Union Bar and Grille
1357 Washington Street, Boston
Open Mon–Wed, 5:30–11 p.m.; Thu–Fri, 5:30 p.m.–midnight; Sat, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.–midnight; and Sun, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5:30–11 p.m.
AE, DC, Did, MC, Vi
Valet parking, $14
Seth Woods and his partners in the Aquitaine Group have figured out how to make restaurants that diners like. Union has a New American menu that doesn’t reach for the stars, but will claim several anyway because of its consistency and lack of pretense. The room design is close enough to loud-bar fashion so the in crowd feels at home, but it’s subtly more comfortable, from the wide leather seating to the acoustic ceiling that trims a few decibels of high clank. The china is plain white, and the management provides a pepper mill and salt on every table, as though the diner might actually know his or her own taste in these variable seasonings better than the kitchen gods do.
Food starts with a mini-skillet of hot corn bread, a bit sweet, with a thin square of sweet butter with sea salt sprinkled on top. One of the most successful appetizers is smoked bluefish ($8). Most local chefs follow the Legal Sea Foods approach of making smoked bluefish into a pâté with cream cheese, but Union slices it thin, like smoked salmon, and uses the intensity to set off a pretty salad of greens, walnut, apple, and shaved fennel. The goat-cheese-and-arugula salad ($9) here is really a cylinder of roast-eggplant slices on a few pimentos, with the goat cheese and mustard greens playing the garnish role with enthusiasm. A salad of mixed tender lettuces ($7) dresses them up with shaved fennel, wraps the whole thing in a thin slice of cucumber, and sprinkles in a hard sheep cheese.
Union clam chowder ($8) approaches classic status. The only problem is that there isn’t much clam flavor. There are two beautiful thin cheese straws on top of the bowl. The broth is rich and slightly sour, as though a little sour cream or crème fraîche was used, and most bites are dominated by a fine flavor of crisped bacon bits, set off by tiny cubed potatoes. Like a lot of soup in 2003, it is served in a wide, shallow bowl that cools it rather quickly, but once the kitchen adds more clams, this should be very popular.
Of our entrées, it would be hard to improve on "$10K tuna" ($27). It doesn’t cost $10,000, but it did once help win a culinary prize of that amount. It’s a nice piece of just-seared tuna, with a spice crust and touch of something sour, perhaps balsamic vinegar. That’s a fine recipe for sushi-quality tuna, and it’s set off well by broiled tomatoes and braised fennel. Wild halibut ($26) also has a spice crust, but is fully cooked, bringing up a scrod-like sweetness in this white fish. Here the vegetable substrate of "heirloom squashes" works especially well with fish, not a pairing we see a lot. A couple of thin slices are like totally new vegetables, while the sautéed spaghetti squash on top is like shoestring potatoes. (At home, I’ve been having some very nice results with farmed salmon baked on sliced Cape Cod turnips.)
Both our red-meat entrées were excellent. Rack of lamb ($37) was four lean and meaty chops, medium rare as ordered, with a gratin of Jerusalem artichokes as creamy and good as any Anna potatoes, and a nice side of chopped stewed greens. The "wood-grilled bone-in 12-ounce sirloin" ($34) is all of that, though without the dry-aged taste of the best steak-house beef. This is fine sirloin, a little chewy with a traditional sirloin flavor, amplified by a traditionally sharp steak sauce and a little Gorgonzola cheese. This guest, in the throes of an Atkins diet, substituted extra sautéed spinach for the mashed potatoes. Life brings you to hard choices.
Union has an all-American wine list, interestingly divided by colors and regions of California. There are 18 wines by the glass and 10 half-bottles. Even so, I would go with the bottles, where you can choose from among seven merlots. We tried the one in the middle, 2000 Pine Ridge "Crimson Creek" ($50). It had the softness and richness that have made this a fad grape, along with some of the structure and intensity of flavor of the Pomerol region of Bordeaux, where merlot truly rules. Things are helped by giant glasses. Decaf ($1.95) is very, very good at a price that is almost a statement these days. Teas ($2.50) are served in china pots, so they brew well.
Desserts are more all-out than the rest of the menu, although no one will be surprised by the dark-chocolate fondant ($8) except a trained confectioner, who might expect fondant to have the consistency of fudge. This is a light mousse with plenty of chocolate oomph. The lemon-cream tart ($8) is as sour as a proper Key-lime pie, but in a perfectly formed thin tart shell. The platter was actually stolen by its garnish of basil ice cream on an almond-tuile cookie (and that set on fresh raspberries!). Basil ice cream is bright green, with a novel flavor — we are conditioned to tasting basil with garlic. Brown-sugar cheesecake ($8) doesn’t sound like much, but Union makes it small and intense, and sets a little confiture of heirloom apples on the side.
Most of my impressions are based on the dessert medley for two ($18), smaller portions of four desserts. We had the fondant; an airy almond-milk panna cotta ($8 as a stand-alone dessert) sandwiched with ultra-thin wafers; the Vermont-maple bread pudding ($7), topped with candied nuts and dried strawberries and a pour-on caramel sauce; and the napoleon of white-chocolate mousse ($7), on this platter more of a cream puff with a lavender-crusted shell.
Union skirts comfort food, including a Reuben sandwich and a cheffed-up hamburger on the main menu, but it is solidly committed to diner comfort in many small ways. The china is not only a non-distracting white, but well selected for comfort in the hand. The taped music begins with jazz-quartet ballads, the tenor sax flooding the empty restaurant at 6 p.m. As diners fill the room, soft pop vocals fill out the sound. Then, with the restaurant at full pitch, the soundtrack drops back in tempo and increases in complexity.
Service at Union is really exceptional. Partner Seth Woods was out front a lot our night, but even when he wasn’t, the staff exuded a happy confidence that comes from working at a place where the kitchen sends out what diners really like. The room suggests that the partners disciplined the designers with more than the acoustic ceiling. The wainscoting is real wood, but bleached pine. Above that are long horizontal mirrors, rather like in a French bistro. There’s just one bare beam, so it seems more like an actual roof support than a decorative conceit. There are modest green flowers at every table. The only conversation pieces in the décor are two large square chandeliers.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com