First Look at Union Kitchen: 5 Things It Does Wrong and 5 Things It Does Right

Categories: Restaurant News

Union Kitchen 007.jpg
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
What the new Union Kitchen does very right: pancakes.
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.

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.

Union Kitchen 002.jpg

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...

Location Info

Union Kitchen

12538 Memorial Drive, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Union Kitchen

4057 Bellaire Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


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14 comments
oldfart
oldfart

I dropped by one evening very shortly after they had opened. Their wait staff (and their management, for that matter) were clearly eager to please. Nevertheless, their were also clearly inexperienced - not sure if that was the newness of the restaurant or the newness of their vocational choice - to the point that they were a bit awkward and mistake-prone. We didn't really mind and tried to help our guys feel more confident, but they were still awkward. I've noticed that poor or poorly-trained waiters often suffer from a lack of efficiency which only serves to make things worse, which may be the reason you had to wait so long for service. Management had planned ahead for the service problems by limiting the menu to a much smaller version of their Bellaire menu, and they also seemed to be keeping a close eye on things, so I figured that the service kinks would be worked out for the best. Even though we were disappointed that some of the menu items we coveted were not on the limited menu, we liked what we ordered and plan to return. 

I've heard that they have been enjoying packed houses at the new location, so I suspect that the service issues will take longer to work out as they try to avoid being the victims of early success.

Cathy
Cathy

Too little salt? No biggie. Add salt. Too much salt. Bummer, man. 

Terry Alexander
Terry Alexander

Damn Shilcutt!

Once again, your food photos are spectacular enhancements to your description of the food. Can I get a burger with the pancakes as bread and doused in that chipotle hollandaise with a side of rings and that potato/chorizo hash?TA

Urban Swank
Urban Swank

If they are getting the food right, at least they are off to a good start. I find that you can work to make the dining experience shine for your customers, but if the food sucks, then who cares if the ambiance is worthy of top honors. We will go check this place out and I am getting those pancakes...wholly cow #weekendbrunchconfirmed!

Gerontion
Gerontion

Angie Dickensen was an opening night guest. Hence the tribute of Peppar.

Maggie_Mae
Maggie_Mae

I've had absolutely unsalted stuff at restaurants that are too full of themselves to have salt on the table. Only a barbarian would ask for salt! Why not ask for some ketchup while you're at it? 

Some things, like pasta & potatoes, really must be salted while they cook. Cooks really need to pay attention throughout the cooking process--to add just the right amount of salt. 

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I agree with you that too much salt is more of a bummer. But underseasoning is a crime for me, too. You can't "add salt" to most things after they're cooked and expect the same flavors to emerge if you'd salted properly from the very beginning. That's what seasoning is -- you're adding it early on so that flavors develop and are coaxed out as the food cooks.

Adding salt to a cooked burger patty would just make it taste salty; I'm not asking for my food to taste salty. I'm asking for it to be seasoned instead of flat and flabby, which is often how foods taste -- especially baked goods -- when salt is omitted.

Just my two cents.  :)

Xxx
Xxx

exactly, Shilcutt sounded nitpicky there. less salt is the polite and healthy thing to do for diners, they can add at will.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I definitely think Union Kitchen has the chops to make it all work.  :)

Monica
Monica

Yes, I know.  I was questioning why she typed "pepper" instead of "peppar"

Bradg
Bradg

Clearly you're missing the point and/or lack understanding of the cooking process....what Ms. Shilcutt said is true:  Salt needs to be added at the first of the cooking process (and all along, really) in order to coax out flavors and create the best possible outcome.  Just salting food after it's cooked will never create the subtleties of flavor that salting correctly while cooking will do.  And this is especially true with baked goods. 

Try this the next time you make something simple like mashed potatoes...salt the cooking water like you do with pasta with one half of the potatoes and leave the salt out of the other half, then fix them to taste.  You'll see just with something as simple as potatoes that the salted water makes the potatoes taste far better than just dumping salt in after they're cooked.

Oh, also, our ridiculous fear of salt has been proven to be, well, ridiculous. 

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/hea...

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