Thursday, March 10, 2011


A buddy of mine (Tabla alumni) and I decided to grab some lunch on this rainy, March afternoon. We started at Union Square Cafe and ended at Aldea. I've wanted to go to both restaurants for quite some time and they are right by each other; so we decided to hit up both.

Union Square Cafe was our first stop. Located on 16th street, Union Square Cafe was Danny Meyer's first restaurant. After reading Danny's book, "Setting the Table", I needed to visit this groundbreaking restaurant. Based on the concept of imaginative, local food paired with unparalleled hospitality and comfortable surroundings--Union Square Cafe has earned its spot as one of New York's finest.

USC seemed to have a steady lunch crowd as we were lucky to find two seats at the bar. The service was seamless, but that is expected at all USHG restaurants. In "Setting the Table" Danny Meyer talks about service versus hospitality and you could definitely feel the difference when dining at any of his restaurants.

USC guests are started off with a bread basket, which is always a good start to a meal. While Mosche decided to get a glass of wine, I went with Samuel Smith's Brown Nut Ale which proved to be awesome. I enjoyed it so much, I got a second! We started off by splitting Cara Cara Oranges appetizer. The Cara Cara oranges were topped with fennel, pine nuts, ricotta salata, and extra virgin olive oil. This appetizer was definitely something I've never seen before, so I was definitely interested in tasting it, plus we were looking for something light because this was only our first stop. Mosche and I agreed it was a great way to start off the meal. I am still so surprised how well the components of the dish worked. I would have never paired any of those ingredients--but then again what do I know? The pine nuts atop of the thinly sliced oranges proved to be a great component for both flavor and texture.

They also sent out their Spanish Mackerel Crudo as a complimentary appetizer. The Spanish Mackerel Crudo was made up of a artichoke puree, olive tapenade, and chili oil. I really enjoyed this dish, maybe even more than the appetizer we ordered.

We then split a pasta course. We got the Tagliatelle with bay scallops, pancetta, chanterelles, and butternut squash. I loved the pasta. I thought the pasta was nicely cooked and the bay scallops melted in your mouth. The pancetta, chanterelles, and butternut squashed all played off each other very well and sang in harmony.

After considering dessert, we decided to pass; but the bartender brought us out one to split complimentary. They sent us their Banana Pretzel Cream Pie with Calvados Caramel and Milk Chocolate Ice Cream. I'm not a big fan of bananas, but this dessert was really delicious. They didn't over do it with the banana, so it was very enjoyable even for a person who hates bananas--BRAVO!

Union Square Cafe has been around awhile, but they always seem to reinvent themselves while staying a classic neighborhood destination. I really enjoyed my lunch at USC and will definitely be back!

My second stop was a block away at Aldea, which has garnered much press even before executive chef George Mendes was named a contestant on next season's Top Chef Masters. Mendes has an impressive resume, working with great chefs from all around the world. I was very impressed when I found out he worked at El Bulli, one of the world's most sought after reservations.

Arriving just before the kitchen closed for lunch, we got a seat at the chef's counter --the back bar facing the open kitchen. Our server didn't seem too happy we were there, which kind of pushed the meal in a negative direction and we didn't even order yet. Sitting at the counter was awesome as we got to see George Mendes and his kitchen staff at work.

While Mosche got the $24 pre-fixe, I thought I'd keep it simple with a sandwich. The server didn't really help us navigate the menu, which was another strike against the service. Feeling rushed, I ordered the Bellota Ham "Bikini". This sandwich was an upscale grilled cheese with Bellota Ham, truffle butter,and Casera cheese. The gourmet grilled cheese was served with a small salad of arugula and pear. The sandwich itself was delicious, but didn't show off the any of the flair or technique I was expecting. Maybe the sandwich was a bad choice? Maybe lunch was a bad choice? I feel like I got ripped off. The sandwich was good, but it was something I could have made at home for under $3 when I paid $15. Ok, Bellota Ham might be expensive, but the ham almost went unnoticed as the cheese overshadow it.

I tried the skate that Mosche got (He thought he ordered the steak) and it was alright--nothing to remember.

The cocktail at Aldea was pretty good; but also seemed a bit undersized like my sandwich. The drink was comprised of Black Pepper Bourbon, Cynar, Maplejack, and Peychaud's bitters. It was a well balanced drink that paired pretty well with my sandwich.

Overall, you can say I was a little disappointed with Aldea. I want to give it a second chance, because I've heard some really good things but I probably won't be back. Aldea made Eater's 38 Essential restaurants to visit in NYC; but I think its overrated.

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