Union Fish Market is a change for the better
When a relatively new restaurant has a series of quick changes — new chef, new hours, new dining room policy — within a short period of time, the red flags go up. Customers stop making reservations and bloggers start making predictions about what might replace it next season. As of a few months ago, it seemed like that might be the situation at Union Restaurant & Rooftop, the multi-tiered, multi-purpose eatery on Hennepin, famous for its retractable glass roof.
But then came Union Fish Market, a seafood restaurant-within-a-restaurant on the street level of Union Restaurant & Rooftop.
"From the beginning, our vision of Union was that it would first be a place to celebrate culinary talent, and second that it would shift to the needs of the downtown market," explains Bill King, vice president of culinary development for Kaskaid, the same group behind Crave and Figlio 2.0. "I think with this new concept we've really managed to nail both."
King says in its previous iteration, the menu served in Union's main dining room proved "perhaps too modernist" for the crowd they were serving and that Union Fish Market is "aiming to be high-end and chef-driven, but still accessible." Thus the new menu, driven in part by the Fish Market's head chef, Lucas Almendinger, runs the gamut, serving fish and chips and razor clam chowder with sunchokes alongside skate wing with hazelnuts and ahi tuna with sea beans and chile vinaigrette.
The team here is also serious about its commitment to sustainable sourcing. This is a term that gets tossed around a lot, though it isn't always clear what the restaurant is promising. To King, there are two simple identifying factors of true sustainable sourcing. "One, do no harm to the environment in that fishery. Do not negatively impact that ecosystem," he says. "Two, if you are harvesting fish at a rate that is faster than the reproductive rate of that species, that's not sustainable."
Fulfilling that mission, Union Fish Market uses salmon craft-raised from Skuna Bay, a responsible fish farmer on Vancouver Island. The carefully sourced fish is then given equally thoughtful treatment in Almendinger's ethereal Japanese-inspired preparation with leeks, lardo, sweet Shishito peppers, and the almost floral acidity of yuzu.
The restaurant also uses Chilean sea bass, absent from American menus for years after irresponsible harvesting methods severely depleted the population worldwide — but theirs is Marine Stewardship Council certified. It's also incredibly delicious. Meaty and delicate at the same time, it's served with ajo blanco — a thick almond-based puree that's sometimes referred to as white gazpacho — charred shredded cabbage, and a pop of pickled grapes. It's a noble practice, but King admits the pursuit is self-serving as well. "We want to continue to have access to this quality of seafood for the next five, or 50, or 500 years, you know? So as chefs it behooves us to be committed to using sustainable producers. The value of it is very fundamental to us."
Also fundamental to the success of this menu was Union's decision to add a raw cart rather than the more common raw bar. "We liked the idea of bringing the food to the customer as a means of displaying how fresh everything is," says King. Servers wheel out the embarrassment of marine riches and give a Manny's-style spiel about the crustaceans you'll soon be eating. On one occasion, the cart included snow crab legs, the most amazing Alpine Bay East Coast oysters, and smoked mussels. There are also some composed raw plates, like the teeny baby razor clam crudo with tangy buttermilk foam and a super-light peach puree that highlights the sweetness of the clams.
Other cooked small plates went over well. We were rather wary of the shrimp corn dogs, after a similarly conceived lobster version at Smack Shack left us wanting, but the Fish Market's were fun and surprisingly well-executed, filled with chopped shrimp and coated in a thin, crisp, cornmeal shell. The mini lobster banh mi sandwiches, which come three to an order, were closer to a lobster roll, lacking any of the pickled carrots or herbs you'd find in a traditional version of the Vietnamese sandwich.
Entrees are divided into chef's specialties for those seeking something more adventurous, fish market classics like jumbo lump crab cakes for the steakhouse types, and "simply grilled" no-frills selections for the purists. Dishes from the chef's specialties section are by far the most worthwhile. Each component of the butter-poached lobster, served with handmade sweet corn puree-stuffed agnolotti in a lemongrass broth, was completely winning. When you get a spoonful of every bit all together, the dish is fully realized, as the corn puree acts almost like a beurre blanc, bringing the whole dish together in an unexpected yet ultimately traditional way. Of course, at $38 this is the most expensive dish on the entire menu, so it should be as heavenly as it promises.
A smaller menu and more tailored concept seems to have afforded Union Fish Market a laser-like focus when it comes to service. There's notably more fanfare involved in everything from the raw cart presentation to pouring the butternut squash lobster bisque table-side and flambéing the deliciously kitschy baked Alaska right in front of you. It all seems designed to separate the more formal dining crowd eagerly awaiting their crudo course from the more raucous one eagerly awaiting the drop in the onsite DJ's dubstep remix. That's the point. Union wants to cater to the all-day, every-day-of-the-week, changing needs of the downtown customer.
"It's only been a few weeks, so I am sure some things will change," says King. "By the very nature of being a seafood restaurant we have to go with what's in season. Even though we are in a landlocked state, Minneapolis is such a hub that there's nothing we can't get, you know?"
We do know. And now you can get it all — raw, cooked, shucked, steamed, and sustainably sourced, in the center of downtown.
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