Thanks to Union in downtown Minneapolis, it’s now possible to eat under the stars year-round. As part of an all-fronts offensive against seasonal affective disorder, we headed off to the four-month-old establishment. And because of the massive hype leading up to its opening — and Union’s confident claim on its website that it’s a “gift to Twin Cities residents and visitors” — we had high hopes as we ascended to the roof.
Stepping out of the elevator, we were immediately impressed with the glass roof and view. We were also confused. Based on Union’s bold assertions about “bringing dining in the Twin Cities to new heights” and the high prices, we expected to step into a sophisticated and smart dining room. Instead we were transported to the outdoor bar of a high-end hotel in coastal Florida, complete with big-screen televisions, wicker furniture, and loud music, which ranged from Frank Sinatra to Stevie Ray Vaughan (but, surprisingly, no Jimmy Buffet).
Part of Union’s “gift” to the Twin Cities includes “an unveiling of unique hospitality concepts.” The most distinguishing feature (hospitality concept?) of service on the rooftop was its abundance — there’s just so damn much of it. While our waiter was mellow and professional, a small army of bussing staff and food runners buzzed around in a quiet frenzy. We were in constant danger of having our food snatched from beneath our forks by a well-meaning passer-by. More static but no less obvious was a corps of what we assumed were floor managers. Serious looking people with Secret Service earpieces, they seemed to keep things humming along at a frenetic pace, but they also made us feel like we were under surveillance.
While the service was overwhelming, the food was underwhelming. Of the three “snacks” we tried, only the bacon doughnut holes ($6, above), rolled in apple cider powder and served with a well-balanced, frothy cheese sauce, were notable. Curried wild rice crispies with avocado, chili, and lime ($4) — essentially pressed rectangles of sweet cereal — were unpleasantly weird. Buffalo-style pan-fried oysters ($7) were flavorful and had a nice crunch, but there were only two of them. The accompanying mixture of blue cheese and shaved celery was tasty, but didn’t make up for the lack of oysters.
Between the snacks and entrees, we dug into a one-note appetizer featuring mediocre, semi-dry lamb meatballs ($12), and two rather ordinary but refreshing salads. The first combined apples, shaved sunchokes, hazelnuts, and goat cheese on a bed of greens ($8, above), and the second included baby lettuce, mixed herbs, aged cheese, and cider vinaigrette ($7). The dishes were what you’d expect from a hotel restaurant or fashionable bistro, not the promised “cuisine that is modern, beautifully unique, expertly prepared, compelling, yet completely unpretentious.”
Unfortunately, the entrees did nothing to improve our view. Three of the four we sampled were subpar. An attractive dish of grilled trout with smoked ham and artichoke chips ($22, above) stood well above the others. The moist fish with expertly crisped skin paired well with the salty ham and chips. Although solid, the dish was overpriced by at least $7. The house burger ($13) was slightly overcooked and the bun tasted stale. A side of limp fries was as unappetizing as the sandwich. A pasta dish with sauteed lamb, cumin, chili oil, and scallion ($20) had a nice kick, but the sauce, which brought to mind a syrupy demi-glace, was too sweet and sticky.
The biggest offender of the night was a pumpkin tortelloni with brown butter ($19). Although the pasta was skillfully cooked, the filling tasted like sweet baby food and completely buried the flavor of the toasted butter. We pushed the plate aside after just a few bites and would have been justified in asking to have it removed from our bill.
After plodding through the first three courses, we were particularly excited about dessert. Each of the three sweet dishes ($9 each) was flavorful, but ultimately unsatisfying. The crumbles, twills, blood orange caviar, and quenelles of ice cream made us yearn for a satisfying sundae, cake, or mousse. Union provides further proof that fussy, deconstructed desserts are rarely as good as the classics.
Our disappointing meal under glass was followed up with a better experience in Union’s modern, sleek dining room. We’d hoped to eat downstairs mid-week, but had to wait until the weekend, because Union reserves the dining room for private parties Sunday through Wednesday.
The atmosphere indoors is more like with what you’d expect from a restaurant that makes such bold claims about hospitality. With sleek leather booths, comfortable and stylish chairs, and a beautiful, grand light fixture, the spacious room is gracious and classy without being stuffy. The pace was much slower downstairs than upstairs, and the service was excellent. When we told our waiter (the same person who had served us upstairs), that we much preferred the downstairs dining experience, he readily agreed.
Along with the stellar service and calmer vibe, our first course had us feeling much better about the place. Oysters on the half-shell ($3 each), served with a simple vinegar and shallot mignonette, were impeccably fresh and flavorful, and a large charcuterie plate ($19) hit all the right notes. We especially enjoyed a small jar of lardo laced with rosemary and a pork terrine with inlaid pistachios and bacon wrapping.
Our second course, a salad of baby kale, soft-boiled egg, garlic brioche crumble, and parmesan ($9), wasn’t as good as the first, but didn’t sour us on the meal. It was interesting (especially in comparison to the two salads we’d had on our first visit), and the kale was impressively tender and flavorful. Two components took the salad from great to good: The egg was overdone for our liking (the yolk was gluey and semi-solid) and the brioche was so sweet that we asked if the chef had added cookie crumbles to the dish.
If dinner would have stopped with the salad course, we would have left relatively pleased. But, alas, we continued on with entrees. When the dishes arrived, they looked retro, like something Wolfgang Puck might have served at Spago in the 1980s. The sliced rib eye steak ($29) was predictably dry, and two treacly sauces (a beet reduction and béarnaise) clashed with each other and overpowered the meat. Making matters worse, a small handful of porcini mushrooms was cooked into oblivion and inedible. The only redeeming component of the dish was a side of sauteed curly spinach.
Roasted duck with whole grains, smoked oyster mushrooms, and juniper ($27) had the same retro feel as the steak. While the duck was well cooked, we had to extricate it from a confusing muddle of sauce and grains. Nearly everything about this head-scratcher of a dish — flavors, textures, presentation — was off. The entrees were so over the top and exhausting, we skipped dessert.
Union’s owners have clearly invested a great deal of money and effort into the three-story juggernaut. From the rooftop dining to the drink menu created by La Belle Vie’s renowned mixologist Johnny Michaels, they’ve spared no expense, but just blocks from modern, inventive food and innovative concepts like The Bachelor Farmer, Café 128, Sea Change, and Saffron, Union can’t just rely on a novel rooftop, original cocktails, and fancy doughnut holes.
Fine Dining in Downtown Minneapolis
732 Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55403
OWNER: Kaskaid Hospitality
Main Dining Room
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Not so much
ENTREE RANGE: $13-38