Monday, 10 September 2012

New York City: Union Square Cafe

I'll admit that I place far less emphasis on the importance of good service than I do good food.  Many places we frequent - Spicy Hut being a very good example - usually have barely tolerable service but such good food that I'm willing to overlook small details like prompt service, full water glasses, or even the remotest hint of human warmth and kindness.  I can have a fantastic meal without it being garnished with smiles and friendly conversations.  In fact, I prefer an aloof server to a fawning one, the kind who compliments your every menu choice like you're some sort of gastronomic genius.

"Yes, excellent choice, the filet mignon is my favorite!  And you'd like it boiled, not grilled?  Oh, very good, sir!  And, sorry, what?  A bottle of...pardon me, ketchup?  We don't usually have any on hand, but only because we haven't as refined a palette as you, sir.  We'll send our chef out right away to get some.  And for you, ma'am?  Whatever is stuck to the bottom of my shoe, and you would like it well done. Brilliant!  I'll just go place your orders and will return in moment with your drinks and more insincere flattery."

However, if I am being served great food by someone who truly understands great service, then even I can recognize that a memorable meal can become something more: a memorable evening.

My wife.  Gosh, she's purty!

We had such a meal at New York's famous Union Square Cafe.  The food was fantastic, and our server, Patti, had a perfect blend of humour and cheekiness, while also taking care of the essentials.  I like someone who can serve up a witty "dig" as easily as they serve a meal.

I know it must sound a little bit masochistic, but I really do appreciate a clever put-down, even at my expense (then nobody gets hurt).  Over the years I've heard numerous attempts, mostly jabs about my (lack of) height.  The vast majority have been unimaginative and just plain irritating.  (If one more tall person leans over to rest his elbow on my head, I'm going to bite him in the ribs.)  But some have risen above the mundane and come up with some clever quips:

Once I was rejected by a prospective date when she looked down, held her arm out, and said, "Sorry, you have to be this tall to ride this ride."

More recently, I was marking attendance for our dragonboat team when one paddler asked me, "Are you making a list and checking it twice?"  To which another team member responded, "No no, Santa makes the naughty or nice list, not the elves."

These were funny, even (especially?) if I was the punch line.  So, if my waitress has similar wit and confidence to banter with good-natured barbs, there's a good chance it's going to be a fun evening.  Assuming, of course, that the food is equally impressive, as was the case at the Union Square Cafe.

I had lobster ravioli in a lemon butter sauce and was fortunately saved the embarrassment of licking the shallow bowl clean by soaking it up with a few remaining slices in our bread basket.  I was sorely tempted to order another round of ravioli, but I was trying to save myself for dessert.  And I was very grateful I did, because as much as I liked the main course, the dessert was even better!
I know, the focus is blurry.  Blame it on my iPhone.
Dessert was a two-bite Mascarpone cheesecake topped with a scoop of grapefruit sorbet. But what really made it for me was the fennel crust.  I don't know how they were able to peer into my carmelized soul and combine three of my favorite things into one dessert - cheesecake, grapefruit, and licorice - but they did.  Even though this meal was in celebration of Alison's and my anniversary, I was starting to feel something akin to love for our unseen chef.

Alison also enjoyed her meal which she finished with an intriguing dessert: a Porter Ice Cream Sundae.  This thing had pretzel-caramel popcorn and a black pepper (yes, pepper!) whipped cream topping.  Crazy good!  

It's odd.  I've read some very mixed reviews of this New York landmark, but we had nothing to complain about.

Except maybe a lack of booster seats.  (heh)

The Last Bite:
Like I said, I've heard a lot of really lame short jokes/insults, and only a few smart ones.  Have you heard any good ones?  Pass them along!  I can always use more.  After all, the best defense is a good offense.

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