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First Look: Union Bar & Grill (PHX)

azhotdish Jul 24, 2007 09:18 PM

Tonight was a "soft-opening" friends and family night at the brand-new Union Bar & Grill in Scottsdale, located just west of the Scottsdale Mall @ 3815 N. Brown Ave., Scottsdale. Because it's not quite open to the public (although I am technically "public", being neither friends nor family), I will comment on the restaurant as though everything my girlfriend and I experienced tonight will be the norm upon it's opening.

Setting:

At first glance, there is no doubt that the same minds behind Rancho Pinot were involved here. The decor has certainly been toned down, but the western art along the eastern wall, the exposed-beam and tin roof and the choice of upholstery certainly adds the familiar yet subdued Western-flair. The wait staff is dressed in the combo of collared white shirts and blue jeans - simple yet professional. To the immediate left when walking in, there is a bar with many wine bottles covering the wall. Further on, there is the semi-open kitchen surrounded by treated copper/tin accents, a nice touch. There is built-in cabinet space along the wall near the back, which houses most of the glassware. The whole right side of the restaurant has been raised a step, with bench-seating along both sides and two rows of tables with chairs in between. If I had to guess, I'd say the restaurant might seat 60-70 at capacity. Since I have no idea what used to be in this location, I can't comment on how much has changed, but it's comfortable yet restrained without being Scottsdale pretentious.

Service:

I won't say much about the service, except that I wouldn't want it to change very much. One of my favorite things about RP is how much you don't notice your server - they are helpful when you need them to be, take care of the little things (folding the napkins while we stepped outside for a moment was a nice touch) and answer questions about the food without being too verbose. As this is a soft-opening, this is all subject to change, but our server Ruben was on top of things and very good; I have no complaints about the service.

The Drinks:

I didn't take a look at the bottle list, so I can't comment on that. If it's anything like RP's, that's a good thing, and judging by the glass list tells me that it is. There are 21 wines by the glass, 1 sparkling, 9 white and 11 red. There are priced by either 5oz or 8oz pours, which is great. Prices range from $5 to $26 for by-the-glass; as an indicator, I enjoyed a 8oz glass of Fransiscan cab @ $15, while my girlfriend had no complaints about her Cuervo margarita @ $8.75. The glassware, which I often complain about, is first-rate, and let's hope they keep it that way.

The Food:

There are about 15-20 things on the menu, I didn't count, but it is entirely "seasonal" small plates which are meant to be shared. We ordered 5 plates, in no particular order:

-Fries w/sea salt and parsley - $4.00
-Arancini w/rustic tomato sauce, house-pulled mozzarella - $7.50
-Quesadilla w/squash blossom, avocado and (jack?) cheese - $6.50
-Seabass w/house-cured bacon, grilled corn, basil and tomato - $12.50
-Flat-iron steak potato/green bean salad and caper/mustard dressing - $12.50

The produce is sourced from McClendon Select daily, so quality is a given. The standout of the bunch (my SO would disagree with me, as she's not a huge fish person) was by far the sea bass - perfectly cooked, and the combination of ingredients was spot-on and seasoned perfectly; I could have eaten another order of this. In close second came the flat-iron steak, which was an expertly-cooked piece of meat set off by a really tasty salad (fingerling potatoes, haricot vert) and accompanying vinaigrette. The arancini was kind of a bore, and was basically breaded and deep-fried balls of risotto stuffed with mozzarella in a tomato sauce; not mind-blowing, but still tasty. The quesadilla needs to be re-thought, and since it's seasonal it will soon be gone. I love squash blossoms, but they have no business being in a quesadilla where they are barely distinguishable. There's nothing wrong with the dish, but it wasn't really interesting. And the fries, well, they reminded me of In-and-Out Burger fries; not that there's anything wrong with that, but they seemed a little out-of-place. With things like olives and toasted foccacia on the menu for "noshing", I'd scrap the fries.

Dessert:

There were three desserts listed, I believe, a brownie something-or-other, blackberry-ginger ice cream sandwiches and a seasonal cobbler ($7.00), which tonight happened to be nectarine/blueberry and came with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. Chrysta is still doing desserts at RP and Union, so like many other places where dessert is an after-thought, it's not here. The cobbler was very good with super-fresh fruit and delicious ice cream; I wish I would have taken some to-go.

So....did I like it? Absolutely. Do I think it'll be around in five years? Well, I'm not so sure. I like the idea of small plates, tapas, whatever. Ultimately, that's what this is, and there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is, though, is that I'm not sure there is enough on the menu to keep people coming back again-and-again (at RP, Nonni's chicken, the asparagus/prosciutto app, the desserts). They couldn't exactly define "seasonal small-plates" to me, and I think that their success might live-or-die by their established definition. If I knew that in two weeks they were going to have a nearly all-new menu, there's no doubt I'd be back. But if the chefs start to get lethargic and keep some of those less successful dishes on the menu, I might baulk at returning so quickly. It's definitely worth a visit though, and I wish it much success.

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  1. tastyjon RE: azhotdish Jul 25, 2007 02:24 PM

    Thanks for this. I've seen it under construction and wondered what would be going in. Will have to check it out. I assume it's opening very soon?

    1 Reply
    1. re: tastyjon
      azhotdish RE: tastyjon Jul 25, 2007 02:43 PM

      I believe their plans are to open tomorrow, but you may want to call (480) 686-9966 first to be sure.

    2. winedubar RE: azhotdish Jul 25, 2007 02:40 PM

      right on!! i've been chanting 'rancho pinot' here for awhile, and i'm glad they're branching out..

      it sounds interesting, and i love the choice of pours - its a nice touch.

      can't wait to try it!!

      1. themis RE: azhotdish Jul 25, 2007 03:04 PM

        Thanks for the review! I appreciate the info about the different sized pours for the wine. That's such a good idea -- helps if you're driving but you'd like an apertif.

        I hope they keep the squash blossoms but redo them stuffed or in tempura. I can appreciate wanting to break new ground, but stuffed squash blossoms are popular for a reason -- they're really good!

        1 Reply
        1. re: themis
          azhotdish RE: themis Jul 25, 2007 03:16 PM

          I agree, and the squash blossoms from McClendon Select are very good. There certainly is a reason that they're usually sauteed or tempured - so they don't get overwhelmed by everything else! Putting them in a quesadilla is no way to treat them, IMHO, although I did appreciate the effort. As the manager Tim put it, 'they're going out of season, so it'll be gone soon'; hopefully the next rendition is a little more fetching.

        2. m
          Molto E RE: azhotdish Aug 9, 2007 10:26 AM

          Last night I tried the "Union Wine Bar & Grill" with a few friends and we all left with a good feeling about the new offering from the RPG folks. We sampled the following:

          Crispy Penne - interesting dish sauced with a spicy gremolata...the feel of eating the penne was almost like a french fry because they are so crunchy

          Quesadilla with squash blossom, poblano and avocado...the exterior was crunchy which I liked

          Tuna Confit salad with Italian beans and grilled croutons...ok

          Heirloom Tomatoes with cucumber, sweet onion, basil, olive & Feta...good seemed almost exact to the chicken panzanella salad

          Arancini stuffed with mozzarella, on rustic tomato sauce...good (note- there are three to an order so you may need to ask for additional arancini so everyone gets one)

          Grilled Shrimp with romesco sauce and grilled spanish peppers...good, but this also comes 3 to an order so keep that in mind

          Grilled Chicken panzanella salad with house pulled mozzarella...very good, but I did not realize that was mozzarella

          Pork & Ricotta Meatballs rustic tomato sauce...VERY good, again three to an order

          Slow Roasted Heritage Pork yucatan spice, apple-cabbage slaw...VERY good, the apple-cabbage slaw complemented the pork and it was resting on a crouton

          Grilled Sicillian Sausage sauteed peppers, polenta and asiago...VERY good, we ordered another one because we liked it so much...the polenta croutons that came with it were great

          Flat Iron Steak potato-green bean salad, caper mustard dressing...good though I would have preferred some more caramelization on the steak

          Grilled Baby Lamb Chops with olive vinaigrette...ok, this came three to an order but I would have preferred a little more caramelization on the chops

          Desserts:
          Pecan-Date Brownie house-made canilla ice cream & fudge sauce...ok
          Warm Fruit Cobbler with house-made ice cream...ok

          The service was informed on the menu & wine and handled all requests cordially. I would recommend Union and will definitely return. The first part of the menu is titled Finger Snacks that range from $2.50-6.50, the second section is titled Small Plates to Share and the prices range from$7.50-12.50 so I felt the price point was very reasonable.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Molto E
            tastyjon RE: Molto E Aug 16, 2007 09:01 PM

            Just got back and it's a nice place. We had five dishes - the foccacia bread with aioli, meatballs, shrimp, prosciutto with figs/melon and foccacia with egg.
            I shared with a friend and each plate was just big enough to give each of us a decent sampling. With 3 or more people I'd think you'd need to order two or more plates of everything.

            I get what azhotdish is saying about them lacking a signature dish or a few "wow" entrees that might require some extended deliberation. Each plate was good but nothing I think I'll crave in terms of taste, uniqueness or value and each was only a few bites. But maybe that's due a bit to conditioning... we're used to some little bites but then are also used to having one big whatever. In any case, the service was very atttentive and quick.

            The one thing that did bug me, and maybe I'm just being a bit strange, is the seating in the main dining area. It's slightly elevated, which is fine, but most of the seats are half & half. That is, one side gets to sit back on a comfy cushioned bench, facing the rest of the dining room, bar area and open kitchen - all of which seems designed to be open and watched. They get to look at this wide open scene - who is coming and going, who is at the bar or in the casual area, what the chef, cooks and staff are doing, etc. The other "half" sits on a regular chair, facing a wall. Well, facing a wall and your companion(s), which is fine if he/she is the object of your undivided attention. But in my case it was a friend, and as much as we're pals, I felt a bit like I was missing out on the dining room experience. Another couple was later seated near us and they both shared the bench side, looking out... so maybe I'm onto something!

            But that's no reason not to visit... I'm finally figuring out the flow of my own place and I've been living there a few years.

          2. tastyjon RE: azhotdish Aug 9, 2007 08:47 PM

            How are the drink prices? Do they have a happy hour?

            I ask because it seems a good place for a group to share plates, but sometimes you don't want to share wine tabs!

            2 Replies
            1. re: tastyjon
              m
              Molto E RE: tastyjon Aug 10, 2007 04:59 AM

              There are some reasonable offerings

              1. re: Molto E
                m
                Molto E RE: Molto E Aug 10, 2007 09:24 AM

                This is the current menu with the drinks menu...there is an additional wine list

                 
                 
            2. silverbear RE: azhotdish Aug 16, 2007 11:34 PM

              I gave it a try tonight, too. From the timestamp on tastyjon's post, it looks like we arrived just after he left. There were four people in our party and we enjoyed two orders of arancini and one order each of the meatballs, the heirloom tomato salad, the fries, the quesadilla, and a wild salmon special. My impressions of each item:

              arancini -- quite good; the crispy exterior was a nice contrast to the soft mozzarella inside, and the zesty tomato sauce added moisture and flavor

              meatballs -- sat this one out, but the more carnivorous half of our table raved about them

              heirloom tomato salad -- quite good; nice balance of colors, flavors, and textures

              fries -- nothing special; certainly good enough, but more salt would have helped them. These just didn't seem interesting enough to be on the menu. I think their main function is to provide something filling and recognizable to those who might have a hard time conceptualizing a meal of small plates

              quesadilla -- quite good; the guacamole was excellent and its smoothness paired well with the crisp tortilla. The squash blossoms, as noted above, were barely noticeable.

              wild salmon special -- okay, not as thrilling as I expected. I think it may be hard to do justice to such a small serving of salmon

              We also shared a dessert: a pecan-date brownie, which was very nice

              Our friends had wine by the glass; my wife tried one their signature cocktails, and I had a pint of Shiner Hefeweizen, a Texas favorite. Overall, I think we were all pleased with our meal, which came out to about $30 per person includng tax and tip.

              I liked the decor, which was rustic without being kitschy, and I liked the music. As an unabashed rockist, I prefer to hear distinct songs rather than anonymous lounge music, and Union had a nice mix of U2, Matchbox Twenty, and even some vintage Billy Joel playing during our visit.

              A few thoughts on how I think Union might improve:

              -- More vegetable dishes are needed; most of the small plates on the menu tend to be either snackish or meaty. The menu would benefit from some small plates based on mushrooms, asparagus, green beans, etc.
              -- Service was great, but our server's introductory lecture on the origins of the food ran a little long. We got to hear about the produce coming from McClendon and Maya. That's something I am used to at a lot of places of this caliber. As the remarks continued, I think I even heard that some ingredient (I can't remember which one) was produced by monks. At that point, I expected to hear about Gila River schoolchildren, too. I know that a lot of restaurants like to establish their locavore, artisanal, organic credibility, but this bit could have been a bit more concise.

              Generally, we were pleased and will keep it in mind for future visits. Union combines well with visits to the Scottsdale Arts Center, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Thursday night artwalks. All are withing walking distance of the restaurant's location on Brown between 2nd and 1st Streets in Old Town.

              -----
              Union Wine Bar and Grill
              3815 N Brown Ave, Scottsdale, AZ 85251

              4 Replies
              1. re: silverbear
                ccl1111 RE: silverbear Aug 26, 2007 02:45 AM

                Is this where the Border used to be (just north of the blacksmith shop)? Thanks!

                1. re: ccl1111
                  silverbear RE: ccl1111 Aug 26, 2007 07:42 AM

                  Not sure. I wasn't familiar with a place called "border," and my horse hasn't needed new shoes for a while. Actually, I don't have a horse, but I just found a blacksmith shop on Brown via Google and it appears from the street number to be just south of Union's location. Union is on the east side of Brown between 1st and 2nd Streets.

                  1. re: silverbear
                    ccl1111 RE: silverbear Aug 26, 2007 10:39 PM

                    It must be the same place. It closed about 6 months ago. We actually liked their burgers & atmosphere. Will have to give this one a whirl too.

                  2. re: ccl1111
                    m
                    mitchgx RE: ccl1111 Aug 27, 2007 07:02 AM

                    It is.

                2. silverbear RE: azhotdish Feb 5, 2008 03:02 PM

                  Regrettably, Union Wine Bar & Grill has closed:

                  http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/bell...

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