Square Meal, A Neighborhood Comfort Food Clubhouse
East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128 (near 3rd Avenue; map); 212-860-9872; squaremealnyc.com
Service: Friendly but slow
Setting: Long, narrow dining room filled with warmth and noise
Compare It To: Sarabeth's
Must-Haves: Dessert, dessert, dessert, watermelon and strawberry salad, vichyssoise, chive and cheddar scones Cost: $60 for two courses, tax and tip (it's BYOB)
You know that silly t-shirt, "Life is short, eat dessert first?" Well, last week I went to a restaurant, Square Meal, where the desserts were so good, I could have eaten them first, last, and in between, with no main course necessary. Square Meals' owner Yura Mohr has run a Manhattan catering business and take-out storefront for almost 20 years (before that she owned a luncheonette in Brooklyn Heights and cooked at the Heights Casino athletic club) in various locations around her stomping grounds, Manhattan's upper east side. Denizens of that tony 'hood know that as a comfort food-style baker Yura has very few peers in this country.
So it's no surprise that desserts at the recently opened Square Meal, a long and narrow, simply painted and furnished room catty corner to her take-out storefront, are stellar in that Yuraesque, if-your-grandmother-was-a-phenomenal-baker-who-shopped-at-the-greenmarket way. Go soon or you risk not finding the wild Maine blueberry pie ($8.00) on the menu. Imagine a pie loosely packed with tiny, still intact wild Maine blueberries splashed with lemon juice, with almost no blue goop whatsoever, surrounded by a flakey, buttery crust so fine you think you've been taken to a farm cafe in Iowa.
How about a simple unstructured coffee ice cream parfait-like concoction ($8.00) with crunchy bits of housemade chocolate cookies and caramel sauce. Ahh, perfection. Or my wife Vicky's favorite, a simple piece of buttermilk spice cake ($8.00) with salted caramel buttercream icing. Salty, creamy, sweet, and spicy in every shockingly light bite. Sounds kinda perfect doesn't it?
Those serious eaters not content to make a meal of dessert must be asking themselves about the rest of menu.
The starter that you should run to the restaurant for is the baby arugula, strawberry, watermelon, feta, and toasted pine nut salad ($14.00). Sounds a little strange, like it's veering into dessert territory, but in fact it doesn't. The feta adds a cheesy, salty tang, and the red wine vinegar vinaigrette adds just the right touch of acidity.
Yura is definitely from the spare-the-butter-and-cream-and-spoil-the-meal school of cooking, so it it is no surprise that her vichyssoise ($9.00) was absolutely perfect and in its own way downright light.
The much-touted Square Meal burger ($14.00) was a bit of a letdown. Though I liked the ratio of meat to bun, the meat itself didn't have much of a sear. I must admit the burger was still mighty tasty. It had enough fat in it to pack some serious beefy flavor, and it's topped with a tangle of grilled onions. The accompanying oven fries and housemade ketchup didn't leave much of an impression.
Main courses were solid, unsurprising, and predictably satisfying. Yura knows how to make food that makes eaters smack their lips with delight. A moist, smallish slab (a little too small, given its $28 price tag) of meat loaf came with caramelized onions and divine smashed potatoes.
Pan-roasted organic/kosher chicken ($26.00) had crunchy skin and surprisingly tender and moist meat inside, even the white meat. It was accompanied by crunchy, crispy, perfectly fried potato pancakes that were a touch too thick for me.
Duck breast in plum sauce ($29.00) was in fact a quarter of a duck with lovely lacquered skin sitting in a puddle of slightly too sweet plum/chipotle sauce and smashed sweet potatoes.
Oh, yeah, since I'm writing this review completely backwards, I should tell you that when you sit down you're presented with a cup of perfect, crisp, and flaky chive and cheddar scones.
So what will you find at Yura? Terrific appetizers, solid main courses, and dessert and baked goods bestowed on us by the goddess of comfort-food deliciousness, Yura Mohr, served in a clubby setting where everyone is made to feel like a member. And remember, you don't need a visa or a passport to go the upper east side.