Like Twitter, cupcakes and skinny jeans, small plates have reached a saturation point at which they are no longer a trend—they simply are. And so the question is not whether I think it’s a good idea that Urban Union, the collaboration between restaurateur Jason Chan (the long-gone Butter) and chef Michael Shrader Epic), is a small-plates restaurant. The question is: Is Urban Union a good small-plates restaurant or a bad small-plates restaurant? Not to spoil the rest of the review, but it’s a good one.
But at no moment should you forget what it is: a small-plates restaurant. (Have I said it enough?) And with these little, shareable plates, you are constantly in danger of ordering in a way that will make the meal highly annoying: not enough food, not the right food, not the most shareable food. I don’t want to tell you how to live your life. But here's how I've learned to make the most of Urban Union’s small plates.
The beginning and the end are the easiest parts. I started with a few West Coast oysters, and praise is due to whoever shucked them: They’re as fresh and deftly opened as any you can find in this city. So impressive, in fact, that I’m keen to try the $88 seafood platter (which I did not order) on my next visit. There are head-on, butter-dredged, sweet and fat shrimp available by the piece: You’d be silly not to order a few. This would be the perfect start. And desserts, from pastry chef Mitsu Nozaki, are just the right finish. Evidently there is something difficult about dessert in the context of the style of simple, unadorned food that has become seemingly ubiquitous in this city in the past couple of years: The sweets tend to take the satisfying-but-easy route—soft serve, doughnuts—lest they risk the worse alternative, the overly conceptual and complicated dessert that’s out of place with the rest of the meal. Nozaki seems to effortlessly find the middle path between these alternatives, delivering desserts that are in step with the tone of the rest of the meal but don’t give up their own personality in the process: toasty, nutty pistachio cake paired with lemon curd; gooey, warm sticky date pudding; crunchy Kit Kat–inspired hazelnut-mousse cake paired with a quenelle that looks like ice cream but turns out to be deep, dark chocolate pudding. For a pastry chef no one has ever heard of before, she is killing it. (And if you think I didn’t ask Does anyone mind if I finish that? for all of these desserts, then you don’t know me at all.)
What happens in between the head-on shrimp and the grown-up Kit Kat? A lot of very high heat. Porchetta, roasted in the wood-burning oven, has a juicy center; skirt steak had an awesome charred flavor and came out gorgeously medium-rare. But both were served practically bare in their own juices, and though I recognize there can be beauty in simplicity, something about the plates felt incomplete. The same is not true for the lamb riblets—they have that same gripping grilled flavor, but they’re dressed in a herb and garlic–packed gremolata that sends the dish into standout space. Housemade pastas demonstrate ambition; they’re elegantly made and nothing if not rich: Some bites of the trofie (a squiggly, dumpling-like pasta) were pure fat from the stewed oxtail; others were pure, meaty indulgence. Technical fumbles fouled out a few nonmeat dishes: The flavors of the house-cured salmon gravlax buried in a layer of sea salt, the roasted swordfish tough and chewy at the edges, the roasted beets under-roasted and stiff, the brussels sprouts more mushy than crisp.
So you leave a few bites of an eight-dollar beet salad uneaten. Who cares? If you’re doing this right, you’ve had plenty of wine, from a list that’s as exciting to wine dorks as it is accessible to the wine illiterate (thanks to six vinos on tap). And you’re feeling pretty happy in the warmly lit room. And you can always order more. This is why we’re all gung-ho about small plates, right?
By Julia Kramer