December 28, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Backward Glance: Square Deal

Jumbo lump crab cakes are so good, I forgive the saucey excess. Photo: Steven Richter
Jumbo lump crab cakes are so good, I forgive the saucy excess. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’ve been meaning to BITE about a delicious escape into an Upper East Side time warp I discovered this past fall.  But the neophilic cravings of restaurant reporting has kept interrupting.  Exhausted from year-end demands – airport interruptus, movie theater combustion, gifting and returning, candles at both end-burning – now could be the moment to bring a little Square Meal into your life.

        We’re meeting friends who live around the corner. It’s their local, a clubhouse for the zipcode. They can’t believe I’ve never been.

       “But you know Yura!”

        “Who is Yura?” The taxi drops us on the corner of Madison at 92nd in front of Yura Catering. The restaurant is around the corner, down a few steps in the garden level of a brownstone, a long narrow room, green walls bare except for a few jungle plants that look predatory, wait crew in blue jeans, a tiny bouquet of flowers or miniature pumpkin on every table, depending on the season. First to arrive, we settle on a sofa.  Hope our friends come soon before we decimate this giant bowl of pistachios.

         I feel my time machine has landed in the innocent Fifties. I imagine I see the ghosts of ladies who lunch in hats and men in seersucker suits. I recall long gone spots like the NYC Exchange for Women and Mary Elizabeth’s. And Stouffer’s, where diners delight in an Americanized version of mushroom lasagna with its slightly toughened coverlet of cheese, eager to get to dessert, lush cobblers and crisps, sticky banana pudding.

This muddy-looking mess of scallops and mushroom is delicious. Photo: Steven Richter

        “No children in strollers,” a sign warns. That suits me. And there’s no alcohol. That’s a plus too because our friends arrive with their own treasured Bordeaux and the corkage fee is just $2 (“donated directly to individuals still suffering from Hurricane Katrina,” the menu notes).  The seduction begins with crunchy cheddar-steeped triangles with a scone-like texture.  They call them biscuits here and we’re rash enough to lick the butter from our fingers and ask for more, just as starters arrive: heirloom tomatoes with the juicy sweet and tang of late summer perfection and Thai battered and fried calamari – weird little Michelin-man pufflets streaked with a spicy pink sauce on a thatch of sensational slaw with Asian pear and Meyer lemon.

Deep-fried calamari look like the Michelin man but so good too. Photo: Steven Richter

        What’s good is so good and so generously heaped – seared scallops and oyster mushrooms swathed with apple cider beurre blanc, pan-roasted organic kosher chicken with potato pancakes and jumbo lump crab cake on fresh corn and plum tomato salad – the unfashionably saucy excess is easy to forgive. Boston’n’buttermilk salad, with leaves as limp as a wet handkerchief is the most serious disappointment. But the carefully cooked 5 oz. burger with caramelized onions, fat log fries and delicious homemade ketchup is a deal at $14 with entrees $26 to $30. Tactually that’s not bad for the this neighborhood.  Given that starters go up to $16 and desserts are $9 to $11, dinner for two should top out at $50 to $60 a person with wine as spectacular as your mood and your cellar for just $2.

         We’re back again just two weeks ago, with images of crab cakes and berry cobbler dancing in my head. The “club” is dressed for Christmas with a gingerbread tree on every table and bright red flowers and a pale green pumpkin at the end of the bar where a duo of regulars without a reservation are sociably perched. Of course our friend who lives a block away is late.  I watch Steven hit the pistachios and then, after a decorous three minute pause - just to prove I have character - I’m matching him.

A first-rate burger with splendid fries and homemade ketchup is a deal. Photo: Steven Richter

        Since Square Meal’s time warp does not exclude three times a week excursions to the Union Square market, of course the menu changes. So I’m curious, indeed, suspicious when I see “fresh corn” on the lineup and stupidly boycott the crab cakes on corn-and-tomato salad for overcooked rosemary grilled shrimp. (“Our supplier is getting fresh corn from somewhere,” Yura Mohr assures me over the phone. And, “We do aim not to overcook the shrimp.”) The tomato soup is sadly wan – I can think of a dozen ways to make a winter tomato soup worth eating.  Of course, that’s not my job. Still, the odd-looking calamari is fine and we’re all sharing splendid fava bean purée with cucumber and mint to spread on pita. The organic chicken is as good as remembered and tonight’s slow roasted duck with fig purée buried under fig-balsamic sauce is lush and juicy, enough for two.

It’s not often you get properly cooked shrimp in NYC. These aren’t it. Photo: Steven Richter

        As Yura fans will warn you, this is not the pace to skip dessert. “We churn our own ice creams,” boasts our server Lisa. I like that. Churned ice cream for my apple raspberry crisp and the wild blueberry-raspberry cobbler.  Old fashioned.  No instant liquid nitrogen. And the smart tang of citrus rings clear in the luscious tangerine cheesecake.  Lisa seems upset that we’re missing the double chocolate pudding with salted caramel whipped cream and her favorite sticky banana pudding.

Save room for a fabulous crisp or a crumble like this one.  Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m not a devout locovore. I am perfectly content with my Mexican blackberries and sweet tangerines from California.  But I do often favor my own westside neighborhood when I’m not working. Still, I suspect we’ll be back if we can get a table once our eastside pals who never go north of 72nd Street learn what old fashioned pleasure is hiding in plain sight one mile north of their myopia.

30 East 92nd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues. 212 860 0872. Lunch Tuesday through Friday 11 am to 2:30 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 9 am to 3:30 pm. Dinner Thursday to Saturday 5:30 to 10 pm; Sunday till 9 pm. 

We request less cooked seafood in our chowder. The kitchen bows. Photo: Steven Richter