Ugly Duckling

Union's not a looker, but what's in the kitchen counts.

It is said that great things come in small packages. Sometimes they come in ugly packages, too. Union, which opened downtown in the fall, is a prime example. Talk about an eyesore. With all its altitudinous windows, it looks like it could be the control room at NASA or some brand of futuristic ski lodge. It's really atrocious. The L-shaped space appears to be an afterthought, squished onto the corner of First and Union like an ill-fitting chair squeezed up to a crowded dinner table for unexpected company. Inside, decor is minimalnot awful, but not particularly attractive, either. It's a pleasant surprise, then, when the service and food leave almost nothing to be desired. The lunch and dinner menus change daily according to market availability and the whims of 29-year-old chef/proprietor Ethan Stowell. Stowell, a Seattle native who's done time at Nell's, the Ruins, and Szmania, has made fresh, local ingredients the lead players in his daily masterpiece, yet he doesn't shy away from fine imported ingredients either. It's not uncommon for a single day's offering to include Dungeness crab paired with mango and coconut or local oysters with Caspian sevruga caviar. Located between Pike Place Market and Benaroya Hall, Union is a boon for tourists and symphony-goers. Here's a place where out-of-towners can get a taste of Northwest cuisine alongside interesting takes on international dishes such as Japanese octopus carpaccio ($10), loup de mer ($16-$18), and foie gras and oxtail terrine ($14). All come at agreeable pricescomparable to Wild Ginger and lower than Metropolitan Grill, restaurants that dominated the neighborhood market before Union took up shop. It would be a sad thing, however, if Union was limited to tourists. With its constantly morphing menu, it's a place where a downtown kind of person could go monthly or weekly without growing bored. Stowell's modus operandi can be appreciated by anyone who enjoys food: high-quality ingredients, simply prepared. On the other hand, Union is not for the meat- or fish-phobic. While a vegetarian could pick her way through a meal here, the menu's designed around rich, formerly living centerpieces such as venison, salmon, rabbit, duck, beef, quail, and liver. Dinner sometimes starts with a complimentary palate tickler such as peppered pear salad. As a first course, a meaty Dungeness crab salad ($10) and a well-balanced mixed greens salad ($7) both proved solid choices, but not even the most pleasant starter could hint at the beauty beheld by one blessed second-course offering: kohlrabi soup ($8). There are religions based around idols less precious than this potage. The thick, pale green purée, garnished with a liberal dollop of truffle cream, is transcendent. Its smooth texture and subtle taste is so ecstatic a combination as to tempt one to place $20 bills under the server's apron strings in hope of a larger serving. Because the menu changes daily, kohlrabi's only an occasional treatother soups include watercress with soft poached duck egg ($9) and parsley root soup, also with truffle cream ($7, lunch)but, for neighborhood soupophiles, it's worthy of a daily walk-by menu scanning. ENTRÉES ARE FLAVORSOME and attractive, succulent yet elegant. Lunch may bring a braised rabbit leg, served in its juices with baked yam ($16), or roasted muscovy duck breast with cardoon gratin and thyme jus ($16). Dinner offerings can include ahi, seared minimally and served with baby artichokes braised to perfection with Meyer lemon and parsley ($18); tender, grilled hanger steak with potatoes in a port-, red wine-, and veal-based shallot sauce ($18); or a luscious pork chop roasted in veal jus with glazed baby carrots and turnips. Adventurers might embark on the pant- inducing $45-per-person tasting menu which recently offered crab salad, leek and mussel soup with saffron and lemon, seared ahi, muscovy duck, reblochon cheese with greens, and lime crème brûlée. Desserts are magnificent. Reserve room to savor warm apple crisp with to-die-for black raspberry ice cream ($7) or dreamy cinnamon bread pudding with rich, smooth vanilla ice cream ($7). You may be tempted to share dessert with your serveremployees here are that friendly, knowledgeable, and skilledbut with house-made sweets this good, you wouldn't be remiss to just keep it to yourself. The menu's peculiar three-tiered arrangement could prove a pitfall. The first and third courses are, obviously enough, appetizers (about $7-$14) and entrées (about $16-$23); but the elusive second category includes honest-to-goodness pre-entrée items like a good-size bowl of soup ($9) alongside larger, entrée-worthy offerings such as grilled smoked salmon with avocado puree and frisée-basil salad ($11). A person that orders all three courses could end up stretching her budget as well as her tummy. Better to order a pair of smaller plates or a small plate and an entrée. Or perhaps ask one of those friendly servers for advice.

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