July 19 2011 11:37 AM

North County's newest gastropub is flawed, but worth watching

unionrestaurant

After watching months of construction, I'm now hearing a lot of chatter about Union Kitchen & Tap in Encinitas, which finally opened in May. It's the latest restaurant on the local scene to combine a hip, relaxed bar atmosphere with a menu that leans more toward gastronomy than gut-busting beer accompaniments. 


If you enjoy the casual, friendly nature of San Diego's beach communities but are turned off by frat boys in Game Cocks hats (always hilarious, you guys!), you might want to cruise up the coast a bit and see what's doing in the land of the Surfing Madonna.


Union is a large restaurant with an enormous, airplane-hangar ceiling covered in curves of beautiful wooden planks. The bar is always bustling, and the quieter, more sophisticated dining room and ample-sized patio stand ready to catch the overflow of patrons.


Chef Jason Gethin originally hails from Charleston, S.C., and his Dixie roots shoot through the menu, popping up with grits (plain on the side, or with shrimp as an appetizer), collard greens and dumplings.


I'll say right off the bat that I liked this restaurant, and I'm looking forward to going back and exploring more of the menu. (Can you sense a giant “but” coming?) Though I appreciate one more energetic eatery getting into the gastropub game, the execution at Union doesn't always come through.


For example, the Mustard Glazed Boar Ribs were a fun and quirky appetizer. Flavor-wise, the meat was delicious. I expected something gamey but found a richly flavored meat with tiny bones that slip so quickly out of the fall-apart meat they might as well have just been there for show. I love a good mustard glaze, but I expected a bit more from this dish. I can't say for sure they're using French's, but it sure tasted like it.


The brick-roasted chicken was excellent, with juicy meat and a skin that wasn't as crackly-crisp as I'd like but still melted deliciously on my tongue. Roasted chicken is one of my favorite things to cook at home—easy and flavorful. And yet, I'm constantly disappointed by restaurant versions. Union's isn't perfect, but it's a solid and hearty dish. The vinegary collard greens that act as a bed for the bird were great, with that faint smoky hint that says, “I've been swimming with a giant hunk of ham!” 


Then there were the dumplings—or, I should say, the “dumplings,” as they were really just strips of cooked dough. Now, I love all things gummy and starchy, and I'm confident this will make me a superb elderly person. Held to this standard, I loved the dough strips. But if you're expecting a more traditional, or even slightly recognizable, version of a southern-style dumpling (and with collard greens on the plate, which is what I was expecting), you may not care for this odd interpretation.


Another almost-there plate was the sweet-potato ravioli. Anything coated in brown butter is halfway to my seal of approval automatically, but the handmade pasta wasn't light and tender. I had to use a knife to cut through part of the noodle—yikes. This dish also came with a “pecan pesto,” which, apparently, means crumbling barely spiced pecans over the top and calling it a night. Again, great ideas, good flavors, but the overall execution seemed to lack polish.

The steady crowds packing Union Kitchen & Tap every night are clearly digging the friendly vibe and the funky food. Hey, as bar food goes, it's exceptional, but to stand out among the big boys in our beer-plus-gastronomy-crazed town, Union needs to up its game.    



Write to jennym@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

Calendar

  • Visit one of the 70 participating restaurants, bars, coffeehouses and nightclubs in town on this night and 25 to 50 percent of sales will go to local HIV/AIDS services and prevention programs. 
  • Anthony Bernal and Chris Ward, who are vying to replace Todd Gloria on the San Diego City Council, will discuss urban issues, such as parking, homelessness and new developments
  • The new exhibition designed by Dave Ghilarducci is made from hundreds of rolls of packing tape and bound together by layers of plastic shrink-wrap. Visitors can navigate their way through cocoon-like passageways...
  • The renowned Mexican black and white photographer presents an exhibition exploring the principal themes within three groups: "Bestiarium"," Fantastic Women" and "Silent Natures."
  • Presented by Pacific Arts Movement, the sixth annual mini film fest features 14 film programs from 10 countries that includes everything from docs to romantic tearjerkers. See website for full lineup and...
  • The San Diego County Bike Coalition hosts this monthly bike-in happy hour event to get biking residents involved in their communities and discuss bike projects planned for that specific community
  • Debunk some of the stereotypes surrounding cannibalism at this new exhibition that takes a hands-on approach to the subject. Includes video games and interactive activities where patrons will have to decide...
  • So Say We All's monthly storytelling night features stories about those jobs we took because we had to take a job. Featured readers include Allison Gauss, Annmarie Houghtailing, Cecile Estelle, and more
  • Artists from the all-abstracts group show will talk about their work and techniques. Artists include Edwin Nutting, Danielle Nelisse, Leah Pantea, Lenore Simon, and more
See all events on Thursday, Apr 28