A More Perfect Union
The supergroup of restaurants has sky-high ambitions
The rooftop dining room of Union is enclosed in a retractable glass dome, like a swanky greenhouse, only most of the plants are on your plate. Nestled among the skyscrapers, protected from the elements, it’s one of the best vantage points in downtown Minneapolis—Spider Man’s perspective, without the need for web-shooters. And on a chilly but sunny day, there’s no better spot for a downtown lunch. ¶ At night, the rooftop offers a ringside seat to watch Target’s dramatic light shows on its office tower, which rival the lasers of the late planetarium. Sitting under the dome releases the imagination: will it leak during a thunderstorm or feel like a snow globe during a blizzard? Despite the dome’s cacophony-inducing acoustics—as the elevator lifts you to the roof, you can already hear the crowd’s roar—the design makes eating out feel like much more than a meal: more fun, more novel. Worth dropping the equivalent of your bar tab on a sitter. ¶ Union’s digs, at Eighth Street and Hennepin Avenue, sat vacant after Shinders closed in 2007, until Shea Design leased the space for its headquarters. And what better for the designers of so many restaurant spaces to put on their roof than a restaurant? Shea partnered with Kaskaid Hospitality, the operators of Crave, to create the concept. And when you factor in the culinary talent contributed by chef Jim Christiansen, a protégé of Tim McKee, it’s a collaboration by some of the most successful names in food. ¶ The glamorous skydeck exemplifies the big ambitions. But there’s also a straightforward street-level dining room, for those who came for conversation. It’s pretty—part boutique hotel, part industrial chic, with I-beam pulleys, glass-globe fixtures, and copper cookware used as décor—though it won’t steal any thunder from the other rooms. Below ground, the Marquee Lounge is open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, starting at 10 p.m. Though if you’re first to the party you may be disappointed, like Americans seeking dinner at 5 p.m. in Rome. It was still closed at 10 the first evening I visited, which left a merry band of middle-age revelers in purple sequined hats scrambling for a back-up plan in the women’s restroom.
The main floor serves a larger menu, intended for coursed dining, while the rooftop menu, which largely overlaps, is geared to light meals and cocktails: heaviness would be antithetical to life in the clouds. Christiansen’s menu is American and contemporary, with the crowd-pleasing variety of Crave but a bigger emphasis on premium and unusual ingredients, from local Au Bon Canard duck to Japanese shishitō peppers, the spiciness of which vary according to their genetics, like culinary Russian roulette.
Having worked at Solera and Sea Change, Christiansen understands the pre-or-post-theater drop-in diner, and his snack repertoire is impressive. Chicken wings served on a bed of quinoa reminded me of a fraternity brother joining a commune—in a good way. The wings are cured, cold smoked, cooked in duck fat, and briefly fried so that the skin is crisp but the meat is rich and flavorful—a rare wing worth the work. The white-cheddar quinoa soaks up the jalapeño jelly’s sweet-hot stickiness, tying it all together.
The savory donut holes have become instantly famous, as any donut flecked with bacon and shallots and dusted with powdered apple-cider vinegar should. But the secret weapon is a foamy dipping sauce made from vasterbotten, a Parmesan-like cheese that Christiansen discovered during a stint at the renowned Noma, in Denmark.
Compared to the effort and creativity applied to rethinking wings and donut holes, Union’s burger is simply straightforward. In all ways but its $14 price tag, it resembled the burgers of roadside diners, albeit one with an inattentive fry cook, as the “medium” came out charred as a briquette and raw in the center. (Christiansen says he finds version 1.0 of the burger a little “simple” and is retooling the recipe and adding a house-made bun.)
But to me, Union isn’t a place you go for a burger. Try something more elegant, like the trout, from Wisconsin’s Star Prairie farm. Two fillets, turned on their sides, form a ring around watercress, smoked ham, and artichoke chips. The ravioli are also prettily presented, plump with kabocha squash, their edges turned up like small, puffy hats. They’re glossed in nutty brown butter and drizzled with apple-balsamic vinegar that cuts through the richness.
Braised pork and veal entrées from the first-floor menu are equally delicious. Crisp-skinned suckling pig is married with apple and sage; the fork-tender veal, a twist on Italy’s classic vitello tonnato, arrives encased in a breaded crust with its creamy tuna sauce aerated to a cloud.
Culinary foam has a bad rap—how many Worst Culinary Trends lists has it made?—but Christiansen smartly uses it so robust flavors hit boldly then instantly fade. They’re excellent in two salads: goat-cheese foam adds a salty note to apples, sunchokes, and hazelnuts, while a tiny Roquefort-foam-filled savory cannoli lends a delightful, pungent crunch to a heap of frisée.
Right out of the gate, Union’s cocktail list was more consistent than its pastries, so I tended toward liquid desserts. The fresh flavors and frisky names on the cocktail list are courtesy of mix-master Johnny Michaels. One dubbed Margie Had Sex in the Pantry is what every White Russian should aspire to, substituting vanilla, maple, and cardamom for the coffee liqueur. The Dutch Treat martini hits your lips with coconut froth, then slides into a bitter, boozy dark chocolate before finishing with the fiery tingle of curry.
Christiansen is adding even more items to Union’s menu, which should only increase the restaurant’s appeal, so long as the inventiveness is subject to a little editing now and then—every great artist needs a collaborative curator, an Ezra Pound to T.S. Eliot.
Aside from the burger, the only other misfire I sampled was the sharable crudité platter: $14 worth of cooked-but-cold potatoes and raw veggies planted in ice. The concept is very Noma: pure, fresh, and certainly relevant to dining in a “greenhouse.” But unpeeled carrots, with their brown splotches and thin, hairy roots, are probably a little “organic” for most diners.
It’s a worthy goal to bridge the gap between farm and table, and it may be time we move beyond baby carrots (the Joan Rivers of vegetables: they’ve had waaay too much work done). Which leaves us here, on the roof, so inside the next big thing that we can’t quite grasp what it means.
Beneath its much-hyped retractable rooftop, Union proves that crowd-pleasing and inspired aren’t contradictory.
Ideal Meal: Beef tartare and a salad—either the endive or frisée—followed by the suckling pig. Tip: Servers may let you order off the main-level menu on the rooftop, if you ask nicely. Hours: Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Dinner: Sun.–Wed., 5 p.m.–10 p.m.; Thurs., 5 p.m.–11 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5 p.m.–12 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers $5–13; entrées $14-$29 Address: 731 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-455-6690, unionmpls.com
Rachel Hutton is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.