First Look at Union Kitchen: 5 Things It Does Wrong and 5 Things It Does Right
Because it's not fair to give a full cafe review to a restaurant before it's been open for at least three months, we bring you First Looks at new restaurants around Houston to see what they're doing right so far and what they still need to work on.
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt What the new Union Kitchen does very right: pancakes.
The new Union Kitchen replaced a Hunan Emperor that had occupied the corner of the Lantern Lane shopping center on Memorial Drive for years. Inside, you'd be hard-pressed to tell, however: Union Kitchen has fully remodeled the restaurant into a welcoming space complete with full bar, private dining room and even a sunny side patio.
This location marks the first and -- so far -- only outpost of the original Union Kitchen in Bellaire, which has been flying under the radar for a couple of years under the ownership of Paul Miller and his chef, Juan Arellano. The pair's success led them to open this second location in Memorial after Miller discovered -- according to My Table -- that many of his customers had been driving to Bellaire all the way from west Houston.
When I visited on a recent Sunday afternoon just ahead of the church lunch crowd, Union Kitchen was already packed. Miller certainly seems to have judged his demographic correctly. Yet there are still many things that need tweaking.
5 Things Union Kitchen Is Doing Wrong
1. Waiters shouldn't be waiting around: Our waiter was friendly and polite, but we waited ages between being seated and receiving our drinks, then waited another long stretch before he came back to take our order. Our water and iced tea glasses sat empty. Our Bloody Marys ran dry. And the entire time, we could see our waiter -- along with many others -- huddled near the kitchen in a pack with his fellow servers, on their phones or simply waiting around.
2. Handing out incorrect menus: Although we were there for brunch, we received both brunch and dinner menus but didn't realize it until later. A table near us was eating some delicious-looking sandwiches, and my friend asked our waiter -- after he'd taken our order -- where the sandwiches came from, as we didn't see any on the menu. "Those are from the lunch menu," the waiter said, nonplussed. "Would you like to see a lunch menu instead?"
3. Overly fussy plating: As seen above, plates don't need to be decorated with baroque streaks of balsamic vinegar. In fact, the fussiness makes it seem less appetizing. Keep it simple -- especially with this very tasteful and tasty appetizer of lemon-tinged goat cheese.
4. Gummy, overcooked pasta: The "Tyler's Chicken" is a simple bowl of fettucini with chicken, a creamy sun-dried tomato sauce and basil. It would have worked very nicely were it not for the gummy pasta that had clearly been overcooked into a mushy mess. Good pasta -- like good bread or good rice -- is a foundation that you just can't mess up, especially when your menu is pasta-heavy.
5. Don't be afraid of the salt: This isn't just a problem with Union Kitchen; it's endemic these days. Kitchens are either too heavy-handed with the salt or afraid to touch it. I can't decide which is worse, but I do know that two of the breakfast dishes I tried would have been spot-on perfect if they'd only been seasoned with a little dash of salt. Ditto the otherwise excellent meat on the onion ring-topped Union Burger.
On the next page, a list of what the Union Kitchen is doing right...