Restaurant review: A more perfect Union Cafe

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From the August 14, 2014 edition

People-watching doesn’t get any better than when perched at Ground Zero of the uninhibited Columbus party scene: the patio at Union Cafe. However, did you know that these days deliciousness at Union extends to more than just a wiggly eyeful, giggly earful and wobbly snootful?

Obviously, I’m talking about Union’s food, which is still wallet-friendly, but vastly improved. For that, we can thank (in part) a culinary intervention from chef Lara Pipia (nee Yazvac). Though Pipia — whose resume includes Freedom a la Cart, the Eat Up pop-up supper club and Northstar Cafe — doesn’t regularly cook there, she has helped Union design creative new dishes played in the key of contemporary gastropub. Union now also features high-grade breads from Rigsby’s Eleni-Christina Bakery, local Blue Jacket cheeses and Ohio-raised meats and fish.

Settling into Union’s spacious and handsomer-than-you-might-remember dining room or its raucous patio, your “TV sports” will be limited to dance-oriented music videos. Drinkwise, Union’s Flirtini-happy cocktails ($7-$9.50) and Kamikaze-style shots ($5.50-$7.50) largely channel a bygone Sex-and-the-City era. Sure, you can get a celebratory bottle of Veuve Clicquot real Champagne for a not-terrible $79, but most of your tipsy-getting best bets rest with the good-sized and good-priced bottled beer list. Alright, let’s eat.

Pimiento cheese and homemade pickles are still in vogue, and Union’s bold and spicy version rocks ($7). Served with a lovely loaf of toasted warm sourdough, the dip’s creamy base is punctuated with diced bell peppers and scallions, and the zesty result is complemented by assertive veggie pickles.

Gotta have good fried chicken nowadays — and Union delivers. Chicken ’N Biscuit Sliders ($6.50) brings a duo of crunchy-battered, juicy white meat hunks housed in flaky quick bread, and aroused by “spicy maple butter” and pimenton.

Another kicky starter is the Fancy-Ass Pickled Eggs ($4). Four distinctly mahogany-tinted, vinegar-tickled ova halves arrive perfumed with rosemary and enriched by a robust remoulade sauce underblanket.

Interesting, pungent and briny richness likewise emanated from the large and anchovy-flaunting Kale Caesar! ($8). Unfortunately, the salad’s tougher-than-need-be leaves and surfeit of dressing compromised its success.

In a generous gesture, this type of involved salad — or an equally engaging “small plate” (instead of, say, throwaway chips) — can be a side dish for any sandwich, like the terrific Pulled Porchetta ($10.50). Inside a nifty (if overabundant and untoasted) roll was lusty and juicy strands of make-you-moan roasted pork glamorized by spiky, fruity-giardiniera-like and garlicky condiments.

The odd, if healthy and compelling raw shaved Brussels Slaw (crispy-fried cuminy chickpeas, apricot, creamy goat cheese and basil) is a good match for the also unusual-but-pleasing Shrimp Cake sandwich ($11.50). The sandwich stars a thick and herby, stuffing-like “burger” (think bready puck with small pockets of shrimp) attractively pan-crisped and flattered by a sorta lacy-cut slaw, plus excellent, toasted batard bread.

Smokey Mac ’N Cheese with Sirloin ($14) is another huge serving with lots of appeal. As advertised, the multi-cheesed mac has alluring whiffs of smoke, but also a fried egg and tender slices of lean but flavorful beef. Yeah it’s rich, but its synergy is irresistible.

The yellow-celebrating Peanut Saffron Curry Bowl ($13), assembled pyramid-style, tasted almost as good as it looked. My tofu version (you can pick chicken instead) arranged big and crisply fried bean curd wedges around brown rice (a bit tired). Providing texture and flavor were toasted peanuts, chile flakes, grilled pineapple, pickled onions and a creamy, Thai-riffing curry sauce with a hint of cinnamon. If it’s typical of Union that the cinnamon was one ingredient too many, it’s also typical of the new and improved Union to err on the sides of flavor and flair.

Photos by Meghan Ralston