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.