I’d heard that the boys behind Union—two friends, a seasoned chef and an unseasoned restaurateur, respectively—were attempting American-Japanese food at Union. But that did little to prepare me for the fish cake. One order consisted of a skewer of three, each one looking like an albino Tootsie Roll. For the first few seconds, they were chewy and benign. But soon, the chew dissipated, and there was a disorienting rush of creamy pepper-jack cheese (Wisconsin pepper jack, the menu asserts). The flavor is something like the Doritos of kushiyaki, and it’s divisive—people will find it either disgusting or delicious. I found myself reaching for a second, not out of craving but out of curiosity.
If every dish at Union were such a ridiculous amalgam, it would be easy to dismiss the place as a disaster. But though there’s little here to really love, there’s plenty to like, beginning with the space—an open, lively, graffitied room that gives off energy even when it’s empty—and the cocktails, which were designed by the Bittercube boys of Madison, Wisconsin. The menu—heavy on snacks and inexpensive bowls of noodles—is appealing as well, though not everything chef/co-owner Worachai Thapthimkuna is cooking hits the mark. As Union’s full name hints, Thapthimkuna dabbles in both raw and cooked food here. But if his spot manning the robata grill, whose flames reportedly reach 600 degrees, is any indication, he’s paying more attention to the hot stuff. That grill makes for a perfect environment for chicken thigh and jumbo shrimp skewers, both of which arrive charred and crispy outside, with plenty of juices locked within. And other cooked dishes (not from the robata), like the competent skate, were largely successful, especially the noodles: The lamb ramen could have used a more punchy broth but was otherwise a lively, balanced dish. And the duck fat yaki soba was instantly addictive, the noodles slick with mustard sauce, topped with shreds of perfect, fatty duck and tossed with crunchy cabbage and piercing ginger.
The raw stuff was generally less successful. Wasabi honey mustard distracted from the meat in the beef tartare. A tuna tartare was doused in enough truffle oil to power a Vespa. And the sushi, like so much other sushi in the world, was just kind of there, neither exemplary nor foul. Is it hard to take Union seriously when it tops sushi rolls with chewy strips of pork belly? Definitely. But the question Union asks is: Who said we have to take food so seriously in the first place?
By David Tamarkin