possibly get in touch with, even if it is after the fact. Danny Meyer's whole marketing angle is "hospitality" (he wrote a whole book crowing about it, in fact), and I have a hunch that a firm but respectful complaint could yield the likes of a free meal or something. I am just speculating here--but if it were me, I would be on the phone to them in a hot second. You have nothing to lose..

          1. I've had lunch at the bar about a dozen times over the last year -- as recently as the day before your post -- and I've always found the service and the food to be as close to flawless as I could ask for.

            Granted my lunchtime bar-seat experience can't be compared to your table-service dinner experience, but I encourage you to return and try again.

            To take it a step further, if you print up and (postal) mail your post above to the general manager of the restaurant I bet you get a very nice letter and a gift certificate for another meal in the mail.

            I say this because having read the restaurant owner's memoir, he makes SUCH a big point of always making sure the customer is happy -- to the point that if a customer makes an offhand comment about a dish 'not being to their liking" that they take the charge for that dish off the menu.


            1 Reply
            1. re: Peter

              I'm really surprised to hear about such bad service at USC. My wife and I have eaten there at least 7 or 8 times, taken in-laws and family there etc..and have always had great service. In fact I have always found their service to be the type I like, highly efficient but nearly invisible, no one is overly chatty, no one hovering etc..but when you need them there they are. And the food, while not the best in NYC or anything overly original I find it is always very good and very consistent.

              I would defintely send in a note and explain your experience. (as the above poster recs.)