Restaurant Reviews --> Union 50
Prompted by multiple customer raves about Mass Ave's relative newcomer, Union 50, we gave it a try last Friday night. Since we were on our way to a play at 7, we thought we would be alone in the restaurant with our 5:15 reservation. Wrong. What we found was a bustling bar scene and a surprisingly busy restaurant. Located in the former bricklayer's union hall on East Street just north of Mass Ave, it was obvious that no expense was spared in its creative conversion into a well-turned-out, hipster scene that is still a comfortable dining environment for the rest of us. Read this as the hipsters can sit at the communal tables, play foosball in the corner and drink craft cocktails in the bar, while we are seated comfortably for dinner steps away from the open kitchen centered around a wood-burning oven.
The back-lit bar sweeps almost the length of the building with towering shelves and a library ladder to reach them, and was filled with with every craft spirit imaginable. The service from the front desk to the wait staff to the obvious presence of management was professional and attentive. Our three shared courses were delivered, at our request, in a well-staged and timed manner, and we can attest to the fact that it is not always the case in many restaurants.
In a sign of the times, the wine list has become more of a "beverage" list. Union 50's three page list included one page containing 56 wine selections by the bottle or glass, and two more pages featuring a dizzying array of craft beers, cocktails (all $10) and over 104 whiskeys, rums and tequilas. Dean Martin would be proud...cocktail culture is back. If anyone had told me that I would be selling cases of $40 Carpano Antica vermouth and $20 jars of Luxardo Italian cherries five years ago, I would have laughed them out of the store. We stayed with the wine and were pleased with our glasses of J. Vineyards Pinot Gris and our dinner selection, a bottle of Beckman "Cuvee le Beck," a Rhône-style blend of Syrah and Grenache that was excellent and very fairly priced at $44.
The real attraction that will draw us back is the very creative and well-executed menu that featured many combinations that might sound a little strange, but meld together beautifully. The menu is divided into three sections - petite (salads and appetizers), bistro (sharable midsize plates) and grand (dinner portions), with a sidebar of charcuterie and cheese boards, flavored hand cut fries and sauces, and three poutines (all of which sounded kind of scary... in a potato, gravy and cheese curd kind of way, fit only for a lumberjack).
We began with the three selections from the sixteen available charcuterie board options, the $12 option, selecting the soppressata salami, the duck rillettes and warm Manchego, served with crostini, whole grain mustard and tiny, tart cornichons. We also opted for the artisan bread ($4), that was very nicely done, toasted garlic bread, that could have served four. Altogether an excellent starter that lead us to our off-the-menu petit course - shrimp toasts ($15). This was an incredible riff on the old Chinese restaurant appetizer staple. Crostinis spread with herb-spiced ground shrimp, toasted crisp, and served with something we would never try at home, tuna tartare in a spicy tomato jam accented with cinnamon. We didn't know what to expect, but it was so good that we couldn't resist eating the rest of the tuna after we ran out of shrimp toasts to put it on.
For our main course, we chose to share the kimchi meatloaf ($15) from the bistro menu, and the sea salt and parsley hand cut fries ($7), with the housemade ketchup and garlic truffle aioli. The meatloaf presented an amalgamation of unexpected flavors that worked well together. It consisted of two small slices of meatloaf accented by kimchi and a Thai ketchup, served with mashed potato fritters on a bed of apple-Yuzu jam (think spiced applesauce). Again, sounds strange, but absolutely delicious, and the fries were to die for, as good or better than Brugge, and that is a tall bar.
Altogether, an interesting and enjoyable meal. And there is plenty left on the menu we look forward to trying, like the duck-duck hash or the tasso ham and shrimp with polenta...it all sounded pretty good. And no surprise that we liked it since the chef, Layton Roberts, was formerly at Meridian and Mesh, two of our favorite restaurants, but he has really put his mark on Union 50 with some daring dishes.
624 N. East Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202
February 18, 2015