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Union Square

15 East

photo by Robert Menzer

Tocqueville’s Marco Moreira and Jo-Ann Makovitzky erected this sushi palace in 2006, poaching seafood master Masato Shimizu from Jack and Grace Lamb’s Jewel Bako, where he’d gained a following for his dazzling omakase meals and boundary-pushing practice of serving lobster sashimi in the shell of the crustacean he’d just eviscerated — while the crustacean was still moving. That dare-worthy meal has made the trip uptown, along with an expanded menu that places the austere 15 East — with a bright, spare sushi bar contrasted by a dining room done up in muted tones — firmly in the company of the city’s finest sushi restaurants. Shimizu’s sushi is delicate and slender, the slips of fish draped over sturdy fingers of rice and a thin yet bracing layer of freshly ground wasabi. Many of the restaurant’s cooked dishes provide enough of a reason for the maritime-averse to set foot inside, including a decadent foie gras chawanmushi: a humble, homey egg custard given the VIP treatment with Périgord truffles, duck liver, and soft gingko nuts.

ABC Kitchen

photo by Reimy Gonzalez

As the green movement hit a fever pitch at the end of the 2000s, fine-dining impresario Jean-Georges Vongerichten tapped longtime lieutenant and Union Square Hospitality Group vet Dan Kluger to run ABC Kitchen, his market-driven, eco-conscious restaurant just north of the fabled Union Square Greenmarket. Right as words like “seasonal” and “local” threatened to lose their meaning, this chicly appointed restaurant attached to home-goods titan ABC Carpet & Home helped reinvigorate the ideals of championing sustainable, localized, and often organic agriculture. Maybe that’s why Vongerichten and co. can get away with serving a $20 veggie burger (it doubles as the city’s most expensive falafel). Tucked into house-made, whole-wheat pita and slathered in herb-spiked minted yogurt, it exemplifies the restaurant’s ethos. The chef has a horse-whisperer’s way with produce, which helped him snag a Best New Restaurant James Beard Award the year the restaurant opened. You’ll want to pair your meal with something from the impressive wine list, which features, of course, biodynamic and sustainable varietals.

Aldea

photo by Bradley Hawks

George Mendes channels the rustic flavors of his Portuguese heritage at Aldea, his five-year-old Flatiron restaurant, creating visually arresting tapestries of contrasting tastes and textures that complement the equally striking décor. Transparent tube-light fixtures dangle precariously over seats that look onto the open kitchen, where the chef can often be seen dipping his hands into various stations behind the line. While Mendes adds global touches from Brazil, Goa, Angola, and Japan, the bulk of his menu maintains a Portuguese sensibility. Three such dishes have become his calling cards: the masterful arroz de pato — a jumble of pink, tender duck over vibrant yellow rice seasoned with olives, chorizo, and apricot purée; garlicky shrimp alhinho enlivened by a stock made from the crustaceans’ heads; and a plank of toast supporting tongues of sea urchin, cauliflower cream, shiso, and lime. The wine list features Portuguese vintages you don’t see every day, and the restaurant further ups the ante with a cutting-edge Coravin system that employs argon gas to make rare and spendy bottles available by the glass.

City Bakery

photo by Robert Menzer

As owner Maury Rubin tells it, when City Bakery opened in 1990 to “a minefield of dust” on 18th Street, Union Square was transforming from a drug-fueled area full of ancient, decrepit businesses into the bustling city epicenter it is today. And like the Union Square Greenmarket, which had just opened with only a dozen or so farmers, Rubin wanted his spot to be part of the change: “I wanted to breathe life and ideas into the neighborhood bakery, to make it a sensory experience, personal, up-to-date with the changing food world,” he says. Nearly 25 years later, the shop continues to carry out that vision with each gooey chocolate-chip cookie, decadent cup of hot chocolate, and fluffy pretzel croissant it sells. Rubin says he subscribes to “Frank Lloyd Wright’s dictum that a house should be of the hill, not on it,” and he’s worked to make sure City Bakery remains an essential part of what it helped create. Proof that he’s succeeded is in the crowds that throng the tables — despite the lack of wireless connection — all day long.

Gotham Bar and Grill

photo by Voice Media Group

Gotham Bar and Grill celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2014, and the three decades since its opening date have seen the complete transformation of the Union Square neighborhood, including the fall of the singing Italian restaurant once located across the street. “When we opened,” remembers managing partner Brett Csencsitz, “it was a fairly remote location for a restaurant of our caliber.” More remarkably, the kitchen has been under the command of one man for 29 of the aforementioned 30 years. The original partners brought Alfred Portale aboard after one year to give the menu a refresh. Portale’s longevity proves he has never stopped that process, updating his menus to pull them in line with contemporary preferences and plating styles (he was an ambassador of towering food sculptures, but you’d scarcely know it now). A few dishes endure — the tuna tartare spiked with Japanese cucumber; the quintessential steak — but the only thing sacred about the food here is the lens through which it’s viewed: Portale does tight, pristine modern American food with nearly flawless technique. And what he’s turning out of his kitchen, into a recently remodeled room manned by an impeccably trained staff, is as relevant today as it was in ’84.

Pure Food & Wine

photo by Reimy Gonzalez

Sarma Melngailis’s shift to a mostly raw vegan diet helped her spot a gap in the market: She couldn’t point to an upscale, non-preachy restaurant that catered to like-minded eaters. So she built one. Chicly appointed Pure Food & Wine opened near Union Square in 2004 with a bill of fare that, in addition to being made entirely of plant matter, is never heated above 118 degrees. Pure’s kitchen, helmed by chef Nikki Bennett, goes to great lengths to prove eating raw vegan does not mean surviving on crudité platters, and it turns out stunningly composed dishes like cornbread cashew pudding with pickled shishito peppers, zucchini and heirloom tomato lasagna, sweet corn and cashew tamales, and decadent cakes and sundaes. The depth of Bennett’s talent is best understood via the five-course tasting menu, though you should plan to leave stuffed if you order it. That Melngailis makes sure no one on her staff attempts to evangelize on behalf of the raw vegan cause means this spot attracts omnivores and vegetarians alike. Pure has seen more than its share of celebrities, too: Alec Baldwin famously met his wife here, and Bill Clinton made a stop last year. In summer, be sure to check out the garden, an Eden-like oasis in the middle of the city.