Union: Amazing dining from the top of the town
When the first round of drinks arrived to our intimate table in the main-floor dining room of Union — the latest restaurant from Kaskaid Hospitality group, the Bloomington-based company behind Crave, Urban Eatery, and the new Figlio — they had that unmistakable Johnny Michaels flair about them. A gin pomegranate martini that would be tired and cliched in anyone else's hands was flavored and garnished with rose petals, shimmering with gold flecks, and went down tart and with a hint of vanilla. Though that cocktail, called the PersianPussyCat, seemed to be the drink of choice for virtually every woman in my immediate view, the one I much preferred was the ingenious and potent take on my favorite classic cocktail, an Old Fashioned. Michaels makes this one with rum infused with the Indian spice blend garam masala and a bit of muddled blood orange. On the nose, it was like an aggressive scotch, but as the chunk of hand-carved ice melted, the drink mellowed and transformed into an intoxicatingly spicy concoction.
All this snooty booze talk can be reduced to the following statement: The drinks at Union are outstanding. That's what we as a populace have come to expect from Michaels. To me, it's more interesting in terms of the volumes it speaks about Union's wise decision to bring him on. Based on that collaboration, and on Union's appointing of Jim Christiansen, a former protegee of Tim McKee, as executive chef, you can glean a lot of information about the type of customer Union wants to draw. It also reveals some of Union's strategy in differentiating itself from Crave, which is just a stone's throw away from Union's revolving front door. At a place like this — hyped-up and a bit flashy, in the middle of the downtown theater district, very near Target Corporate and other major office buildings — it's paramount that the bar program be strong, and though there are some predictable beers on tap and a globally diverse wine list (lots of sweeter whites, though, if you're into that sort of thing), this restaurant is very much a place for cocktails.
Part of Union's concept in its towering, three-tiered restaurant is to adapt its menus a bit to the different crowds on each floor. Starting from the underground level, Marquee is Union's attempt to follow the newish trend of having an attached, but separately functioning, bar in your restaurant (see also: the Bachelor Farmer and Marvel Bar and the newly opened Burough and Parlour). Bottle service and more creative cocktails are available in this dark and slick lower level, which is decidedly clubby and emanates exclusivity. It doesn't open until 10 p.m., and you can access it either from the elevator on the main level or the unmarked alley entrance, if you're cool enough to know where that is. The rest of the building operates almost as two separate restaurants, Union and the Rooftop.
The differences in the menus are small but not insignificant. You can't, for example, get a burger in the more formal (and on each visit, considerably calmer and quieter) main-level dining room, but you can upstairs in the rooftop restaurant, which is intended to be slightly more casual (though your bill won't necessarily reflect that) and is undoubtedly the most attention-grabbing level, with its amazing retractable glass roof. Union has yet to unveil the mechanism in action, but as soon as we get a 60-degree day you can expect that top to come off and for people to flock to the indoor-outdoor space like sheep to shearing.
Aside from the strong (in all senses) drinks, the most lasting impression of my experience at Union was of the share plates, available on both the main and rooftop levels. The oft-changing selections of meat, seafood, cheese, and crudite are designed to enjoy like a family-style antipasti platter, but beware that the price listed for these trays is per person, something to think about before you realize you've spent $72 on appetizers for four. To be fair, that price is for the seafood share plate, which sounded pretty spectacular: East and West Coast oysters, crab legs, chilled prawns, and seared scallops. We opted to see Union try its hand at charcuterie and were pleasantly surprised. It might not quite compare to, say, Butcher and the Boar's, but the pistachio and pork terrine, chicken liver mousse parfait with pickled quince and maple syrup (also available on its own and one of the most praised items on our table), and a wondrous substance called lardo (basically whipped pork fat infused with rosemary and bacon, spread on bread) were all particularly good.
In addition to the share plates, Union offers a handful of smaller appetizers that don't seem to adhere to any one culinary theme. I was excited to see smelt in this section of the menu, which were prepared whole (minus the head) and gently fried with a light arugula salad, avocado, and bagna cauda-like vinaigrette, giving the impression of a deconstructed sushi roll. Unfortunately some of the smelt were too big to not have been deboned, but it was still refreshing to see this underused fish relatively bare instead of covered in a thick breading. Union also has an almost disproportionate number of salads on the menu, particularly on the rooftop. Most are not what I would call entree size, but as a starter the kale-leaf, Caesar-inspired salad was perfect to share with sweet, almost candied brioche bread crumbs and perfectly soft-boiled egg.
Standout entrees included the super-moist and delicate trout with watercress, smoked ham, and crispy artichokes (available at both levels) and the duck breast cooked to a beautiful medium rare, with a thin layer of delectable fat capped by brilliantly crispy skin. The menu must still be in flux because, compared to the dish described on the menu, what actually got put in front of me had many unlisted components, and I was pleased to see that it was a bit riskier in reality than in theory. The duck was served with a malleable sheet of sesame seeds that was very much like nori, along with black-eyed peas, whole-grain mustard, and a fragrant pear puree. It was well balanced, and the meat was exceptionally well cooked, with loads of natural flavor.
On the other end of the spectrum, the rib eye left something to be desired. Generally when you get a big, bold cut of beef like a rib eye, it's bone-in, so you expect to do some carving. You don't expect to do it when you get a boneless cut, but this one had a lot of gristle, which is a real blow when you've spent 28 bucks on an entree. The preparation was otherwise smart, favoring earthy flavors of beets, dark greens, and porcini mushrooms instead of heavy carbs, while still adding the flourish of bearnaise. I also took issue with the scallops, which were themselves very well cooked, but the cold shaved cauliflower salad underneath was unappealing and gloopy with cheese, which overtook the delicate texture of the scallops. The burger was underwhelming and clearly just there as a moderately priced entree for more casual diners. Personally I would recommend taking your $14 and finding Neato's Burgers food truck. You'll get much further and get much more flavor.
As we waited for our table in the rooftop area, I couldn't help but feel like I was always in someone's way, no matter where I was, which is why I generally don't frequent downtown bars unless it's work-related. "You'll think of this later as 'that New York feel,'" a server told me as I backed myself up into a big fake plant to make way for the party getting seated before us. "But that's why I live here instead," I murmured. Well, that and the fact that you can usually find a public bathroom when you need one and you don't have to take a third job to make rent. My point is, plenty of people like to go out and feel immersed in a "scene," and when the mood is right, so do I, but for now, Union is just a little too hot for me, which probably means great things for their business. I'd go back for a weeknight date or to sit at the main-level bar and get a That's That! (a green-cardamom-infused gin, lime, and absinthe cocktail) and some savory doughnut holes (bacon-and-shallot fried dough with a cheese fondue), which are an uber-popular order from Union's snack menu. One thing is absolutely indisputable: The views from the top are great, and that's probably how Union feels about its place in the local scene about now.
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