Second Helpings from Union Square Cafe
by Danny Meyer and Michael Romano
Photographs by Duane Michals
Published by HarperCollins
331 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Rob Feenie Cooks at Lumiére
by Rob Feenie
Foreword by Charlie Trotter
Published by Douglas & McIntyre
182 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Monica Stark
Cookbooks and restaurants go together like garlic and mashed potatoes. Like Stilton and leeks. Or raspberries and cream. Not every restaurant on the planet does a cookbook, and not every one that does undertakes it for the same reasons, but a cookbook with a restaurant behind it has an extra ingredient. Not only a certain professional cachet that lends credence to each recipe -- warranted or unwarranted -- but such a book can also allow readers to take home a piece of something successful -- and sometimes even glamorous -- and transplant a bit of that glamour into their personal dining experience.
Of course, glamour isn't always an element of the cookbook penned by a restaurateur. Almost everyone has at some point been in the local equivalent of Flo's Diner and noted that Flo had cobbled together a chapbook based on her old favorites. And though it's unlikely that the recipes had names like "Shoe Leather Liver and Onions" or "Mystery Meat Loaf" they might has well have, for all of the inspiring that the names -- and the food itself -- will have done.
It's true though: a forgettable restaurant can only aspire to creating an equally forgettable cookbook. The restaurant cookbooks that grab their audience and hold it can only be created by those attached to unforgettable restaurants.
Manhattan's Union Square Cafe is one such establishment. The Zagat Survey has ranked USC as New York City's most popular restaurant for five consecutive years. In a city known for its restaurants, this is no small achievement.
As the title suggests, Second Helpings from Union Square Cafe is a sequel. Book one, The Union Square Cafe Cookbook, was originally published in 1994 and remains a strong seller. The newer book includes 140 "new favorites" from USC. As co-owner and co-author Danny Meyer writes in the introduction:
In the seven years since we wrote the Union Square Cafe cookbook, we've developed scores of new recipes without abandoning old favorites. The selection here is culled from the most successful crowd-pleasers of those new recipes; the ones our guests request over and over again.
Meyer writes that USC is "an American, not Italian, restaurant." But you have to look closely, at least in this book, to determine that. There are an awful lot of recipes with names like "Trippa alla Trasteverina" and "Risotto Rosso." Where USC -- and this latest book -- delights is with the surprises of taste, texture and ethnicity: The "Sweet-Hot Beet Soup" is, the book tells us, "like a meatless Indian version of borscht with layers of flavors that reveal themselves, one by one, with each spoonful." Ginger, cumin, coriander seeds, turmeric, Thai chilies, créme fraiche, honey and cilantro leaves -- plus other ingredients -- all make an appearance in this surprising soup that clearly telegraphs its background: not a national dish, but an international one, put together by an inspired American chef. "Chicken-Fried Venison" offers a "twist on a southern staple, chicken-fried steak," but in the USC version there is buttermilk, garlic and kosher salt.
If you choose a cookbook based on scrumptiously styled photos of food, you might be bewildered at the photographs included in Second Helpings from Union Square. The book includes absolutely none of the type of high gloss, slightly out-of-focus photographs that have come to be typical in cookbooks. Rather the photos, by internationally recognized photographer Duane Michals, create several little stories that take place in USC. A group of friends -- mature men -- enjoy a good meal with fine wine and then try to stick each other with the check. Two attractive people flirt and exchange phone numbers under the not-so-watchful eyes of their respective dates. In one photo essay we follow a leek from delivery through to a diner's table where a young child pokes and prods at the vegetable before declaring that he hates leeks. "Duane's stories won't help you know that you prepared the recipes the right way, but if they make you smile while you're cooking, they will have added a wonderful ingredient to the finished product."
Rob Feenie Cooks at Lumiére takes the modern traditional approach to cookbooks. Located in Vancouver, Lumiére has gained an international reputation since it opened in 1995 including becoming "the first free-standing restaurant in Canada to receive the Relais Gourmand designation from Relais & Chateaux, an honor reserved for those who cater to the art of living, quality, refinement and a sense of the exceptional."
Like his restaurant and his menus, Rob Feenie's first cookbook seems to fit the Relais Gourmand description very well. In a word, Rob Feenie Cooks at Lumiére is lush. An understated cover shot of "Garganelli Pasta With Spot Prawns and A Lemon and Thyme Butter Sauce" is softened and poshed up by an onionskin wrap with the book's title and spine copy printed on it. The feel from first contact is one of elegance and expense, neither of which is out of keeping with the reputation of Lumiére.
Feenie's whole shtick as a chef is blending classic French flavors and techniques with North American and Asian influences, as appropriate to his hometown. "I hope," writes Feenie in his introduction, "my food speaks the French I love, the Japanese and Chinese I hear around me in Vancouver and the Canadian I am."
The result of this desire is not anything as gauche as fusion, but close enough to bear close watching. Just in case. For instance, the "Chilled Purée of English Pea Soup with Créme Fraiche and Caviar" blends thoughts from several European cultures. The "White and Green Asparagus Salad with a Warm Soy and Truffle Vinaigrette" seems typical of Feenie's thoughts on food: It's an aesthetically pleasing salad -- the two colors of asparagus alone see to that. The soy adds its rich salty flavor and deep color, while truffle oil and a bit of chopped fresh black truffle provide that dash of glamour.
While the book is beautiful and the photographs, by John Sherlock, are mouthwatering, Rob Feenie Cooks at Lumiére is not the sort of book that seems to invite any but the most experienced home chefs to actually cook. Recipes with triple and quadruple-barreled names -- "Roasted Duck with Duck Confit, Israeli Couscous and a Warm Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette" -- represent triple and quadruple-barreled sets of instructions. For instance, in the above recipe you must prepare a duck confit, a vinaigrette, a sort of couscous pilaf, plus you must sear then roast the duck breasts. Finally you must assemble your creation -- instructions are included -- topping the whole with a "small bouquet of greens." A gorgeous presentation, to be sure. But not without a lot of work.
Still, if you're looking for a book that will help you knock the socks off your guests a your next dinner party, Rob Feenie Cooks at Lumiére will certainly head you in the right direction. | February 2002
Monica Stark is a January Magazine contributing editor.