An Evening at Union on Yale

There is a new restaurant in town.  Union on Yale, which opened last semester, is owned by bible-study partners Mark Perone and John Solana.  Although Union on Yale has been less than enthusiastically received on Yelp with only three and a half stars out of five, Solana also owns the legendary Back Abbey just a few blocks over, so I was optimistic about my visit.

Dinner began with drinks.  Beer on tap is $8, cocktails and wines by the glass are $10.  The beer selection is smaller than the Back Abbey's, of course, but well-crafted.  Short flavor descriptors make the wine list accessible, and the bar does not disappoint.  The "flamed old fashioned" I ordered was positively fragrant; I could smell the orange before it was set down at our table.  Their take on the classic cocktail takes a lighter to the orange rind garnish on the drink and wafts the burnt oil over the glass before it is served.  As they use simple syrup, a 50/50 mix of sugar and water rather than dissolving sugar directly into the whiskey, the drink was uncharacteristically but pleasantly smooth, tasting more of orange than rye.

Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there.  As their website recommends, we ordered dishes for the table to share.  The waitress asked how we would like them to come out and suggested "as they come."  We agreed, and were surprised to see all four entrees we ordered: mushroom pizza, halibut, pasta, and short rib, come out at exactly the same time.  Unfortunately, our otherwise beautifully plated short rib had a curly strand of hair delicately arranged over the carrots.  Of course, they took that plate back.  This was somewhat of a relief so that we could focus on the three other plates in front of us before they got cold.

The Forest Floor pizza we ordered came recommended by the waitress and sounded delicious: fontina cheese sauce, mozzarella, mushrooms, and Grana Padano, an Italian cheese similar to Parmesan.  The best part of the pizza was the dough, baked to thin, crispy perfection in their awesome wood-fired oven.  The rest of the pizza, which had  sounded so delicious only minutes before, failed.  The cheese sauce was sparse and quickly rubbed off the crust by the overabundance of undercooked, bland, and spongy mushrooms.  The mozzarella was hidden among the fungi and the Grana Padano was ineffectual in its efforts to spice things up.  The mush of mushrooms overwhelmed everything.  The waitress noticed our disappointment and kindly removed the pizza from our table and the bill.

The halibut was pan fried and served over sautéed greens and a butter absinthe sauce.  The fish was a beautiful golden brown, but the way it perched instead of rested on the greens gave the dish away: it had been overcooked.  The white flesh was past flaky and on to stringy, and while it wasn't dry, it was unpleasantly chewy.  The slightly sweet sauce helped mitigate this, but it was soupy and soaked rather than coated the fish.  The greens and mushrooms were also drowned.  Like the halibut, the beef, pork, and rabbit Angolotti in jus we ordered was a noticeably small portion.  The pasta and sauce were peppery and enjoyably rich, if a bit salty.

Just as we thought there could be no redemption for our meal, the beef short ribs Provençal arrived.  It's funny they call the dish short ribs when there's only one.  That aside, it came out steaming and beautiful.  Slowly cooked to perfection with wine, vegetables, and herbs, the dish was a wonderful surprise.  The meat fell off the bone in unctuous morsels that we enjoyed with the delicately pureed butter mashed potatoes and rich, smoky jus.  As tasty as the meat was, the carrots were the highlight of the plate: they were young, buttery, and bright.

When it came time for dessert, we were still pretty hungry, so we ordered the flour-less chocolate cake and the citrus tiramisu, which, our server told us, was just added to the menu.  Both were underwhelming.  The cake was more of a slab of fluffy fudge, lacking the strata of fine crust, crumbly chocolate densely fudgy center that normally make chocolate pavé so appealing.  The tiramisu felt slapdash in its approach: candied cashews were plopped on some lemon custard in a mason jar over some Madeleine’s soaked in orange liqueur.  When the bill came, I felt unsatisfied and sorry to have spent one hundred dollars on three drinks, three entrees and two desserts.

Union on Yale is confused.  The fine dining portions and prices without the follow through send a clear message, but really the décor of the place says it best.  The beautiful patio transitions into a surprisingly bright dining area with a bar awkwardly placed in the middle of it.  The bright white walls and carpet reminiscent of pizza hut clash with classy cubist paintings.  The chairs are apparently made from drawers leftover from the building’s previous tenants furniture and the tables are apparently stylistically scratched and broken, but the flatware is shiny and the plates are white.

While it aspires the be great, Union on Yale hasn't quite got it.  Great restaurants have two things in common: personality and honesty.  They need character, vibe, and atmosphere for patrons to interact with, but they need to reflect the soul of the restaurant and the people who work there.  Each meal is an opportunity for the people in the front and back of the house to demonstrate creativity, discipline, and execution in the food they prepare and how it is served.  The ideas behind the dishes at Union on Yale are uninspired riffs on new California cuisine, poorly thought out and weakly prepared.  The atmosphere inside the restaurant feels uncomfortably like a chain restaurant.  They have a great space and lots of potential, but need a solid vibe to make the place work, and "good college town restaurant" isn't working for them.  Union on Yale needs to do some soul searching.

I have faith in Solana.  Though service is clumsy, it's good-natured, and the drink menu is begging to be explored.  While my personal experience was less than impressive, Union on Yale is still worth discovering, though I'll stick to the patio for drinks and an afternoon game of bocce ball until their get their act together.