Union Square Cafe Returns, With More Than a Dash of Déjà Vu

At the old location, I was more an admirer than a fan. I was never quite as amazed by the food as it seemed I was supposed to be. But then, fluctuation is normal in a long-running restaurant. Over the years, reviews of Union Square Cafe in The Times have ranged from two to three stars. In the most recent appraisal, in 2009, Frank Bruni awarded it two.

The Rockwell Group, the architecture firm, was given the job of evoking the old address in a space that is much roomier, without the narrow passageways and sunken dining room. Some of this is done subliminally: Pendant lamps downstairs hang at the height of the 16th Street ceilings. I could swear the original downstairs bar was smaller, but that’s probably because I could almost never get a seat there. Mr. Rockwell swears that the new one is the same length: 27 feet 1 inch.

The upstairs bar top where my cocktail rested was precisely the size of the old upstairs bar top because it was, in fact, the same piece of wood with a fresh coat of varnish. The art collection has come along for the ride, too, and one of the pleasures of the Rockwell layout is the way you seem to bump into a Frank Stella or a Claes Oldenburg or a Judy Rifka every time you turn around.

The cellar stocks wines from Italy, France and the United States, and nowhere else. As Jason Wagner, the wine director, explained one night, those are the countries that were on the list when Union Square Cafe opened in 1985.

The menu does not go so far as to point out all the old showstoppers — some from Michael Romano’s reign in the kitchen and others from that of the current chef, Carmen Quagliata — but the servers are happy to help. Do I even need to say this? It’s the most famous thing about Union Square Cafe: The servers are always happy to help.

I hadn’t realized the salad was a cult object, but I did know about the gnocchi….

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