Thursday, January 6, 2011

Real Detroit Weekly Extended Cut: Union Street

It can be easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour of all the pretty, shiny new restaurants opening around town (and Slows), but there’s nothing quite like the old favorites, the places that have become Detroit staples: reliable, dependable, ever-present. Like your best friend from grade school who you don’t get to see as often as you’d like but you know will always be there for you.

Going into 2011, start revisiting some of these old favorites, like Union Street in Detroit’s Midtown. Located right across the street from the Majestic complex, Union Street has offered the local crowds a relaxing, comfortable, friendly place to eat and drink for more than 20 years. Whether it be hipster spillover from across the street, students from WSU, medical professionals from the DMC, older couples from the suburbs in town for a show at the Fox or DSO, art lovers from the DIA, area residents, black or white, young or old … you get the picture. Union Street is one place that is truly a melting pot of local culture. Even the workers – many of whom have been there for 10 years or more – run the gamut from artist to writer to musician to Master’s student to physicist. And that’s ultimately what the heart of Detroit is all about, and one of the things that make it great.

“This is Detroit’s best side, what it is and what it can be,” says Executive Chef John Wesenberg of the restaurant’s always-eclectic crowd. “People interact here, do business here. There’s a lot of laughter here,” he says, ironically over the din of laughter and conversation at 2:45 on a Wednesday afternoon. “We’re right here in the heart of it.”

Wesenberg was a patron here before he was the chef, and himself has been here 10 years. This is the kind of place where people come to talk to each other without distractions: there are no TVs anywhere, no sports or CNN, just a diverse mix of people all enjoying each other’s company.

The menu is equally diverse to fit the patronage. Union Street’s menu doesn’t easily fit into any kind of categorization, so let’s call it upscale casual contemporary American as a catch-all. But the prices are modest, appealing to all wallets, and the food is consistently GOOD. Wesenberg has two culinary degrees and has worked in high-profile kitchens, but ultimately it is this rich comfort food (don’t hold the butter) that he loves. They take great care in everything they do, from the housemade sauces and dressings to butchering their own meats and seafood and smoking their own brisket made with their own dry rub blend.

Take the Jumbo Lump Crab au Gratin, made with meaty chunks of shelled sweet crab in a decadent béchamel sauce topped with a six-cheese blend baked on top and served with sourdough toast points. Or the Lobster & Shrimp Casino Pasta, made with black tiger shrimp and lobster claw and tail meat sautéed with garlic, shitake mushrooms, diced tomatoes, spinach, white wine and crushed red pepper tossed with vermicelli pasta and “casino butter” (made with garlic, red pepper, white wine and, naturally, butter). Say it with me now: butter makes things better.

These dishes are downright decadent, and also damn delicious. You'll find a lot of seafood on the menu here since that is Chef John's particular passion, much of it doused in some sort of butter or cheese or cream (blessed be). For lighter fare try the black sesame seared Ahi salad, a top-grade cut of succulent Ahi tuna encrusted in black sesame on a bed of greens with their housemade mustard vinaigrette (French mustard grain and white wine, making for a light, complimentary flavor).

There is of course their popular Dragon Eggs – chicken breast stuffed with gorgonzola then battered and tossed in their HOT Rasta hot sauce. (No, really: it’s hot. If I’m saying it then it’s true times 10.) And as a pizza lover I can also tell you the thin-crust pizza made with a four-cheese blend is garlicky buttery deliciousness, and the Marghertia Pizza is one of the options available on their $5 special menu offererd Monday and Tuesday nights after 6 p.m. (Have I mentioned that yet?) And for my fellow turophiles (I love that word!), Union Street always has had and always will have baked brie on their menu (there was a period of probably 3-4 years where that was all I would order whenever I came here just because I could. Remember when Friday's had baked brie on their menu? Now I'm going waaaay back. That was actually how I discovered baked brie, and just as I started getting excited about it, it started disappearing from menus everywhere. Now it's rare to find it on a menu unless it's just a special, but not at Union Street, heavens no. No, it's always there. Dependable, like I said...).

The menu is updated regularly and there is always a different batch of specials worth investigating (like an asiago cheese tomato bisque I tried on a recent but unrelated trip); this is the kind of place where you will NEVER be disappointed. Also a great place for bottomless mimosa Sunday brunch, as well as a great place just to get a drink: they’ve got a small but handsome boutique wine selection and a nice collection of craft beers. Tuesdays are $2 beer specials, Wednesdays are half off wine bottles, and the selected Beer of the Month is available for only $2 all month long. A motto above the bar reads “Life is too short to drink cheap beer,” which is a true statement though I’ll tell you what, those $2 drafts ain’t Bud Light. (Short's award-winning Key Lime Pie ale was a recent selection, and while the selection of Michigan craft brews is humble they always have Founders Porter or Breakfast Stout by the bottle, which is enough for me.) Also, every Monday night select martinis are only $5 from 4 p.m. to close.

There is another sign posted above the bar that states "Dignity cannot be preserved in alcohol." Ay, there's the rub. But without alcohol I probably wouldn't be able to convince myself I still had any dignity so it's all very circular, no?

Union Street has an eclectic urban saloon-meets-speakeasy-meets grungy rock bar feel, and the crowd and menu is equally as idiosyncratic. It is friendly and comfortable, the kind of place you can go by yourself to get some work done and not be hassled but also great for meeting a friend to catch up or getting together a rowdy group. Or if you’re Jack White or Kid Rock, you can totally hang out here because that’s what you did before you were famous and in this place, this place that isn’t really known as a see-and-be-seen kind of place, no one will even bat an eye in your direction and the waiters may still remember you from when you played at the Gold Dollar. Your hands WILL be greasy when you leave (BUTTER), but you will be full and happy. And while you may have forgotten about it or taken it for granted while caught up in all the Roast-crepes-OMGSLOWS hysteria, Union Street is still there for you. Like a good neighbor. Like State Farm. It is the Detroit restaurant equivalent of State Farm.

Jumbo Lump Crab Au Gratin Recipe

8 oz. jumbo lump crab (shelled)
12 oz. white wine (chardonnay, pinot grigio or Chablis)
6 oz. heavy cream
1 oz. grated parmesan or Romano cheese
1 oz. Asiago, shredded
1 oz. mozzarella, shredded
1 oz. aged Spanish Manchego cheese, shredded
1 oz. Swiss Emmentaler cheese, shredded

Mix all cheese together

Reduce wine by half in sautee pan
Add jumbo lump crab
Add heavy cream and reduce by 20%
Add 2/3 of cheese blend – DO NOT stir by hand – gently fold in cheese with spatula
Pour into oven-proof ceramic serving bowl, top with remainder of shredded cheese and place under broiler in oven or in toaster oven

Cook until cheese is bubbling and lightly browned

Serve with toast points, tortilla chips or pita bread

Read the original version
here, but know it is less one Slows reference, one self-deprecating joke about my dignity, and two mentions of State Farm.