Urban Union: For the Love of Food
Urban Union is a restaurant built out of devotion. A cozy spot on Taylor Street specializing in wine-driven small plates, Chef Michael Shrader and his team, including chef de cuisine Josh Marrelli and pastry chef Mitsu Nozaki, are a dedicated bunch; they even gutted the place themselves and rebuilt it to fit the chef’s vision. The exposed brick dining room is lined with reclaimed wood shelves, and candles cast a warmth over the books and numerous bottles of wine. The open kitchen lends a lively air, as the revelry of the patrons mixes with the orders and bustle of the chefs. It is a space that encourages you to sit, chat, and truly enjoy a meal.
Urban Union has received plenty of praise since its opening in January 2012. Shrader came from an impressive background in both the kitchen and management sides of the restaurant as an executive chef for such establishments as The Nine Group and Epic Steakhouse in Chicago. That experience was paired with a definite passion for the restaurant he wanted to build, creating a menu and venue that have impressed even that most respected of restaurant guides, Michelin. Urban Union earned the 'Bib Gourmand' distinction in 2013; the nod from that word in quality was a great honor, Shrader told The Daily Meal.
The year has had its challenges, of course. Chef Shrader sites the location as a factor that he didn’t take fully into account. The restaurant resides in a university neighborhood that doesn’t see as much foot traffic as some of the more culinary-centric spots in the city. “We survive, but in a better neighborhood, we would thrive.” For those who do find their way to this restaurant, however, he promises excellent cuisine at fair prices,served with integrity. The chef’s tasting menus are a fine example of this pledge, offering an exciting and well-rounded look at the tasteful dishes the Urban Union kitchen serves up.
Everything begins with wine when it comes to Chef Shrader’s menu. He aims for dishes that are simple, highlighting just a handful of purposefully-chosen ingredients, and no dish is without its vineyard match. “It’s like dancing,” Shrader says. “You need a capable partner to make you look good.” He chooses mostly European vintages that balance, not overpower, his carefully crafted food. This meal was accompanied by two fine whites, recommended by Chef Shrader himself: a Viura from the Spanish region of Rioja and a Pinot Gris from Raptor Ridge, a rare American choice.
Chef Marrelli walked me through the chosen dishes, taking care to describe each ingredient. The first course consisted of a Brussels sprout salad. Crispy leaves of Brussels sprouts contrasted with soft argula. Garlic and chile gave the dish a kick, while smoky applewood bacon and a hint of mint smoothed everything over.
The second plate featured veal tongue, accented with salsa verde, round slices of potato, radish, and a six-minute egg. The tongue itself had a mild flavor, setting the stage for the other elements that combined into a refreshing, easy-to-eat presentation.
Next was a Mediterranean-inspired skewer of chicken thigh. A tangy tzatziki was drizzled liberally on top, adding a creamy and light note to the pleasantly charred bites of meat. A minty chickpea puree balanced dollops of spicy harissa.
The next dish became a quick favorite. Chewy ricotta gnocchi was topped with crispy thyme and dressed in a rich lamb gravy. The recipe for the sauce came from Chef Shrader’s grandfather Sal, and he was wise not to mess with a good thing.
The last savory dish was a comeback kid, according to Chef Marrelli; an older dish that had found its way back to the menu, and for good reason. Shredded pork was topped with Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce. That sweet, instantly recognizable flavor was tempered with sharp, vinegary slaw and classic yellow mustard, creating that balance so indicative of the Urban Union menu.
To close the meal, pastry chef Nozaki brought out a sampler of three desserts. Sticky date pudding was soft and sweet and perfectly broken up by a scoop of delicate crème fraiche ice cream. Espresso crème brulee, presented in a demitasse cup, was an ideal combination of dessert and after-dinner coffee. A chocolate caramel tart would have any chocolate lover melting, as a hint of salt in the crumbly crush staved off any sugar shock. A great way to end the evening.