I hate it when I can't quite put my finger on something. Having plenty of opinions and putting them all in writing usually comes pretty readily, but ever since my first visit to Union Wine Bar & Grill, the new Old Town eatery by the folks behind Rancho Pinot Grill, I've been trying to sort out my feelings on the place.
The last time I stopped by, though, really summed it all up.
Just a few tables over from where we were sitting, my sweetie and I spotted the food critic for another local publication. We'd met her at a dinner party a few years ago.
Union Wine Bar Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
"Psst!" I whispered to him, subtly pointing into my palm. "Is that . . .?"
"Yeah!" he whispered back. "I thought that before you even mentioned it."
I'm pretty sure my colleague was on the job, too, and I didn't want to blow her cover, but I thought I might quietly go over to say hi. Then, before I knew it, she paid her bill and left. Oh, well, maybe next time.
No offense to that other food writer, but it's pretty pathetic that spotting her was the highlight of the night. In any case, food wasn't even part of the conversation at our table, for the first half of dinner. I guess that's what happens when I'm underwhelmed.
Don't get me wrong. There were a lot of things I liked about Union Wine Bar & Grill. I didn't love it, though.
I wish I could say I did, considering how much I admire chef Chrysa Robertson and wine guru Tom Kaufman. Their original restaurant, Rancho Pinot, is still one of the best places in town, a modern classic where exquisite ingredients shine without fussy, contrived preparations. And their hearts are certainly in the right place they've been longtime champions of locally grown, organic produce, and Chrysa's the founder of Phoenix's Slow Food convivium. I also appreciate that they've opened a friendly, relaxed restaurant that defies the pretension of so many glitzy Scottsdale hot spots.
Still, they've set the bar really high, and Union just doesn't quite clear the hurdle.
In the looks department, I like half of the place there's an intimate patio out front, a handsome display of wine bottles behind the bar, and a good view into the bustling kitchen. But I cringe to say what the other half reminds me of. All right, I'll just spit it out: a hotel lobby. Framed Ed Mell prints give the space a warm, nostalgic Arizona vibe, although banquettes spanning the room are covered in busy upholstery that evokes the tackier side of Southwestern décor. I'm not sure why they didn't go for broke and throw in a few Kokopellis and some Native American flute music. (Luckily, the soundtrack was a harmless mix of stuff like the Stones and Elvis Costello.)
To sum up the menu a couple dozen snacks and small plates meant to be shared there were some winners, a few losers, and a lot of solid but not particularly memorable dishes. Sharing was tricky for four people because several dishes came in portions of three (which wasn't noted on the menu or by our server), but at least the attentive wait staff accommodated us with fresh plates, and on one occasion, an extra meatball.
I'll give you the bad news first: Skip the Mexican shrimp cocktail. In a town where so many authentic Mexican restaurants do it well, why should Union try to compete? Especially if they can't bring the heat. Here, the mix of shrimp, avocado, and grapefruit in a light tomato broth was bland no spice, no salt. The jidori chicken wings were spicy, at least, but even a side of crème fraîche-scallion dip didn't distinguish them from 10-cent wings you'd find at your neighborhood bar.
Flat-iron steak was nothing to write home about, and neither was grilled chicken panzanella salad they were both simply okay. Hand-cut fries, sprinkled with sea salt and parsley, were average at best.
Instead of fries, go with the crispy penne if it's available, that is. After my initial visit, it disappeared from the menu, only to reappear later as a special. Crisp and light, the slender pasta tubes had a similar appeal to fries, only with better seasoning. Tossed with super-garlicky gremolata, salty pecorino, and punchy chile flakes, the dish was as addicting as it was unique.
Lucky for me, the things I enjoyed most were consistently available, and consistently good. I loved the moist, velvety pork and ricotta meatballs, slathered in a chunky tomato sauce. They were a remarkably close match for the wonderful meatballs at the Italian restaurant my family frequented when I was a kid. Crisp arancini fried rice balls stuffed with hot, oozy mozzarella put the same sauce to good use.
Grilled Sicilian sausage had a spicy kick and a nice mix of textures, thanks to a jumble of sautéed red peppers and crisp polenta cubes that were deliciously creamy inside. Mildly spiced, slow-roasted Heritage pork was impressive as well, with refreshing apple-cabbage slaw to balance the richness of the meat. And grilled baby lamb chops were juicy and perfectly cooked, just like at Rancho Pinot except for a distracting green olive vinaigrette that didn't appeal to me.
Squash blossoms might've been in season a couple of months ago, when Union opened on my first visit, they were tucked into a quesadilla but you won't find them on the menu now. Meanwhile, grilled quail, served with sweet kernels of corn, smoky bacon, arugula, and onion, was a tasty new addition. Clearly, they're tweaking things as they go along here, and that gives me hope.
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Three decent desserts rounded things out: lemon-verbena custard, warm fruit cobbler with crème fraîche ice cream (again, just like at you-know-where) and a rich pecan-date brownie with fudge sauce and vanilla ice cream. We gobbled up the brownie, although the cobbler came in a close second.
For a raspberry lemonade cocktail or a nice glass of wine (with a choice of five- or eight-ounce pours), I'd certainly stop by Union again. And for a casual nosh on my way to or from Scottsdale Center for the Arts just a stone's throw away this place is a shoo-in. But for a truly memorable meal that lives up to what I'd expect from a couple of the Valley's best-known culinary names?
For now, I'll stick to Rancho Pinot.