[Editor’s note: Urban Union closed in 2013.]
Currently there are at least 11 restaurants operating in the city that incorporate the word “urban” in their DBAs. It’s a cliche threatening to overtake “&” and “ultra” in the race to brand eating and drinking establishments with a fog of meaninglessness and search engine obscurity. In an effort to remember where we were going, the group with which I first visited Urban Union—the new Taylor Street small-plates wine bar from Jason Chan and chef Michael Shrader—began referring to it as “Civil Union.”
At least it’s catchier, and more befitting the notable partnership behind it. Chan opened the late Butter (and gave Ryan Poli, now of Tavernita, his first executive gig), and Shrader is a veteran of San Francisco chef Jeremiah Tower’s Stars and most recently headed the kitchen at Epic and before that N9ne Steak House. The pair has apparently been plotting a business relationship for 15 years, which explains the “Est. 1997” motto on the menu. Despite that bit of esoterica, the food itself sounds pretty appealing. The menu derives from the Publican school of brawny, barely manipulated meats and sea creatures, many of which pass through the wood-burning oven that serves as the philosophical and physical nucleus of the open kitchen and bar that runs along the long, narrow, double-decker space. The rest of the menu is filled out with vegetables and a trio of house-made pastas, all prepared with Shrader’s simple, almost minimalist approach.
This kind of cooking should never go out of style, and at Urban Union it has its best effect on the vegetables, which fill out a full quarter of the menu: hot baby turnips burst into sweet liquid explosions, charred brussels sprouts develop a nuttiness that obviates the pancetta meant to boost them, and fat slices of salty roasted apple and goat cheese line up under a blanket of greens.
But sometimes Shrader’s cooks have too light a touch. Yes, the incredibly tender octopus tentacles bathed in the lemon-oregano gremolata were among the most perfectly executed I’ve ever had. But the head-on shrimp was not. I don’t often find myself complaining of undercooked seafood—usually it’s the opposite. My table ordered a half dozen of these ($4 per)—gorgeous, glistening, and plump sea monsters—primarily for the thrill of popping off the cephalothorax and sucking out the hot, briny, gooey innards. But the ichor that oozed from their shells was hard to take in, and the flesh of the body was just beyond jellylike. Their short blast in the heat had us worrying we might be paying for it in the morning (we were fine). Similarly, the ribs had a sooty char on the outside but required the jaws of a lion to tear the raw meat from the bone.
Maybe it’s just a lack of familiarity with equipment, but the oven had the opposite effect on a half squab sauced with sweet cherries and cabbage, a bird that tends toward rubbery on its best days, but in this instance could have bounced off the plate if given a dribble. Two thick slices of unseasoned porchetta had their own odd physical reactions, somehow contracting in the heat and falling apart, their lean loin cores disassembling from the band of crispy, fatty belly meat that should have remained in place to gird them.
The pastas also suffered from sloppy execution: a tangle of house-made tagliatelle and mushrooms was sopping wet with butter, and a trio of dry oxtail-stuffed ravioli was stiff and undercooked.
In addition to the vegetables, there was a minority of winning dishes: a springy breaded schnitzel, the crispy, fried fattiness cut with acidic salsa verde; and a small bowl of cioppino spiked with enough fennel to ignite your breath.
Urban Union has a half-dozen wines on tap to go with these plates, and the beverage program is aggressively geared toward the grape, with almost three dozen other wines available by the glass. Still, some of the most intriguing things I imbibed were a handful of particularly boozy cocktails from a list of ten the restaurant has apparently decided to retire. That seems a mistake. The de facto cocktail program present in almost every new restaurant is frequently an afterthought. They should resurrect it; it has potential.
I can emphatically say the same thing about the work of pastry chef Mitsu Nozaki. Her platings, scattered with candied nuts and drizzles of sauces, seem slightly out of step with the general simplicity of Shrader’s savory dishes, but they were across-the-board winners, particularly a pair of cylindrical pistachio cakes with billows of toasted meringue and candied lemons that seemed a short evolutionary step from Italian torrone, and a riff on a Kit Kat bar, a chocolate mousse cake wtih a rich chocolate pudding, made crunchy with pulverized hazelnuts.
Nozaki’s desserts showed more consistency than everything I tried at Urban Union, and more than lived up to their promise, which I’m sorry to say can’t be said about the rest of the kitchen. It’s worth noting that the timing of my visits—including a busy and raucous Thursday—coincided with evenings when Shrader was missing from the kitchen. Nearly two months in, you’d think a guy could take a break. But maybe it’s too soon for that.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified the bird “sauced with sweet cherries and cabbage.” It was squab, not quail.