St. Philip's Plaza has been the home of some special restaurants, including Café Terra Cotta, Acacia, and current tenant Vivace. Now, in the spot last occupied by Acacia, Union Public House is showing the potential to become special, too—although some improvements need to be made.
The restaurant, which opened last Halloween, touts "honest food and clever libations served in a stylish atmosphere." The prices are fine—the only dinner items priced higher than $19 are steaks—and the service (predominantly by young, attractive women, it seems) was good enough, aside from a few lapses.
The folks at Union have given the space a trendy-but-not-too-trendy feel, with marble tables, wood floors, expansive patio seating that includes couches, and a huge bar with a bunch of TVs—10, at least—turned to sports. Rock music plays overhead, and the noise level gets loud, but not too loud, at least for the ears of a 30-something like me.
However, a significant problem must be fixed: Some of the tables are way too close together. On our dinner visit at the busy restaurant, we were at a spot just off a major walkway—and Garrett's chair was bumped at least three different times, even though we tried to move the table farther from the walkway with each bump.
The dinner menu includes a dozen or so "share it foods" (appetizers), plus salads, a soup of the day, five different flatbreads, five à la carte sides, and 10 different main-course offerings. We ordered the sliders ($9) and the pub chips ($5) to start. I am a huge fan of pot pie, so I had to get that as my entrée ($13), while Garrett chose the buccatini with butter-poached lobster ($16.50) for his. Finally, we decided to try the mac and cheese ($6) as a side.
A note about the "clever libations": The drinks we tried were great, although I was disappointed to learn that the "Hairy Mary" ($7) no longer includes bacon, even if Union's website bar menu continues to insist that it does. (I was also disappointed that we had to ask our server for a cocktail menu, and I wish we'd been told that it was "social hour," which means nice specials from 4 to 7 p.m.) If you're a draft beer fan, take note: Union offers about 30 of them from around the world.
Now, the food: The three sliders, other than being a bit salty, were quite good. The "house grind" was served on spongy bread, and the crispy pickled jalapeños were a nice addition. As for the chips: When I could manage to get a thick chip, some blue cheese, some pork belly and some of the cheese sauce all in one bite ... wow. However, those perfect bites were few and far between, because the blue cheese was not distributed well. In the end, we had more chips than toppings.
Garrett's buccatini—think thick spaghetti that's hollow inside—was a disappointment. The pasta was cooked appropriately al dente; however, the kitchen went a little crazy with the asparagus. It rivaled the pasta as the most prevalent item in the dish, and would have completely dominated every bite if we'd have let it. (At least a dozen large pieces were left in the bowl when Garrett was finished.) The lobster was almost lost among the sauce with prosciutto, shaved Manchego, Meyer lemon and arugula—and the sauce was lost among all of that asparagus.
Also disappointing was the mac and cheese. The menu description is "baked campanelle, leek crema, white cheddar and hand-cracked pepper crust," which sounds delicious. The reality was a so-so cheese sauce mixed with pasta. Perhaps one of the optional additions—bacon (add $3), chorizo ($3), chicken ($4) or lobster ($7)—would have helped bring out more flavor.
However, the pot pie, in my mind, made up for all of the disappointment of the buccatini and the mac and cheese. The pie was filled with English peas, leek crema, potatoes, bacon and roasted chicken—and it was the best pot pie I've had that I haven't made myself. Yummy.
Garrett was sick of being bumped into, so for dessert, we got the strawberry shortcake to go ($7). The server recommended it, saying the shortcake was biscuit-like. It was an apt description—and it was an amazing dessert.
I returned with my friend John for lunch. The lunch menu is quite similar to the dinner menu, the only difference being that the pricier dinner entrées are swapped out for simpler sandwich options. We decided to split the grilled-cheese sandwich ($8) as a starter; for my main course, I got the mussels ($13, listed as a "share it food"), while John picked the fettuccini ($14.50).
The grilled cheese was only so-so. The thick, house-made bread was too thick, while the cheeses—white cheddar and blue cheese—and the tomatoes were overshadowed by the overly chewy leeks. John said it was as if someone had turned French-onion soup into a sandwich. The accompanying fries were a delight—crispy and served in a cute miniature metal frying basket.
John enjoyed the fettuccini—with roasted chicken, bacon, charred grape tomatoes, spinach, herbs and "folded goat cheese"—calling it creamy and delicious, with one exception: The chicken seemed like an afterthought, and the fettuccini would have been better off without it.
The mussels hit the spot. They weren't the best I have had, but I enjoyed the addition of the house-made chorizo (which was mild and thick as far as chorizo goes). The dish could have used more of the lovely pinot grigio broth, as the mussels on top dried out a bit.
One service glitch: I was close to being late for an appointment because our server—who had been excellent up until this point—disappeared toward the end of our meal, when we needed to get the check.
Union Public House could use some work. The service could be more consistent; some of the dishes need tweaking; and some of the tables must be removed and/or reorganized. But Union also offers moments of absolute brilliance—that pot pie, the strawberry shortcake, those perfect bites of the pub chips—and that can't be said about most restaurants.