I finally got around to dinner at Union Sushi and Barbeque. I say finally because Mike and Chao have been laying the groundwork and talking up their restaurant concept forever. They use social media really well, and made inroads into the local foodie community well in advance of their restaurant. If you plan to open a restaurant in the near future, dissect what they did. FYI.
I could only manage the sushi half of the menu at dinner. However, I feel as though I experienced the barbecue half from my seat. Every now and again, the grill would fire with a furnace-like blast across the dining room and bounce off the glass behind me. My dinner companion could feel the reflected heat on her face even though her back was to the grill. Intense. We both felt barbecued at times.
After being seated, our waitress hit us up almost immediately to take our drink order. We wanted sake and needed a few minutes to scan the menu, but she immediately pounced and directed us to a floral, fruity sake without asking what we were in the mood for, what we intended to order, or even what price point we wanted. I guess in her mind small, cheap, fruity sake is what women order? Lame.
She hovered until we made our choice, and continued hovering until mid-way through our meal when we suddenly became the “forgotten table”. The sake selection? Curated and interesting. The service throughout the meal? Uneven and unpracticed.
We hit the “Salads + Snacks + Starters” menu pretty hard, but started with a sample of the dryly spiced edamame on the house. The edamame was fresh and for a second I thought something was wrong with it before I realized it had never been frozen. The truffled tuna was my favorite. I was concerned that the truffle and chili fresco would overpower the tuna, but it was nicely balanced. The mussels were served over a bed of thinly sliced ginger in a savory broth, and it would have been perfect if I had a loaf of bread to dip. I know it wasn’t the theme of the restaurant, but it seemed a shame to waste such a good melange of flavors. The agedashi potato was a more subtle combination of textures and flavor, but was also successful. I’d order everything I had again. So far, so good.
The prices for the sushi rolls at first seem overly reasonable until you realize that each roll is only four pieces. Roll size is an odd standard to break, and I’m sure caused confusion among the sushi-literate diners of Chicago. I hope they change the portion sizes and raise the prices, or get savvier waitstaff that can help guide the experience.
We tried a variety, including the spicy tuna and its upscale, racy counterpart, the Old City Market — a spicy combination of cilantro, ponzu, and tuna wrapped with collard greens and topped with seared salmon. It was so good, we ordered it again and would have gone for a third roll if it weren’t for the rest of our order.
The lackluster Devon roll required molars to crunch through the pickles stuffed inside, the Clifton #4 was interesting for the marbled nori covering the asparagus-cilantro-calamari combination, and the Hokkaido was an inventive scallop roll topped with roasted peppers. I want to come back and try the rest of the Union rolls. The combination of flavors deliberately pushes the sushi envelope, and hooks the palate in unexpected ways. Kudos.
We finished the meal with the aptly named Killer Yuzu Pie, which would have been a perfect finish if the temperature of the pie didn’t run from warm to ice cold throughout. Delicious dessert, but a failure with a haphazard presentation.
We had plenty of time to scan the venue and the crowd between courses and while waiting endlessly for our bill. The combination of concrete, tagged walls and excessive noise level from the overhead Brown Line tracks seemed to attract a 20-something crowd who dressed for the club scene. The price point at Union is higher than most sushi spots in town, even when subtracting price of drinks. If you go all the way with the experience, expect to pay around $75 per person.
There aren’t problems getting a table if you go right after work. However, if you plan to go later, remember there are no reservations for less than seven people in a party. I’d go now before Chao’s sushi hits one of those top 10 lists — I think it will. Just steel yourself for the price and the pangs of a newly opened restaurant.
Union Sushi and Barbeque
230 W Erie St
Chicago, IL 60654