Sunday, June 22, 2008

Seattle trip - Union restaurant

My final dinner in Seattle was at Union, another French influenced American fine dining sort of place that plays in more or less the same cuisine area as Dahlia Lounge. They also focus on fresh seasonal local ingredients.

Union is in a bit of mixed area. From my seat I could see construction, a museum, and a strip club. The market's not far away either. It seems to be a semi-special-occasional sort of place. There are families with children but its too fancy and pricey for just a night out. Like Dahlia, it's dimly lit with dark woodwork but it's a bit more formal.

Union's schtick is kind of like those old Chinese restaurant menus where you picked one dish from column A and one from column B. At Union the menu is designed for a complete meal to be one appetizer, one pasta, one main dish and one dessert which you can get for $50. You can stray from the plan, but they don't encourage it.

I chose a geoduck with cucumber, radish, salmon roe and horseradish appetizer; potato gnocchi with lobster and bacon; veal sweetbreads with morrel mushrooms, garlic spears and turnips; and a frozen chocolate pate with pistachio brittle and cherry soup. I neglected to make a note of the wine I ordered, but the glass came with a little carafe of extra which was much appreciated.

Unlike Shiro's preparation of bite-sized chunks, the geoduck came in shaved paper-thin slices piled up and shingled with rounds of radish and cucumber, topped with roe and sprinkled with grated bits of horseradish. The geoduck was pretty mild and the flavor only came out in a lingering aftertaste. The forward flavors were the cucumber and radish so, as you might imagine, it was a pretty understated dish. The roe provided the dish's salt so you had to try to get a bit in each forkful to make the flavors come out right. A bit of the broth, which I think also had cucumber and geoduck in it helped to blend flavors together as well. It was a pleasant enough dish, but, for me, it didn't really come together into a coherent whole.

I had the same problem with the gnocchi. The gnocchi itself was nicely prepared--light, fluffy and with a nice potato flavor, and the lobster was soft and the bacon crispy, but I didn't get any synergy that elevated the dish above those three, admittedly very nice, components. There was a sauce, based on lobster-stock I think, that helped tie things together, but it didn't stick to the gnocchi so it mainly stayed in a puddle on the plate.

Now the sweetbreads really worked for me. On Top Chef a few weeks back one of the chefs said that sweetbreads, prepared well, were like chicken nuggets, a statement that caused some skeptical comments on a discussion board I was reading. But not a bad comparison, really. The photo here is pretty lousy--the sun had set at this point and I didn't have enough ambient light--but that's a pile of deep-fried chunks of sweetbread you're looking at and a chicken nugget's not far off, although they were a bit softer and gamier. The sweetbreads by themselves were a bit too spicy and salty due to their breading, but they were balanced by the wine reduction sauce and brightened the flavors of the vegetables. The turnip was nicely cooked, retaining some firmness and flavor. The garlic spears were slightly on the raw side of al dente, but not really undercooked to my tastes. It was quite rich so the small serving size was about right.

Finally, the frozen chocolate pate'. The picture didn't come out at all, but you can kind of make out a rectangular slice in the middle of bowl. This was actually milk chocolate mouse coated with a bit of ganache and frozen so it could be sliced. It was served in a pool of cherry soup and topped with a big chunk of pistachio brittle which you can see stretching into the upper right corner of the picture. You can see, I think, that it was huge and unwieldy. I couldn't break the thing and I wasn't willing to pick it up and gnaw on it so it just sat there. The flavors and textures here were disappointingly single-note and familiar--all very Whitman's sampler. The temperature was different, but not any real improvement I thought. I suppose the pate presentation was interesting, but like the caviar pie I had the previous night, a cute presentation doesn't improve the flavor. Not that the flavors here were bad, they just weren't anything special.

And that would have to be my reaction to the meal as a whole. Nothing was bad, but nothing knocked me out either. The gnocchi and pate were too straightforward for my tastes, the geoduck a bit scattered and the sweetbreads a bit heavy. I think if I were in Seattle longer (and could afford another $80 meal) I'd want to go back and try some of the other menu items to tell for sure, but maybe Union's approach just isn't for me.

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