May 10, 2012
No restaurant better exemplifies the changing face of the Taylor Street neighborhood than 3-month-old Urban Union.
Taylor Street, the city's de facto Little Italy (no disrespect meant toward the Heart of Italy enclave at 24th and Oakley), has been a bastion of classic Italian-American restaurants and not much else (though the continued success of the very good Chez Joel is a constant source of amazement and delight).
But Scott Harris began packing them in with Davanti Enoteca — still Italian, granted, but of a more contemporary, Mario Batali-inspired kind — followed by Three Aces, an artfully seedy bar that mixed sweetbreads in romesco sauce and salmon tartare in with its oxtail arancini and ricotta gnocchi.
And now we have Urban Union, a compact 77-seater whose decor is an appealing mix of natural and industrial materials, including a long wood banquette (comfortable) and stylish metal chairs (not), and plenty of brick and steel elsewhere. It's the sort of timeless-hip setup you find every 500 yards in Logan Square, but it's a pretty fresh look in this neighborhood.
This isn't the first time that owner/partner Jason Chan has gone against type in a neighborhood; some years ago, he created Butter, a very attractive contemporary American in the Greektown neighborhood. Butter, a very good restaurant (especially with Ryan Poli helming the kitchen), had a shorter life than I'd wished; I'm hoping that Urban Union has longer legs.
What will help, I believe, is Urban Union's extraordinary value. Dishes, nearly all small plates, are $10 or less for the most part, and nothing exceeds $12 except the whole-roasted fish (and that was just $17). There is a "fruits de mer" section with various shellfish platters and Maine lobster, and those are, of course, beyond the range I just mentioned.
Chan's partner is chef Michael Shrader, previously chef at Epic and N9ne, flexing his culinary muscles a bit now that he's at a restaurant that's not steak-focused. "I usually say it's European-inspired," Shrader says about his food. "I lived there, worked there and I travel there as much as I can."
The European focus ensures that Shrader's menu at least touches down on Italy. "I don't want to be a Taylor-Street Italian," he says, "but a lot of my influence comes from there." So there are only three pastas on the menu, among them an absolutely terrific trofie, made in-house and tossed with fava beans and pecorino cheese and accented with mint, chile and arugula.
Shrader also makes a first-rate porchetta, his version wrapping pork tenderloin and soffrito (a minced-vegetable spread) inside butterflied pork belly. "A simple neck-bone reduction for jus, a little sea salt and call it day," says Shrader about the dish, which is more labor-intensive than he lets on.
Urban Union devotes a lot of menu space to vegetables, and there's a lot to like among them. A simple salad of orange supremes and shaved fennel is bright and alive, picking up salty and sweet notes, respectively, from picholine olives and pecorino cheese. Squash blossoms, filled with goat cheese and placed over a light tomato vinaigrette, is one of those summer's-coming dishes that never fail to make me happy, and as for Shrader's artichoke chips, thick-cut, dusted with Parmesan Reggiano and served with a lemon aioli, I could eat those all day.
Seafood dishes work well, particularly the grilled squid stuffed with a forcemeat of chopped clams and mussels, and, new to the menu, crunchy salt-cod croquettes with an heirloom-cherry-tomato sauce and more of that good lemon aioli.
Roasted shrimp in a lemon-garlic-butter sauce work exceedingly well, and whole-roasted fish, often loup de mer, takes nicely to a "boom boom" sauce (a Thai-like mix of sriracha, cilantro, lemon zest, garlic and ginger).
My only disappointments came from a plate of grilled ramps, first of the season but virtually flavorless, and what would have been a delicious soft-shell crab (another first-of-the-season dish) that was barely room temperature.
"Save room for dessert" isn't a line I use all that often, but some of the sweets I had from pastry chef Mitsu Nozaki, who was with the Boka group before coming ("sent from heaven," jokes Shrader) to Urban Union, are too good to miss. Among the highlights were a grapefruit tart on a cornmeal crust, topped with ruby-red grapefruit segments and grapefruit granita; and a magazine cover "campfire delight" take on s'mores that intersperses pillows of marshmallow with upright, chocolate-covered graham crackers. Seven-dollar desserts rarely have such artistic detail.
Urban Union is groundbreaking in ways beyond mere location. It is the first restaurant to feature charcuterie exclusively from Publican Quality Meats, Paul Kahan's artisan butcher shop, serving up a quartet of meats that includes an indulgent tessa (thin-shaved pork belly) and pickled cow's tongue. Shrader's food-friendly, budget-conscious wine selection includes six wines on tap, buying early into that growing trend. And the restaurant will be the first to offer Greg Hall's new apple cider, which should arrive on Urban Union's fairly extensive beer list in a matter of days.
Urban Union opened in January as a no-reservations spot but quickly relented. "A guy coming down from Lincoln Park, he wants to know he has a table," Shrader says. I missed that policy change one visit, strolling in at 7 p.m. to a fairly packed house. Fortunately, the bartender is a fine conversationalist.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
1421 W. Taylor St.; 312-929-4302; urbanunionchicago.com
Tribune rating:Two stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, brunch Sunday
Prices: Small plates $6-$12
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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