steak frites was so steadily popular that i was surprised when the place closed last year, until i heard that they were merely relocating. though that seemed like a pretty poor idea: what location could be better than a few doors west of highly populous union square?
while not particularly exciting, steak frites was nothing if not an utterly reliable bistro. when it moved, a mysterious restaurant called café society quickly dove into the space, and almost as quickly disappeared. late last month, in came union prime, and it's a perfect fit. by featuring contemporary american steak in a space where a steak menu thrived-and offering an array of sushi/sashimi and maki rolls, there's something for practically everyone. chef brady duhame easily demonstrated that he has more than enough skill and imagination to bring everything together with seriously scrumptious results. his tenures at bouley, picholine and park avenue café obviously taught him very, very well.
the space is ample, seating 150 if you include outdoor patio seating (brr!). steak frites was a fairly lugubrious looking restaurant; union prime is far brighter, with a certain festive flair. walls are ruddy; over a long banquette and above sparkling mirrors, the east wall is painted with large roses. a row of bright fluted lampshades is hung over the bar, each tied with a red or black ribbon. the fashionable space ends with a glassed-in wine cellar. our server, handsome and coy zander, steered us wisely from the outset, demonstrating more than a passing familiarity with everything on the far-ranging menu.
mixologist alex ott has come up with some mighty clever cocktails, like the cat's meow, which brings together lemon svedka vodka, grapefruit and lychee juices, with a mint-speared lychee along for the ride. the result is as smooth and pointed as a cat's whiskers. and "oh yoko" is a scintillating and surprising blend of sake, shochu, lemongrass, mint, ginger and lime.
blue point oysters, now at the height of their delicious season, are saline with light banana notes, while craggy little kumomotos, from british columbia, flaunt their sweetness.
yellowfin tuna tartare features discrete ruby tuna cubes instead of the usual mush, studded with diced asian pear and avocado, all commingled with soy inflected citrus juices. the tartare is topped with lemongrass shavings and sided by tiny fried onion rings.
caesar salad is a tumble of romaine, arugula and chicory with plenty of parmesan shavings and abundant musty anchovy punch sailing through the bite of garlic. we tried two maki rolls: the rainbow roll delightfully binds crab with cucumber, avocado, tuna and salmon. even better is the fire dragon, a spicy tuna roll that's really spicy, for a change, with avocado and still-warm roasted eel. tempura flakes shower the roll. my partner, who's been devouring sushi since he was 2 years old, declared the fire dragon among the best spicy tuna rolls he's ever had. duhame gets his luscious dry-aged beef from local suppliers. a one-pound steak knife arrived with my 20-ounce "western cut" (bone-in) ribeye, which was crowed with a half-dozen roasted garlic cloves for the squeezing. the chef grills the steak so judiciously that the result is some of the tenderest and most deeply flavored beef i've had in a long time.
an herb basting really enlivens the sometimes pallidly flavored swordfish. a hunk and a half of the fish rests on a bed of steamed chard, with fingerling potatoes and butternut squash puree on the side.
lobster mashed potatoes are thick with hunks of lobster, and the result is quite sweet and luxurious. creamed spinach is smooth and fluffy, and not a little salty.
to call them "tater tots"-and they do-is to diminish their spectacular tenderness, their potatoey integrity and their utter irresistibility.
a tawny colheita reserva port from 1953 had a deep sweetness with almond notes and a very soft finish. the port went perfectly with duhame's desserts: a mascarpone cheesecake with a thick and buttery graham cracker crust, surrounded by blood orange sections and a dribbling of raspberry coulis. and tiny ice cream sandwiches are made with crispy one-inch chocolate discs that hug vanilla ice cream. there are four dips alongside: whipped cream, raspberry coulis, melted caramel and chocolate sauce.
the chef told us that the menu is still evolving, but the fact that a restaurant in my neighborhood is this good when it is only a few weeks old really gives me something to look forward to enjoying for years to come. -- union prime 9 e. 16th st. between union square west and fifth avenue 212-675-4700 entrées: $17.95 to $34.95 (most around $20)