I don't care what Frank Bruni says--the venerable Union Square Cafe in New York City has still got it. I've been in love with USC for ten years now (along with harboring a bit of a crush on owner, Danny Meyer). True, it had been awhile since I'd last eaten there--around 2002--but I couldn't imagine a better place to go for a special occasion. So when my Mom's (major) birthday was coming, I made a reservation and eagerly awaited the day when I could get back there.
But the very day before we were to dine there the January 10 edition of the food section harbored tons of praise on Danny Meyer's Eleven Madison Park while relegating USC and Gramercy Tavern to near has been status as nice, respectable places to dine but not to be wowed. And I may have detected just a little bit of snark, but I''m protective of USC. Well I'll tell you, when we arrived for dinner the next night we enjoyed a meal and table service that was simply one of the finest I've experienced.
And I'm not just saying that because of the extra special birthday touches my mother received with her meal. And it wasn't just the gratutitous platter of creamy polenta with marscapone (topped with gorgonzola dulce and toasted walnuts) that our server brought us probably after overhearing how much I cook it at home. Nor was it the gift plate of banana tart with honey-vanilla ice cream. No, it was just that the food was beautifully and deliciously executed and we were made to feel as if we were the most important people in New York City.
I'm not saying that Eleven Madison Park isn't spectacular--I've not been there in years. But it can still be wonderful in the face of an equally wonderful experience at the Union Square Cafe.
Now about those calarmari at the top of the post. Our meal at USC started out with the most incredible calamari I've ever had--and I've had plenty. But since my Mom's birthday dinner I've not been able to get rid of the craving for the tender (not at all rubbery), slightly, mellowy sweet, crisp, calamari we had that night. So I opened up my copy of The Union Square Cafe Cookbook and sure enough there was the recipe--and the secret to USC's uniquely fabulous version.
So I ran to Fins and Tails, picked up some calamari (thankfully, already cleaned) and then I got a box of graham cracker crumbs. Let me tell, you, this was the easiest, quickest, most satisfyingly delicious calamari I've had since eating at USC. This was my first time cooking calamari and I plan to add this recipe to my regular rotation. Check it out--and the next time you plan a trip down to New York City, check out the Union Square Cafe--they've still got it--in spades!
Here are some photos from our dinner at USC. Scroll down to the end for the recipe for the calamari and anchovy mayo.
Fried Calamari with Spicy Anchovy Mayonnaise (as adapted from the Union Square Cafe Cookbook)
- 1 large egg at room temperature
- 5 anchovy fillets
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon rough chopped parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
- 3/4 cup light or mild olive oil
In a food processor, combine the egg, anchovies, lemon juice, parsley and cayenne and blend until smooth. With the motor running, slowly add the oil to make a mayonnaise. Transfer the sauce to a bowl and refrigerate, covered tightly, until ready to use. Mayo will keep for about two days.
- 1 pound fresh, cleaned calamari
- 4 cups of light or mild olive oil or vegetable oil
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup graham cracker crumbs
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Cut the calamari into 1/4 inch rings. If the tentacles are large, halve or quarter them lengthwise. Refrigerate until reaady to use.
Pour the oil into a heavy-bottomed, straight-sided 3 quart saucepan, about 8 inches in diameter. To prevent the oil from bubbling over when frying the calamari, the pan should be no nore than one third full. Heat the oil to 360 degrees F on a deep-fat thermometer. (To check the temp without a thermometer, drop a small of bread (crouton size) into the oil. It should float to the surface immediately adn brown lightly in 45 seconds)
Combine the flour and graham cracker crumbs in a bowl. Divide te calamari into two or three batches. Toss each batch in the flour mixture to coat evenly. Shake the calamari in a mesh strainer (a spider works great too) to shed excess coating. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, gently lower each batch of calamari into the hot oil and fry until golden brown (about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes). Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt. The cooked calamari can be kept warm in an oven on low while you cook the remaining batches. Check your oil temperature (360 degrees) and repeat with the remaining calamari. Serve hot with the chilled anchovy mayonnaise.