Union Restaurant

A group of friends and I recently had dinner at Union Restaurant, the former home of Shinder’s bookstore in downtown Minneapolis.  The design firm of Shea, Inc., hit it on the mark.  There are no vestiges of the bookstore, but instead a large room divided by a lively bar in the center, half walls, semi-circle banquettes and tables accommodating various numbers of patrons.

I considered myself privileged to have had a table with unobstructed views of the front line and Executive Chef Jim Christiansen inspecting each plate before it left the kitchen.  Previously he’s worked at Il Gatto, Sea Change, La Belle Vie and most recently at Noma in Denmark.

I was just re-reading the menu and saw again the first menu item:  donut holes, savory with shallots, bacon, and västerbotten cheese.   Västerbotten — of course it’s a region in Sweden.  We all knew that right?  Not!  One Google search and I found that this area is known for this hard cow’s milk cheese.  The cheese has tiny eyes or holes with a firm grainy texture.  Rumor has it that it’s better than Parmigiano-Reggiano.  I wonder if my friends of Swedish descent would concur?  Better yet, I wonder of my friends who hail from Italy have an opinion.

I can’t give you my opinion on how good the Västerbotten tasted that evening as I was enjoying my Sherry Castelvetrano (vodka, house blended sherries, goat cheese stuffed Castelvetrano green olives).  By the time I finished reading the menu, I had long forgotten about the savory donuts and therefore the cheese.  I’ve since read other reviews that said they are one of the must haves on the menu.   Aurgh!

I had moved on to Beef Tartare with oysters, smoked cream cheese, and capers with potato chips, Lamb Meatballs with black olive parsley, zucchini and sheep’s milk cheese and Fried Smelt with crispy endive, orange, avocado, and salsa verde.  Two of us enjoyed plenty of smelt; no one else budged on the offer to taste, even with arm-twisting.  It was just like any fish that is freshly battered and allowed to swim in hot oil for a couple minutes.  In other words, they were fresh and perfectly cooked.   While sharing these delightful appetizers, I did notice Jon on the other side of the table enjoying a plate of oysters on the half-shell.  I know, I know, I could have ordered them too, he reminded me.

With every item on the dinner menu looking so tempting, I used my standard way of choosing—no, not rock, paper, scissors.  I always go with what would I least likely cook at home.  It was between the veal breast braised with tonnato sauce, preserved tomatoes and white beans or the suckling pig confit with sage oil, apple juice potato and leek.

I had an ever so brief vision of biology lab concerning the later, so I cajoled Chris into ordering it, while I decided on the veal.  The grilled Rainbow Trout with crispy artichoke hearts, smoke ham and watercress did make the top three options, as the crispy artichoke hearts intrigued me, but the veal still won out.

We were both winners.  Both were melting in our mouth tender and each with a respective flavor of pure pork or beef.   The most difficult task next time will be having to choose between these two delights or deciding on something new to enjoy.    Part of me hopes the Chef Christiansen will have changed the menu so that I have only the fond memory and be forced from my now comfort zone.

The weakest link of the evening was the desserts.  We ordered the yogurt semifredo and a carrot cake.  You know something is amiss when 5 people decide not to finish two desserts.  We’ll cut the pastry kitchen some slack as Christiansen informed us during our post dinner conversation that the pastry kitchen had been without a leader, until that very night.  One of the dinner guests at our table was the Cake Diva, who handed him her business card.  My wish is that the desserts will soon match the caliber of the rest of the menu.  If not, I’m hoping Christiansen will give the Cake Diva a call for a consult.

After dinner, we had to check out the four season rooftop dining room.    There were beautiful views of downtown with the holiday lights glistening and the snow falling.  I’m already imagining a summer evening with refreshing cocktails in hand and the anticipation of another stellar menu for the season.   Should I book a reservation now for Saturday, June 22?  Union Rooftop Restaurant, 731 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55403.  612-455-6690.  E-mail: info@unionmpls.com

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