First, let me state my bias: I am from New York and I was sitting at a table of homesick New Yorkers. When the short menu (six starters, six mains) was presented, one of the New York natives immediately said: “We’re back in the Lower East Side.” “No, more like Fort Greene,” said another.
They were referring to the culinary renaissance that’s occurred in New York City in recent years. The origins of the menu were revealed when we learned the chef’s old stomping ground was Williamsburg, Brooklyn – one of the original laboratories of New American cooking.
The menu here is not intimdating, not like Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50, which started NYC’s Lower East Side’s culinary movement. There are no molecular experimentations, but there is foam; the menu appears humble but took years to devise.
The two masterminds behind it are Eric Johnson and Jason Casey (thus, the Js), prodigies of Jean Georges in Shanghai. They’ve been in Hong Kong a matter of weeks and they’ve already caused Lan Kwai Fong to quiver.
As Allan Zeman reshuffles his theme restaurants in LKF, he is allowing new tenants such as Union J (backed by Paul Hsu of Elite Concepts) to take over sought-after real estate. And when the chefs are also the owners of a project, the difference is very evident. You can immediately feel the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into the making of this place.
Everything is expertly prepared in the kitchen, from labouring over fresh fruit ice to top their appetisers to making their own pop (that’s soda in American speak). They’ve emptied out bottles of Blue Girl beer then refilled them with homemade fizz flavoured with the likes of green apple and edelflower (possibly the best use for Blue Girl).
Starters such as crab salad ($148), steak tartare with cherry olive tapenade ($148), and hamachi cubes with cucumber and wasabi ($138) set us up for the evening. Each dish has been made with craftsmanship honed through years of trial and error in fine kitchens. Some might be surprised to see the appetisers priced similarly to the mains, but we can understand why, given the ingredients, skill, and innovation that have gone into each. The steak tartare with tapenade was rich from the fat of the beef, creamy from the golden egg yolk, and salty from the olive. Simple, humble food executed very well. The crab salad wrapped in a sheet of apple (left) was naturally sweet and retrieved memories of summers in New England. But, by far, the hamachi with green apple-champAgnesabi ice was the highlight. The quality of ingredients spoke for itself. The only introduction needed was a spoon.
If your mouth isn’t watering yet, here are the mains: pappardelle with braised lamb shoulder and fava beans ($168), USDA sirloin ($238), and scallops on a bed of sweet corn puree ($178).
A former butcher’s daughter sitting at the table had this to say: “We always had great cuts of meats in the house, so whenever I eat steak at restaurants it’s always been disappointing. Except this wasn’t.”
“The taste of the steak is much better than Lardos,” said another dining companion. In fact, the cut itself was a humble piece of Angus marinated with orange peel, garlic and other spices, which did not taste of the marinate, but somehow enhanced the beef flavour. The steak was sous vide to the exacting temperature of choice and seared to form a crust. The duck fat fries that accompanied the steak were a mild addiction. When I’m feeling down, I’ll want to eat this dish and I’ll want seconds. The pappardelle was more meat than pasta, with a hunk of lamb shoulder that broke at the crush of a fork. It was topped with crispy garlic and ginger for contrast. How are they doing this for $168?
We played “name that ingredient” with the sweet corn sauce that carried the plump sea scallops. Was it lemongrass? For sure. Ginger? Yup. Butter? Lots. Chef Johnson came over for a chat after the mains were cleared, as he did with other tables. “I cut the corn from the cob, sauté it with shallots and butter, then blend it with chilli, kaffir lime leaves, ginger and lemongrass,” he revealed.
Pastry chef Casey entered with a sampler of desserts: 70 per cent molten chocolate cake ($88), a watermelon, red berry and beets parfait topped with lychee foam ($68) and something called “ABC dessert” ($48), which arrived in a Chinese takeout box. Bias number two: I hate sweets, but I licked the box down to its paper seams. The swirls of raspberries, cheesecake and crumble were the stuff of childhood memories.
Our only criticism was the wine list. There are some decent ones, some old horses, some costing the price of jetting to dine in New York. It’s not bad but it could be less brat pack. For an innovative menu, we were hoping the wine list would be on par. Corkage is $300 a bottle.
My third bias: Union J's bar serves Maker’s Mark bourbon. This is the direct path to my heart. Not many restaurants or bars serve this Kentucky bourbon, and when they offer an alternative to Jim Beam or Wild Turkey, I get gitty. But personal bias aside, the bar is fully stocked and the juices are fresh pressed, so if you are looking for an alternative to the overstuffed, overly snooty Feather Boa for fresh made-to-order cocktails, then may we recommend Union J?
1/F, California Tower, 30 D’Aguilar St, Central, 2537 2368. Mon-Fri, noon-3pm, 6pm-10.30pm. Sat, 6pm-10.30pm. Sun closed.
|Venue name:||Union J (Closed)|
1/F, California Tower, 30 D'Aguilar St, Central