Union Square Café Revisited

At Union Square Café, your meal begins with a bread basket, butter with herbed sea salt, and picholine olives.

As Danny Meyer increasingly focuses his attention on an expanding Shake Shack empire, seeding locations up and down the Eastern Seaboard, you’ve got to wonder, is he still paying attention to his white tablecloth joints? To answer this question, a friend and I returned to his first restaurant, Union Square Café, which celebrated its 27th birthday this month.

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The beef sirloin carpaccio (click on image to enlarge).

It was one of the city’s first farm-to-restaurant establishments, showcasing the produce of the farmers’ market at Union Square, then in its infancy. The emphasis was on New American cooking with prominent Italian influences, a mix of styles still popular among new restaurants today. Yet rumors of the restaurant’s decline have been common, as newer places were added to the Meyer portfolio, which includes Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke in several permutations, Maialino, North End Grill, and Untitled.

As we stepped inside the semi-subterranean space at lunchtime, we recognized much of the old decor in a labyrinthine space that includes three dining rooms — one upstairs on a mezzanine — plus a long commodious barroom. The rooms are decorated with vases of flowers, still-life paintings featuring food and flowers, and, in a rear room, a large mural that looks like a Matisse that the artist walked away from and never finished.

At lunch on a Friday the place was mobbed, but we were shown to a nice table near the front window. In lieu of an amuse, a bread basket was brought with a big pat of butter sprinkled with herbed sea salt. What a relief to see the bread basket appear, when most establishments these days stingily withhold it.

Sign of the season: squash soup

An adolescent octopod rides atop the brodetto, flanked by two demi-squares of fried polenta.

We chose three apps, including a beef carpaccio, squash soup, and grilled mackerel. The carpaccio was nearly perfect, thinly sliced sirloin topped with plenty of shaved parmigiano, arugula, and little curls of a woody something we first identified as plantain, but turned out to be artichoke leaf. The soup was pretty much the regular article, but supremely smooth and livened with toasted chestnuts and matchsticks of firm apple. Best of all was the mackerel, which arrived in a crock with a rich tomato-olive-oil sauce, the perfect thing to sop with bread.

The mains set a similarly high standard. Offered in a broad bowl, a brodetto (there’s that Italian influence) bobbed with in-shell Manila clams as a tween octopus lounged on top. Underneath was a small filet of a hake-like fish that pulled away in big planks. The bowl was as busy with flavors as we might have hoped, the broth rich, and the flavor amplified with thinly sliced fennel bulb, making the potage a remote cousin of bouillabaisse. (Thankfully, the chef resisted the impulse to toss in a shot of Pernod, and the dish remained resolutely Italian.)

The best of our two entrées was a magnificently crumbed chicken Milanesa topped with a perfectly dressed heap of salad so large it could have been a main course in itself. Dotted with goaty tasting pecorino, it came in a lively dressing. For dessert, we split a ginger cake with cardamom ice cream. Cutting into it, poached pears tumbled out.

In the usual Danny Meyer fashion, the service was superb: friendly, attentive, and nearly self-effacing without being omnipresent in the least, setting the perfect tone for a sometimes-rainy Friday afternoon. (Meyer is famous for hiring Midwesterners in the front of the house for their plainness and agreeability.) For my pal and me, this meal was the culinary high point of our week. The original luster of the restaurant remains.

For dessert, gingerbread with poached pears

The front room empties out after the lunch rush.

Union Square Café
21 East 16th Street


The Power of New York City’s Farmers’ Markets

In a populist sense, a farmers’ market is like the gastronomic version of a town hall; citizens come to barter with other citizens, trading locally grown strawberries instead of talking points. Every day of the week, you can find one of these fine establishments in almost every borough. It is a trend of the Great Recession: swap the supermarket for the cheaper, more utilitarian alternative. And, according to a report just released by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, New York City is steamrolling this food upheaval forward as farmers’ markets slowly take over public spaces.

The report states that there are now 138 farmers’ markets in the Big Apple – a number that, statewide, has doubled to over 500 in the past decade. And this isn’t just a metropolitan thing anymore: across the country, there are more than 7,000 farmers’ markets operating daily; in 2000, there were about 2,000. Why such a spike?

“Farmers’ markets boost local communities and promote a healthy and sustainable food system,” DiNapoli said. “These markets enhance communities and the lives of those who live nearby.”

So let’s take a quote from Bill Clinton to answer that question: it’s the economy, stupid.

To catch just a glimpse of this dramatic shift of where and how we obtain our food, yesterday, the New York TV station ABC7 reported on a farm school in Bushwick run by a group called Ecostation. According to news anchorwoman Lauren Glassberg, the urban farming educators have been overwhelmed by applicants; for 15 slots, they received about 150 applicants for their two-year farming certificate program. In other words, New Yorkers from all walks of life are lining up in swarms to learn the ways of agriculture.

These urban farms share what they grow with the farmers’ markets, cafeterias and surrounding communities. For example, the Battery Urban Farm in Battery Park sets up a stand once a month and sells its produce to Downtown Manhattan while also giving a bunch to neighboring elementary schools. It’s a cycle that transforms the corporation-customer relationship into a farmer-neighbor dynamic.

What separates the farmers’ market from the supermarket is where the profits are headed. In corporate food politics, the profits are spread out across the hierarchy, with most of the money going towards the top of the ‘food’ chain. Contrast that with local food politics: when you have a farmers’ market reaping profits, that money is going directly into the hands of the local community – the farmers, the workers, etc.

It is the lasting achievement of the DIY movement in the food aisle: communities trump corporations.


Food Stamp Spending Surges at City Greenmarkets

More and more food stamps are getting spent at the city’s farmers’ markets — and on healthy items such as fresh produce — according to an exclusive report by NY1.

The City Council says that Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card transactions at Greenmarkets shot up 23 percent in 2011, Rebecca Spitz reports.

The overwhelming majority — 75 percent — of the $600,000 in federal food-stamp money spent at these markets purchased fruits and veggies.

Twenty percent was used for dairy and eggs, NY1 notes, and only 5 percent was spent on baked goods.

Forty-three of the city’s 53 farmers’ markets accept EBT cards.

In recent months, food stamps — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — have come under intense scrutiny.

As the 2012 election nears, some candidates have even used SNAP as a talking point, wrongly accusing recipients of traveling to Hawaii with the benefits rather than buying food.


Marcus Samuelsson Talks Urban Farming

Marcus Samuelsson has recently penned an op-ed for The Huffington Post, in which he implores readers to think deeply about food policy during the upcoming elections.

He says that hot topics such as organic and non-GMO eats are great talking points, but that bigger problems should not get ignored.

While we as citizens can be tempted to debate specific issues like whether or not genetically modified foods should be outlawed or not, we can’t forget that a large portion of the country is addressing more pressing issues like hunger, food accessibility, and food safety. Other more nuanced matters like the pros and cons of GMOs or sustainable farming are far from their minds.

In his essay, Samuelsson also cautions against cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The author and Red Rooster chef wants to expand urban farming, but points out that affordability remains a big issue for the country’s poor.

The next step is finding ways — whether it’s increased government subsidies or community-supported programs — to make food from farmers markets more affordable to low income communities. Food stamps are redeemable at farmers markets, but the high cost of food means that food stamp recipients ironically get more bang for their buck shopping at supermarkets than at farmers markets.

Samuelsson is cautiously PC — he doesn’t publicly back any party or candidate in this particular article.

Still, he urges conscientious foodies to think hard at the ballot box, and pick pols whose food-policy track record makes them likely to enact pragmatic programs.


5 Reasons Why Farmers’ Market Baked Goods Often Suck

Chalky, crumbly, low on flavor — and please leave it in the oven a little longer.

You see them lined up on tables between the lavender sprigs and homemade soaps: pale, starchy, looking like a kid who hasn’t been in the sun all summer. These are the baked goods of the farmers’ markets. And not only do the cookies, cakes, pies, muffins, and sweet rolls often look bad, they frequently taste bad, too.


This cookie tasted OK, I guess, but, though it was supposed to be an oatmeal cookie, virtually no oatmeal could be detected.

I guess I should be grateful. Good baked stuff has turned the Madison, Wisconsin, farmers’ market into a strolling cake cram, resulting in collisions between pastry eaters on the narrow pathway that rings the capitol building, and a general de-emphasis on things you cook with, in favor of things you can eat right away — instant gratification.

I recently undertook a baked-goods eating binge at one of our markets, to see if this negative impression would be confirmed. It mainly was. Sure, there were a couple of good things — cider donuts, gingerbread, and a sweet roll with plenty of frosting on it — but these were notable exceptions.

Though somewhat unsightly, the gingerbread men were pretty good.

Next: The five reasons


This vegan muffin was joylessly gritty and mushy — but I’m sure it’s “healthy.”

Why are the baked goods bad at area farmers’ markets? Here are five reasons.

1. The farmers’ market has a captive audience, which often can’t tell good pastries from bad just by looking at them. So why make them any better than they need to be?

2. Too many of the baked goods are supposed to be healthy. Which means whole grains have been substituted for refined flour, turbinado sugar or fruit sweeteners for plain sugar, “expeller pressed canola oil” (sounds scary) for butter.

3. The baked goods are sometimes made for the purpose of burning off excess inventory. If you look at the awning and see the words “Concord grapes,” then find the stand selling Concord grape pies, you know they’re not selling them because Concord grape pies are inherently worth eating.

4. Wrapped in layers of plastic, many of these pastries were not baked yesterday — to be kind. In fact, the baked goods are often formulated to be dry and last a long time, as if they were being baked for mummies.

5. What makes you think farm folk can bake any better than you can? In fact, they’re probably worse. Tilling the soil is not the same as making a nice cake, and many of the skills we associate with the farm wife of, say, the 19th century, are long lost.

This sweet roll was pretty good — though not quite as good as Entenmann’s.

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Farmers Still Struggling With Low Harvests Post-Hurricane Irene

Hurricane Irene hit over two months ago, but New York’s farmers and Greenmarkets are still feeling the aftereffects of devastation, DNAinfo reports. The severe storm not only flooded fields of crops, but August and September were the second-wettest on record, further damaging farmers’ outputs.

Tropical Storm Lee, which hit the Northeast about two weeks after Irene, struck further blows before many farmers had a chance to harvest their crops already in the ground. Many farmers were then unable to recuperate their losses with another planting. But a collective spirit has taken over the Union Square Greenmarket, where farmers are filling the void of lost crops by purchasing those products from farms that were less severely impacted. Governor Andrew Cuomo has also has created a $15 million Agriculture and Community Recovery Fund, but projected losses are about $45 million. For more info on how to help out the farms, visit Greenmarket’s Hurricane Irene Relief Fund.


Seamless Buys Menupages; Doritos Creator Dies

Here’s a news flash: Fast-food chains like Pizza Hut, Subway, and Taco Bell are slashing their prices and offering amazing deals not because they want to but because the economy sucks.
[USA Today]

Seamless, the online and mobile app that allows you to order food for delivery, has just bought MenuPages for an undisclosed amount.
[NY Times]

Queens is now home to two new farmers’ markets — the St. Albans Fresh Connect Harvest Home and Flushing/Pomonok Fresh Connect Farmers Market.
[Queens Gazette]

Protesters gathered outside the Trader Joe’s on Court Street in Brooklyn to denounce the “modern-day slavery” of the store’s tomato farmers.

A new report reveals that some 70 percent of households that used food stamps last year had no earned income.
[Wall Street Journal]

Arch West, the creator of Doritos, the best-selling tortilla chips in the U.S., died on September 20 at age 97.
[Wall Street Journal]



The NRA (That’s National Restaurant Association) Spends $843K On Lobbying; Anna Wintour Still Pissed About Miss Lily’s

Doug Zell, the founder of Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea, has teamed up with an old frat buddy, the philanthropist and former real estate developer Robert Buono. Now the two will share the title of Co-CEO in an effort to expand the business. [Diner’s Journal]

No New York chefs will compete in a Lamb Board-sponsored cook-off this month, but the Meatball Shop and Dickson’s Farmstand Meats are among event participants. [PR Newswire]

The National Restaurant Association spent $843,000 on government lobbying during the second quarter of this year, mostly on issues like health care and immigration. [Forbes]

The crappy economy has been great for serious vegetable gardeners in places like eastern Kentucky, where they’ve been selling their crop at local farmers’ markets. [NY Times]

Anna Wintour isn’t over Miss Lily’s opening in her neighborhood, which was apparent when she was recently seated near the restaurant’s management at Da Silvano. [Page Six]


Office Eating Etiquette; Table Time Limits

René Redzepi’s MAD FoodCamp takes place this week, which means that a number of American chefs are headed to Scandinavia. [NY Times]

Lobstermen in Maine are thrilled at the abundance of catch these days, but a marine biologist points out that the lack of biodiversity in Maine waters is a problem. [NY Times]

More than half of full-time employees in the U.S. eat lunch at their desks at least once a week. And, depending on what they eat, they are at risk of making enemies in the office. [Wall Street Journal]

The new food service program inspired by the Peace Corps model, FoodCorps, launched last week. Mark Bittman approves. [NY Times]

A new study reveals that diets rich in such cholesterol-lowering foods as soy and nuts are more effective at reducing cholesterol than low-fat diets. [UPI]

Table time limits — whether explicit or merely hinted at — are increasingly accepted in popular restaurants. [NY Post]

As more Americans are buying locally grown food, new farmers’ markets are cropping up all over the country. [Reuters]


Dirty-Water Dogs Get an Upgrade; The Gap Launches a Taco Truck

Good to Go Organics hot-dog carts specialize in organic, grass-fed beef franks and locally sourced toppings. For many Manhattan moms, they are good enough to break the no-street-dogs rule.
[NY Times]

Trace and Trust is a boat-to-table initiative that connects chefs and fishermen and lets the latter take a bigger cut of what restaurants pay.
[NY Times]

The Wendy’s Co. is suing some of its 5,877 franchisees who have yet to install special equipment required to make the premium Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy cheeseburger.
[Nation’s Restaurant News]

The Gap is hopping on the food-truck bandwagon. Its new Pico de Gap taco truck will travel the country selling tacos and giving away Gap coupons.
[NY Daily News]

Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a new program that will provide up to $15,000 per location to help local farmers sell their products in underserved communities.
[Politics on the Hudson]

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