When a restaurant terms itself “unique,” as does Único Food & Drinks in Hartsdale, you expect something that makes it stand out from the crowd of restaurants populating our suburbia. You wouldn’t necessarily expect that uniqueness to be a wall painting of a man with a lion’s head, nor would you expect that a restaurant with a bleak exterior situated on a main artery in a strip of stores, a few of them shuttered, to serve mostly delicious food. Both premises are true of Único.
In Único’s dining room (opposite the aforementioned lion) is a Lilliputian replica of a pirate ship. Like the captain of that ship, Único’s chef/owner Brian Sernatinger has sailed to many coasts in his voyage to mine culinary treasures.
Nearly every dish boasted adroit creativity. A sweep of walnut pesto and another of goat cheese, for example, brought a plate of mixed greens and roasted beets to a high level (although the kitchen could have been more judicious in its shower of salt). A charred link of tender octopus wore scales of jalapeño accompanied by small charred potatoes. It was one of the best renditions of this sea animal that we have had hereabouts. Branzino was another winner. The chef uses a classic French technique of poaching the fish in olive oil, which renders it incredibly moist and imbued with aromatics. He beds the fillets over vegetables, including corn kernels for sweetness as well as creaminess.
For the vegetarian with us, a vegetable timbale was perfect: ricotta and Parmesan cheese in close alliance with carrots, zucchini and roasted tomato, the medley shaped like a rotunda. In another dish, thick slices of medium-rare duck breast sat atop sautéed arugula, whose stridency was tempered by sweet figs with Israeli couscous as the canvas. The composition was a drastic departure from the orange/duck dishes of yore, but one that worked surprisingly well.
A bit more attention to composition would have elevated other dishes, like the fried croquettes of goat cheese, which, while pleasant enough, had a coating that was difficult to pierce with knife and fork. We ended up using our hands, gliding the morsels through the honey on the plate, which made for sticky fingers. The beggars’ purses of chicken wrapped in filo dough tied with a ribbon of chives was served with a sweep of lush avocado cream (the chef loves avocados), but a stronger presence of the promised blue cheese would have made for a more tantalizing composition. And pappardelle adorned with shrimp in a white wine bath would have benefited from more seasonings or herbs or even a touch of heat.
The chef, whose credentials include the French Culinary Institute and Gramercy Tavern, could use a pastry-trained cook alongside him because the desserts needed fine-tuning. It’s okay to tweak a standard, but only if it makes sense and tastes good. The chocolate lava cake, decadently oozing in the center, was the best choice among the four listed. Three others — cheesecake, crème brûlée, and chocolate mousse — were coupled with unexpected ingredients that detracted, in a too-much-of-a-good-thing sense.
The wine selection, limited for now, included a Maris rosé, which was perfect on a hot summer night. Cocktails played the flavor keys quite well, such as a Margarita made with honeyed Xtabentún (a Mexican anise liqueur).
Único’s menu changes frequently, depending on the seasons. With an open kitchen and a bar in the dining space, a plastic replica of an old tin ceiling overhead, and lots of wood, the place can get noisy at times. Incidentally, we loved the use of different colored and shaped dinnerware and the cut-glass of the water glasses, and the polished wood tables are certainly beautiful and show an eye for detail.
Sernatinger opened his first Único in Tulum, Mexico, five years ago and that one also boasts a lion mural (both painted by his wife, Deya) — he was born in August, and it’s his zodiac sign. In Hartsdale, meander to the restroom corridor, and on your right are two human forms painted on the wall: a nattily dressed gent and a woman in an hourglass strapless gown, both with faces of cats, and a grandfather clock between them. Now there’s a tableau meant for conversation.
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Freelance writer Rosemarie T. Anner was the executive and food editor of Greenwich Magazine for 21 years.