Lukewarm Reception

Like most people, I schedule my social life according to my professional life. I (usually) stay out late or turn in early in direct relation to what I must achieve -- or how I must act -- at my job. It's a simple truth to which I conform, digestible if not completely palatable: One cannot be a queen of the night if one must be a peon during the day. One cannot even be a princess.

For me, a typical evening's ingredients include good friends, good wine, and good food, most often in that order. Or better yet, all at once. I find this recipe infallible for both socializing and socialization -- that is, adapting myself the next morning to the workaday world with as little pain as possible. Of course, if the wine is especially memorable, it allows for variation. I'll occasionally add a nightclub to the mix, whisking myself into the company of several hundred people whose memories depend on how much they imbibe.

But only my friends Athena and Zeus can convince me to tackle the monstrously trendy South Beach scene without gastronomical fortification. On a recent Thursday evening (which on South Beach qualifies as a weekend night), I agreed to an outrageous scheme: first clubs, then cuisine. Several restaurants offered late-night eats, my friends assured me. Most notably, Washington Avenue's new Union Bar and Grill targeted what some of us might consider after-hours -- you know, that sleep zone between the ten o'clock news and the Today show.

It seemed to be an enticing opportunity, until my friends and I found ourselves at midnight standing outside Union Bar, having been denied entrance. Only after Zeus's and Athena's ardent persuasion were we permitted to wait on the sidewalk -- not at the bar, mind you -- at a public eating establishment that serves food until 3:00 and stays open until 5:00 a.m. Meanwhile, other groups who approached the squadron of sleeveless, pumped and oiled musclemen working the door gained admittance. They knew the secret code: "We're here for Tara Solomon's birthday party." No guest list was consulted, no invitations were produced. But the Grease Slick in charge bent and removed his velvet rope blockade so swiftly that it almost looked like he was bowing.

I'm not surprised Ms. Solomon's name opens doors on South Beach, especially at her own birthday celebration. Nor am I upset over not being invited -- I've never met her. But these events do leave me somewhat astonished that a new restaurant would so haughtily turn away customers, especially a restaurant that proclaims itself in its advertising as a "respite" from trends, a sophisticated alternative to the larger nightclubs where clients are selected by a determination of their appearance and connections.

But I'm not only a good eater, I'm a good sport. And while I maintain that Union Bar and Grill broke the implicit promise that every restaurant makes -- unless it accepts membership dues -- to serve the public, I admit that by not calling ahead for a dinner reservation, I was also unfair. Persuaded by this thought, and by positive comments from acquaintances who'd already dined there, I returned for a meal on a different evening.

Once one safely crosses the threshold, Union Bar is pleasant and inviting. First-time restaurateur Andrew Kostas III (he designed his uncle's Zio Luigi), along with designer Gabriela Dahl (she designed the Chili Pepper), have created intriguing spaces that combine the airy warehouse look of a New York bar with the couch-and-chaise-longue comfort of a Seattle coffeehouse. A "library" and a billiard area add an upscale British feel, while an enclosed room for dancing is all Beach. "Union" is an apt name for such a place, where every element of an evening's entertainment -- from dining to dancing to dessert and coffee -- appears to be readily available. For some, it's one-stop shopping; for club-bunnies, it's the last hop before bed.

Hopping it definitely is. Some of Union's instant popularity may stem from the chefs' connections. Formerly of Bang, another restaurant with a penchant for parties, consulting chef Mitchell Maxwell has compiled a menu heavy on appetizers and light on entrees. Executive chef Joe Minotto, a Culinary Institute of America graduate (they should plan their next class reunion in this town), formerly of Shabeen and extensive European apprenticeships, creates his own specialties in the kitchen.

Although this confluence of culinary talent could lead to diners' unreserved accolades, the preparations my companions and I shared ranged from mouth-watering to merely mediocre. Perhaps my biggest quibble was the chill that permeated our meal: every dish, including the after-dinner coffee, was less than lukewarm. Maybe the long distance between kitchen and table stripped the steam from our food. But it tasted more as if the dishes had been left untended and undelivered after their preparation, allowed to reach a level of cool even Ice Cube couldn't equal. In fact, the only thing that wasn't cool at Union on this night was the water. This is Miami. This is July. Water must have ice in it. Even tap water. Tap water is water, too.

Among starters, the Maryland lump crab cakes were finely seasoned and hardly greasy, two meaty pancakes served with horseradish mayonnaise. These paired nicely with cornmeal-breaded oysters, buttery shellfish individually dipped in meal and fried. (The oysters, in fact, inspired in me a craving so intense A not that kind of craving! -- I spent the next weekend in the Keys, ordering oysters in hopes of replicating the experience. I failed.) A pleasing alternative to the fried appetizers, the spring rolls were served cold -- intentionally and traditionally. Made with lump crab meat, rice noodles, and fragrant basil, cilantro, and mint, two large rolls were wrapped in rice pancakes and spiked with black toasted sesame seeds, peanuts, and a lingering sweet chili sauce. Gazpacho, though touted a taste-bud killer by our waitress, was instead a refreshing Spanish-school broth of pureed cucumbers, tomatoes, and vinegar. Actually, it might have benefited from a bit of the burn that the spring rolls' chili sauce had in abundance.

The temperature tantrum extended to the main course. Three slices of chicken breast stuffed with long-grain rice, water chestnuts, and shrimp were arranged prettily on a bed of crisp noodles with stir-fried vegetables. The chicken, however, was barely heated, dry, and flimsy, dominated by an overall flavor of curry. This spice, loved by some and disdained by others, is too distinctive an element to arrive unannounced, and should be included in the menu description. A charbroiled hamburger, an advertised ten ounces, looked more like five. It's possible this thin Frisbee once weighed in at the big ten, but unlike stonewashed jeans, ground beef isn't supposed to come preshrunk.

The catch of the day, mako shark, fared far better. A large fillet filled the plate, testimony to the fact that this was once a very big creature. Though this fish is too often overcooked, the Union mako dripped tender tears with every forkful; served with corn salad, a spicy salsa, and flour tortillas, it made a tasty, healthy meal. The only drawback was the accompanying black bean creme fraiche, rather tasteless but with a wild, indiscriminate kick to it. The first burning mouthful of spice I took to be an unmixed dollop of cayenne; I tasted very little after that. Nothing ruins a palate like a huge dose of pepper.

Just as nothing ruins a dining experience more than watching customers being screened. After the meal, as we waited for the valet to retrieve our car, we recognized our slippery nemesis at the door, and noted among ourselves that the antagonistic actions of the staff outside the restaurant are completely at odds with the welcoming stance of those inside. Hyperkinetically, he rearranged his velvet barriers at least a half-dozen times, in obvious anticipation of the lines of people he would soon refuse entrance. In a pattern that seemed arbitrary, he turned away some barfly clientele with the phrase "dinner only," yet allowed in others who blatantly stated that alcohol, not food, was their sustenance of choice. A footnote of interest, of course, is that the restaurant, at the moment of our exit, had not even come close to capacity. Suddenly I remembered why I prefer to confine my evenings to unpretentious, homey encounters with friends, food, and fruit of the vine.


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