“I believe in a benevolent God not because He created the Grand Canyon or Michelangelo, but because He gave us snacks”

Paul Rudnick

I first visited the Union Square Café in the early eighties at its original venue on E 16th Street, way before it relocated to the present glitzy site on E 19th. It was my first time in New York and the initial 24 hours proved to be as hypnotic as they were educative.

I picked up an early morning taxi at JFK airport, dropped into my hotel, then headed out to meet my potential patron, a lower East Side gallery owner. A  quintessential gallerist,  bedecked in upmarket lounge-wear, Cartier bangles and a visible disposition towards exclusivity and opulence, she had kindly booked a table at the famous neighbourhood café.

En route, I became curious as to what my cab driver was smoking. Whatever it was, he generously insisted its herbal qualities be shared via the perforated steel that apparently served to separate armed passengers from cash-rich cabbies. The Yellow Cab equivalent of an upgrade I guess. Upon arrival at the café, with my cab now discharging a bouquet redolent of the back stage of a Black Sabbath concert, my entrance was bordering on the carefree.

Be it jetlag or inhalation, the lunch meeting began with a pleasantly stupefied reverie. Amplifying the fantasy atmosphere was one of my host’s other guests, undertaking a passable impersonation of the lead singer of Z Z Top, the early minimalist sculptor; Carl Andre. He of the notorious ‘pile of bricks’ at the Tate Gallery. Whilst introductions got underway, my gregarious host simultaneously sprang to her feet tapping on the café window with her Porsche car keys to hail a passing Robert Hughes, he of the groundbreaking Shock of the New documentary. Out of my depth, I was by now beyond wonder as to what else might compound this cultural parade. Fortune prevailed and I was lazilly invited to show some of my work at her gallery. So whilst silently channeling Byron’s “on with the dance, let joy be unconfined” there was a notable component that clearly failed to register – and that was the meal itself. Whatever it was, it passed as a blur. And whatever the constituent parts of that blur, I apparently missed out on some world famous nuts.

Having overlooked the nut bowl during that soporific lunch, it was many years before I came to re-engage with echoes of my visit. An informal family birthday party in our garden in Norfolk, incorporating Viognier, Pinot Noir and assorted village neighbours – the closest we get to a cultural throng back here – served to create an incentive. An assortment of wine-friendly comestibles were called for.

Some words can cause celebrations to bomb before they are airborne. Kingsley Amis always cited “ Red or White?” as the three most depressing words in the English language. One of Jonathan Meades’ memorable irritations was, “all the trimmings”. Mine are “nibbles anyone?” Nibble, a verb that should be reserved for young lovers or pet hamsters, is invoked whenever someone loses sight of inventive food provision. Selected culprits are usually ultra-processed snacks that require a torrent of wine to flush the excess sodium. Twiglets and Cheesy Wotsits are no substitute for food. So as idioms go, perhaps we might replace the term ‘nibbles’ with ‘appetizers’ as that, after all, is their principal job.

With the forthcoming party in mind, and memories of my NY visit fortunately retrieved, I laid claim to a copy of the Union Square Café Cookbook. I went straight to page 8 – Bar Nuts. There I was informed that their nuts had won The New York Press Award for “The Best Bar Nuts in New York”. How fierce the competition might have been is not recorded. But as easily assembled appetizers go, I suspect that you may never reach out for KP’s or Nobby’s Nuts, let alone Cheesy Wotsits, ever again.

Benchmark bar nuts, as an appetizer – more exalted than salted.

Bar Nuts from The Union Square Café Cookbook (1994) Danny Meyer and Michael Romano

110 gms each peeled peanuts, cashews, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans and whole unpeeled almonds

2 tbsp coarsely chopped rosemary

½ tsp cayenne

2 tsp dark brown sugar

2 tsp salt

1 tbsp butter, melted

Pre-heat oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4

Toss the nuts in a large bowl to combine and spread them out on a baking sheet.

Toast in the oven until they become light golden brown, about 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the rosemary, cayenne, brown sugar, salt and melted butter

Thoroughly toss the warm toasted nuts with the spiced butter and serve warm

Wine thoughts

Naturally little to say on this one save only that red wine and salted nuts are not a very bright idea. Whatever you’re drinking at the bar when the nuts make an appearance is entirely your business, but if you opt for a wine, make it white, make it Chardonnay and please make it oaked. Only then will the salt, chilli and sugar will have a fair fight on their hands. Fino or Manzanilla sherries would triumph…as always.