Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York NY 10021 (map); 212-570-3670; whitney.org/Visit/Cafe
Service: Friendly, accommodating, fast
Setting: Minimalist museum basement
Must-Haves: Pancakes, pimento cheeseburger, pastrami reuben, breakfast sandwich
Cost: $15 for breakfast or lunch
Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group has dived into the food mosh pit of institutional food with both feet. Park concessions? Stadium food? We can now get our Shake Shack fix as we watch the Mets lose another game they could and should have won. Mainstream Midtown museum fare? You can get something good to eat on just about any floor of the Museum of Modern Art. So now, with his institutional food bona fides firmly established, he has now installed Untitled, his take on a Manhattan Greek coffee shop, known in the rest of the country as a diner, on the Upper East Side at the Whitney Museum. According to the menu, "Untitled offers a contemporary take on the classic Manhattan coffee shop. We are inspired by seasonal ingredients and supporting local food artisans."
The question I wanted answered: could Meyer, his well-oiled service machine, and Untitled chef Chris Bradley, a Gramercy Tavern kitchen alum, deliver a better class of diner food on time within a budget that's only slightly elevated?
In keeping with Greek coffee shop traditions, Untitled serves the same breakfast and lunch menu from 8am to 3pm, Tuesday through Friday (with slightly later weekend hours, and weekend dinner with a separate menu). So on our three visits we loved being able to have burgers at 10:30 and pancakes at 2.
Those 2pm pancakes ($10) are very serious indeed: crisp edges, fluffy, light interiors, made with a buttermilk batter that has just the right amount of tang.
Although the namesake burger here features aged cheddar, roasted tomato, and grilled onions, our server recommended the Pimento Cheeseburger ($14). Good call, my man. The beefy pimento burger, made with the requisite proprietary LaFreida blend, was topped with housemade pimento spread that would have enlivened any cocktail party in the south. The griddled rye bread soaked up the burger juices nicely. The slightly crisp and brown accompanying home fries are certainly far better than what you get at other coffee shops in Manhattan, but these are not the home fries of my dreams; though when those same home fries are topped with melted Cabot cheddar and Heritage Meats bacon, they do more than come to life: they arrive triumphantly at your table.
The Untitled Breakfast Sandwich ($8) hadvery sage-y housemade sausage that was overcooked and therefore quite dry the first time I ordered it, along with as-ordered softly scrambled eggs, and Cabot Reserve cheddar cheese, on a roll. The next time, when I was testing Untitled for its speediness, the sandwich was spot-on, the sausage juicy but not too finely ground, the eggs fluffy and moist, and the Balthazar village sandwich roll it comes on hitting the right balance between soft and squishy and chewy and crisp. The cheesy eggs ($10) served on a piece of ScratchBread sourdough toast are softly scrambled, but the bread ends up being too tough. Better to get the pastrami and Swiss omelette ($13) and spring for the extra buck to have the accompanying hash browns be of the bacon and cheese variety. The omelette is definitely made with more care than your average coffee shop omelette, but it certainly could have been lighter.
All the breakfast meats, either housemade or carefully sourced, are very good; they definitely up the ante in the bacon, sausage, and ham business.
French toast with apple butter ($11), made with thick slices of Orwaher's challah bread, is appropriately cinnamon-y, but alas, a little dry. The best French toast hits the sweet spot between wet and egg-y and dry and light, but I'm afraid this one misses the mark. Cheesy grits ($4) made our general manager's son Malcolm very happy, and if the meal's photographer Christine had snapped photos of the rest of us as we dipped our fork into Malcolm's bowl, she would have found us smiling, too. And why not? Creamy, tangy Cayuga Pure Organics grits, with lots of butter, cheese, and cream folded in. What's not to smile about?
The best sandwich we tried was the pastrami reuben ($13), made with house-made pastrami (chef Anthony was the designated pastrami maker at Gramercy Tavern), Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing. It is executed perfectly at Untitled with terrific ingredients, and it lived up to Untitled's self-proclaimed mandate.
Other sandwiches were merely solid, including a BLT made with Heritage meats bacon ($9), and an un-elevated pole-caught tuna salad on rye ($14) which isn't going to make me forsake my go-to tuna on rye in this town, at the classic sandwich shop Eisenberg's.
Sweet drinks include an excellent chocolate egg cream ($5) made with Fox's U-Bet syrup and ice-cold milk and seltzer (the keys to a first-rate egg cream), and a terrific coffee milkshake (at $6 a much better value than the egg cream) made with Blue Marble vanilla ice cream and a shot of espresso. It's not on the menu, but should be.
Desserts, mostly because of space limitations in the kitchen, are outsourced to a fine group of local purveyors. Four and Twenty Blackbirds contributes its caramel apple pie ($6), which would be perfect with a more delicate crust. From Betty Bakery comes a slice (a slab, really) of moist but light chocolate mocha cake ($6), and a salty, gooey, not-too-sweet brownie ($4).
Prices are certainly higher here than other coffee shops, but given the real estate Untitled occupies, the high level of cooking, and the quality of the ingredients used in that cooking, it's clear that the Museum and Meyer have done all that they can to keep the cost of breakfast or lunch reasonable.
How good are Untitled's breakfast and lunch menu? Well, if Untitled was near my apartment or the office, I'd happily be a regular. I would be a fixture with my own booth.