By Anne DesBrisay
This Somerset Village address has been home to a goodly number of good restaurants, and the latest one is showing similar promise. Union 613 opened in July in the space vacated by Restaurant Joy. There’s not much of Joy left, though what the Union principals have done with the place certainly brings a smile.
Union specializes in Southern cooking applied to local flavours. The cooking is weighty and rich, and flavours are full-size. Service is warm and utterly unpretentious. With the exception of a few deuces at the very front and a foursome beneath the parlour window, seating is communal at long tables. If your neighbour bores you, there are bookcases groaning under the weight of well-thumbed cookbooks — mostly piggy in nature. The room is packed with whimsy, and quirky touches abound in that shabby-chic, exposed-industrial, distressed-woodsy way that seems restaurant de rigueur of late. (The lighting is irresistible.)
Peanuts boiled in brine arrive by way of entertainment. They are marvellous for those who find boiled peanuts in salty, oily water marvellous. Either you get their appeal or you don’t. Ditto the appeal of the deep-fried pig ears. Well-seasoned is the only compliment they get from me. So for starters, go straight to the tremendously popable devilled eggs, plopped la-de-da-style on a silver tray. Or go for the fried green tomatoes, luscious heirloom varietals cut in wedges and tucked inside crisp brown wrappers on a nubbly swathe of sharp pimento cheese studded with bacon — worth dunking and swabbing up to the last smidgeon. The pickled red onion in the side salad of Boston leaves lends a welcome acidity to the dish. Other starter treats include a chilled sweet-corn soup of great complexity, fishy with lobster roe, tart with limed yogourt, and sharpened with chili oil.
The buttermilk-brined chicken — so juicy, so crisp — is pretty much perfect, presented — as main dishes here are — on a papered baking sheet crowded with the side orders: minted and lemoned green beans, cast-iron-skillet cornbread (yummy, but with a far too sweet bourbon butter at its centre), and most excellently decadent hominy grits. The cornmeal-crusted catfish is another house specialty, deservedly so, served with a tangy remoulade. Our other seafood dish is less successful: the littleneck clams are wacky-salty, in a wacky-salty broth.
We barely have space left for dessert but are determined to struggle on: our reward is a buttermilk strawberry tart, the delicate custard infused delightfully with lavender and the pastry top-notch. Craft beer — lots of local content on tap — is served in Mason jars, wine in crystal stems, and if bourbon’s your drink, there’s a strong showing at Union.
Starters $9-$15, mains $11-$22, sides $4-$7. Open Monday to Friday for lunch, dinner, and late night (until 2 a.m.); Saturday and Sunday for dinner and late (2 a.m.). 315 Somerset St. W., 613-231-1010, www.union613.ca.