union square



If you managed to pick Jeff Koon’s oversized balloon dog out of the pictures above, congratulations. It suggests a certain eye for art while marking some sort of disinterest towards summer fruits and vegetables in their glorious rainbow colors. It means you are more likely to spend time in museums and less energy and money food finding. But if you are like me and my father who was in town last weekend, and your interest lies in the edible realm, then there is no place better in the city than the Union Square’s greenmarket to feed that passion, and no time better than summer, when the wares are at their most florid and abundant. Here amongst other food-minded people, the rare minority in the city who cook, pints of berries in their height of ripeness emit fruity perfumes, and tables of fresh, leafy greens artistically stacked lends promise to a healthy lunch. Even those who don’t cook can join in the fun at stores hawking fresh baked bread, or munch on sliced tomatoes that’s sweet, juicy, and fruit-like as my dad and I did. In fact, all that food was making us so hungry that we took a detour uptown to the Met for Koons, Chinese art and Near Eastern sculpture to stop us from overeating before lunch!

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Its summertime and green is in vogue, from luxuriant trees casting dappled shadows in parks to the brilliant hues in our soupbowls. While P was in town, we drank a lot of soup, some grassy and light, others creamy and savory. We had a favorite though, and it came as part of Tocqueville’s value-for-money lunch prix fixe. It was a vichysoisse, chilled to refresh on a hot summer’s day, creamy to the point it smoothly slid down our throats, and a verdant green from the lightly spicy spring garlic that while much milder than the mature bulbs still retained a distinct garlicky scent without being overpoweringly so. I could drink a bucketful.

The rest of our meals were good too, with an exceptional bread basket, competent entrees and refreshingly light desserts. The tilefish cooked a la plancha retained its firmness and succulence, while the chicken confit was well flavored but a tad dry. Ruoyi licked her plate cold tangerine souffle with tea ice cream clean while the scoop of intensely dark chocolate sorbet on my sorbet platter elicited numerous oos and ahs from the table.

It is a pity then that the service was as terrible as it is, such that I hesitate to recommend this restaurant for the well priced lunch and amazing soup. While we were showered with attention at Jean Georges in the same week (which itself serves one of the best value-for-money lunch in the city), our server was negligent and rude. He could not explain dishes well enough for a restaurant of such aspirations, poured water sloppily, dropped instead of placed utensils on the table, exhibiting a frowny face and a nonchalant attitude throughout the entire meal. Even the sommelier, who was amiable at least,  carelessly poured red wine into a wine glass that had already been used for a previous, different wine in the $15 3-pour tasting before we pointed it out to him. Perhaps the restaurant was understaffed with only 3 servers and the sommelier performing double-duty in response to the light lunch crowd, but maybe they might consider increasing and training manpower, such that people who lunch might actually start visiting Tocqueville instead of nearby Union Square eateries that are packed full of business and pleasure lunchers, a demographic Tocqueville could capture if they got their act together in the front -of-house.

Tocqueville Restaurant

1 East 15th St (Between 5th Ave & Union Sq West)

www.tocquevillerestaurant.com

My sis and I are avid watchers of Food Network shows. She is particularly tickled by this show called Throwdown with Bobby Flay, where Flay, a big name chef in the New York food scene basically travels around the country challenging amateur/professional cooks on their specialties, and loses, most of the time, spectacularly. Intrigued by his celebrity and skeptical about his cooking skills we like other celebrity chef collectors decided to vist Mesa Grill to taste his brand of Southwest American cuisine.
The restaurant was large, airy, with brightly colored walls to evoke the Southwestern style. The burgundy banquette with printed cowboys provided the kitsch factor. The food in general was good. In fact, the bread basket, filled with a variety of sweet and savory baked goods and redundant chili relish was rather tasty. I couldn’t get enough of the mini jalapeno puffs, glistening with butter as I pulled them apart. Ruoying on the other hand found the raisin scones just as buttery and irresistible. Cornbread and a pecan/cranberry bread rounded up the sinful quartet.
The entrees were spicy, thanks to the liberal addition of jalapenos. A pair of poached eggs on sweet potato and chicken hash was a riff on classic eggs benedict. The hash, studded with jalapenos was sweet, salty, and spicy at the same time, but a little deficient on the chicken. I preferred Ruoying’s omelette to my hash however. I found out that goat cheese tastes really good with eggs, and also neutralizes the piquantness of fresh sliced peppers. Two hefty slices of ham accompanied the eggs, glazed with a sweet apricot sauce and tasted like jerky. Biscuits that were meltingly buttery and fluffy completed the plate. The portions were generous to the point of huge, with my mounds of sweet potato hash seemingly self-regenerative. No matter how hard I worked at it, it remained largely intact.
As we left the restaurant, we spotted some cookbooks, signed by Mr Flay on display for sale next to the hostess stand. I am sure, many of our fellow diners like us are drawn to Mesa Grill by the celebrity factor. There’s not quite as much drama at the restaurant as compared to Throwdown, but at Mesa Grill, at least you are assured that the food is tasty.

Mesa Grill
102 5th Avenue
www.mesagrill.com

Last Sunday Dawn and I dined at Union Square Cafe to investigate the reasons why it is one of the toughest reservation to score in a city filled with tough reservations, and how it has managed to stay atop the Zagat’s most popular list for over a decade in a city where a new restaurant is born every 2 hours.
The place: For a place that charged so much, I was certainly expecting a much plusher setting instead of the slightly dated room with sloping floors and a tiny bathroom located too close to the main dining area. But as I settled into our table on the narrow alcove overhanging the main room, laughing heartily at times, sharing food casually with Dawn and peering voyeuristically at the food diners downstairs were eating, I realized that in a room that makes everyday food unique and ordinary events special, there was no room for opulent furnishings and chandeliers.
The savory: A pioneer of the New American bistro since its beginnings in 1985, Union Square Cafe has spawned many copycats. I guess I am spoiled and have been enjoying my fair share of seasonal cuisine and local produce, so while the food was fair, we were not particularly thrilled by the appetizer and entrees. The batter for the frito misto we shared as an appetizer was light and the seafood fresh. My osso buco was tender and the bone marrow a rich spread for good bread but too heavy for me that I brought most of it home. Dawn’s duck was tasty, but a little tough and over-salted. Unlike the duo of duck she enjoyed at Cafe Boulud, where she was still waxing lyrical over, its unlikely that she’ll remember this duck by next week.
The sweet: Easily the star of the night was the perennial favorite warm banana tart with macadamia brittle and vanilla ice-cream. The alchemy the pastry chef performed on the warm banana encased in the light, barely-there pastry shell, sweet and uncloying vanilla icecream and slightly salted caramel macadamia nuts was pure magic. It was so insanely good that I almost swooned upon my first bite. This humble looking tart is easily the best dessert I’ve ever had. Our second dish, a baked alaskan with chocolate icecream and served with fresh and candied orange and kumquat slices was unfortunately overshadowed by the extraordinary tart and played second fiddle. Without the tart however, it would have also been a successful dish.
The service: A little slow throughout the whole meal and our server seemed to be very busy with many tables at once. But, Danny Meyer is famous for his dedication towards great service and likewise our server was professional yet friendly and helpful at the same time. I had when making the reservations mentioned that we were celebrating Dawn’s college graduation and our server came up to us before the meal to congratulate her. It was such a joy watching Dawn’s surprised reaction. As for the icing on the cake, one of our dessert, the baked alaskan was comped, courtesy of the restaurant in commemoration of the happy occasion. It is no wonder the Union Square Cafe is the restaurant people choose to celebrate their special days.
The verdict: The banana tart is enough to bring me back over and over again, but the polished yet personable service makes this a true gem.

Union Square Cafe
21 East 16th St (bet Union Square West and 5th Ave)
http://www.unionsquarecafe.com/

In honor of Xinghong’s graduation, we hit Basta Pasta for some Jap-Italian (Italianese, Jatalian) food to witness what the Japanese can do to classic Italian cuisine. While pan-asian fusion food is commonplace (foie gras wonton anyone?) and championed by many influential celebrity chefs in the city, Basta Pasta is quite the anomaly as it injects asian sensibilities into western cuisines without killing the italianness of its food. What do I mean? While you do see some Japanese ingredients in certain menu items and the portions are on the light side, most of the dishes remain true to form and very classically italian.
We started the meal with breadsticks, followed by bruschetta with a cheese spread before they finally brought out the bread basket stocked with 4 types of bread. Yup, 3 bread-related courses before the meal began in earnest. Luckily the entrees weren’t too big.
I ordered spaghetti with tobiko roe and shiso leaf, the most blatantly Japanese inspired dish on the menu, and liked the buttery flavor of the sauce spiked with the slightly sharp taste of shiso. I also liked the texture of the roe with the firm pasta, although the roe for some reason was kind of sweet. I liked Gerri’s spicy spaghetti dish too. The jalapeno taste was mild as you put it in your mouth but intensifies at the back of your mouth as you chew and swallow the noodles. Ruoying’s roast duck was nicely rare and juicy and I liked XH’s seabass too, although I can’t remember too much about it. So entrees were generally well done.
Desserts were also a mix of classic Italian and Asian inspired. I liked XH’s hefty slice of tiramisu , generously spiked with coffee and liqeur, a lot. Gerri’s coconut panna cotta was so cool and smooth it slides right into your mouth, but we felt that the cantaloupe soup that the panna cotta was swimming in was a little too flavorful and distracted our attention from the mild coconut flavor. I had houji tea icecream, which tastes much like usual green tea icecream, but with a denser and smokier flavor.
We really liked the food and had fun watching the chefs cook in the open-concept kitchen. What we didn’t really understand about the restaurant though was the space, which felt very make-shift. With the pictures on the walls and the exposed ceiling, we felt as though the restaurant space could have been an art gallery in the day and converted into the dining room in the evenings by pulling a couple of table and chairs together. Still, it was a comfortable enough room and a great meal to round off a school year.