Minneapolis' Union is strong

RICK NELSON | , Vita.mn | Updated 3/20/2013

Downtown Minneapolis corner is now a one-of-a-kind destination.

Much of the chatter surrounding Union has been consumed by other details, and why not? It’s a great story, generating a seemingly endless string of headlines: New life for a long-dilapidated downtown corner. The rooftop patio to end all rooftop patios. Kam Talebi, restaurateur with the golden touch. Cocktail czar Johnny Michaels does it again. You get the idea.

But when that buzz dies down, it’s Jim Christiansen who will ultimately become the keeper in this tale because he imbues much of his cooking with personality, subtlety and technical acumen.

The lengthy dinner menu is organized by snacks, appetizers, shared plates and entrees, with prices escalating while traveling down the list. Starting at the top, I can’t imagine not ordering the dish that amusingly embraces two trends. Yes, bacon and doughnuts, or in this case, surprisingly light and tender yet deeply savory doughnut holes. They’re terrific, just $6 and a harbinger of good things to come.

At least so I thought. My first dinner, a month after the restaurant’s mid-November opening, was uneven. But subsequent returns in late February yielded vast improvements. The menu’s land mines were fixed or eradicated, although with them went some of Christiansen’s most ingenious ideas, including crispy sweetbreads with pillowy dumplings. The good news is that the replacements are even better. Scallops, for example, still boast that same caramel burnish but are now paired with similarly melt-in-your-mouth pierogies and a teasing mustard sting. Perfect.

I could die a happy man after consuming the eggy, papardelle-like pasta, tossed with thin shavings of cumin-cured lamb belly and a tangy tamarind-vinegar sauce.

I crave the meaty mussels, steamed in a nose-tickling lemon verbena broth. Or the gorgeous sunny side-up egg, laid out over a sweet-spicy slow-braised oxtail and garnished with a flurry of herbs. Or the kind of roast chicken that a chicken lover hopes will emerge from the kitchen but seldom does.

Among a few missteps, the rainbow trout tasted primarily of the grill, and forming a pot roast-esque veal into the shape of a hockey puck was a rare aesthetic mistake.

Weekday lunch, served on the rooftop, offers an instant replay of dinner’s greatest hits, including several lovely, sharply executed salads. Christiansen also places a couple of deluxe burgers into the mix, including an oxtail version that is destined to become a classic. But he makes a misstep by offering sandwiches and tacos that don’t set themselves apart from equivalents available (at lower prices) at several nearby food trucks.

Pastry chef Alexandra Motz — a La Belle Vie vet like Christiansen — has replaced the drearily predictable offerings of her short-lived predecessor with inventive, eye-grabbing sweets that skillfully extrapolate textures and flavors. As to the (occasionally overpriced) cocktails, Michaels is to mixology as Tchaikovsky was to melodies, drawing from a bottomless supply of winning ideas.

When faced with the choice of remaining in the street-level dining room and bar or going upstairs, it’s a total no-brainer. To the roof!

Think of it this way: The main floor is Kelly Rowland, while the rooftop is Beyoncé. It’s not that the first-floor space isn’t without appeal, but the rooftop is a world apart, a soaring, energetic and crisply elegant space that’s so transporting that the reassuring compass that is the IDS Tower is the only indicator that you’ve remained in Minneapolis. It’s a thriller at lunch, when the eye sees only sky and skyscrapers. By night, it’s urbanity personified, and an instant point of pride for the city.



⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Where: 731 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. 612-455-6690. www.unionmpls.com.

Recommended dishes: Doughnuts, chicken liver, egg noodles, farm egg, scallops, pumpkin ravioli, pistachio-orange dessert.