If only the vibrancy of Union Station somehow made it into the kitchen.

State of the Union Café 

If only the vibrancy of Union Station somehow made it into the kitchen.

The good news about Union Café, the six-month-old restaurant located in the middle of Union Station's Grand Hall, is that it's getting a new chef this week. The bad news about Union Café is that the new chef, Chris Wofford, has his work cut out for him. Frankly, the current menu at the restaurant needs a dramatic overhaul. After three dinners, two brunch visits, and one lunch over the past four months, only one word describes the fare at Union Café: mediocre.

And it's a crime, because this restaurant has one of the most beautiful settings in the city: the center of the third-largest railroad terminal in the world, breathtakingly restored to its former grandeur. The restaurant's creator, Forbes Cross, has done a most tasteful job of transforming the area once occupied by the main ticket counter into a sleek, sophisticated bistro. The tables are unadorned, but the napkins are linen, the chairs are woven wicker, and the carpeting, light fixtures, and accessories are all cosmopolitan and elegant.

But if the look of the place is chic, the idea behind Union Café was to make it, in Cross' words, "a casual restaurant, appealing to a wide swath of visitors: the families bringing their children to Science City, the tourists, the businesspeople from downtown who come for lunch."

"It couldn't be fancy," Cross says. "It had to be more like the Michael Forbes Grill."

The problem, though, is that Union Café isn't a cozy, homestyle little grill like Cross' first restaurant, the former Michael Forbes Grill in Waldo. Nor is it an elegant, flamboyantly stylish eatery like his Pan-Asian concept on the Plaza, Japengo. No, although Union Café offers both seafood and chicken dishes, the place itself is neither fish nor fowl. It's not a true bistro, nor is it an old-fashioned Harvey House kind of restaurant. The menu is half-baked, though it does have some intriguing possibilities -- such as those 1970s culinary hits, crêpes and fondue -- that are either not very well executed or downright blah.

With the snazzier, more upscale Pierpont's across the way and the more plebian food court a few steps from that (where the hamburgers are better -- and cheaper too), Union Café had better decide exactly what it wants to be, because in its current incarnation as an eclectic bistro that throws together sandwiches, homestyle fare (that old Michael Forbes Grill standby, fried catfish, is on the menu), and a few exotic dishes, the place just ain't happening.

Things start promisingly enough. The young servers, looking bohemian in their black turtleneck shirts embroidered with the Union Café logo at a jaunty angle, are pleasant, accommodating, and much more candid about the restaurant's failings than the owners or managers probably realize. Diners are seated at one of the lower-level tables (the bar -- which has a sensational view -- is upstairs, along with some overflow tables) and treated to an animal-shape wire basket of crusty lavosh crackers. Like the basket? It's for sale, in case you'd like to take home a souvenir after you polish off the crackers, dipped in either a salty, but addictive, olive-and-cream-cheese tapenade or a bowl of stewed tomatoes teeming with herbs.

If Union Station has lots of Sunday afternoon tourists prowling around or a special event is taking place in the adjoining North Hall, the acoustics of the Grand Hall can be deafening, and diners might find themselves yelling across the table. But that's the price to pay for eating in a room that's only slightly less roomy than the Colosseum in Gladiator.

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