When I first reviewed the place ("State of the Union Café," June 15, 2000), I could see that the location was loaded with potential. But after a couple of meals there, I never wanted to go back. Dinner wasn't cheap, the food was inconsistent and the menu was "creative" in all the wrong ways, offering too many culinary styles, many of them badly executed. If Science City and the other entertainment attractions at Union Station had successfully filled the gargantuan building with hungry patrons, Union Café might have had an easier time developing a distinctive character and working out the kinks in its menu. But three years later, despite its new owners, the restaurant is still without an identity, and the menu remains way too kinky.
I still wish that the team in charge of Union Station's restoration had considered returning the gorgeous space just to the east of the main entrance -- currently the site of a charmless and cold food court -- to its origins as a moderately priced diner like the Harvey House. The Harvey House wasn't fancy, but its central location was a perfect spot for breakfast, lunch and dinner. By all accounts it was the city's see-and-be-seen joint for decades. My friend Marilyn, who liked to dine there after nightclubbing or going to the theater, remembers it as "a big and friendly coffee shop that served food quite late," a place where "you saw everyone."
Union Station did have a sophisticated restaurant, too. The Westport Room was appointed with linen tablecloths, formal service and a maître d'. "It was elegant," Marilyn said. "It's where you went for special occasions."
The fancy Pierpont's went in as part of Union Station's expensive and dramatic restoration -- and so did that dismal food court. But there's no old-fashioned coffee shop where diners can sit at the counter while pancakes spatter on griddles, no place to sink into cozy booths for late-night chatting over strong coffee.
Would that concept have been too plebeian for a costly new "entertainment venue" with one too many interesting but poorly realized ideas? (Remember ill-fated Fitz's Bottling Company?) When it comes to culinary creativity, Union Station has never operated with a full head of steam, particularly in the matter of the Union Café. Now it's being operated by its third owner, Rod Anderson of Pierpont's and the Hereford House restaurants. Anderson and his staff have been there since June, and they recently hired a former area director for the Longhorn Steakhouse chain as a consultant. Frankly, the menu needs a bigger shake-up than Amtrak. The resident chef, Chris Jones, is in top form when he's making solid Midwestern dishes such as pan-seared fillet medallions, thick sandwiches and hearty soups. It's when he leans toward more exotic dishes that the kitchen derails.
Part of the problem may be that the Union Café has been designed to look like a continental bistro, with woven-wicker chairs, tables sheathed in both white linen and bleached butcher paper, and fresh flowers tucked into porcelain vases. But even the illusion of sophistication vanished when a young waitress indifferently wandered over to the table and asked, "Can I get you guys something to drink?"
One of the four "guys" at our table was the ladylike Marilyn, who cringed at the opening line. But this server proved to be so clueless that she may indeed have thought that Marilyn was a man. After taking our drink order ("I'm just trying to get you guys liquored up!"), she appeared again only sporadically.
It wasn't as if she were dashing from one table to another; the place wasn't remotely busy on a Friday night. In fact, our party -- Marilyn, Bob, Dennis and I -- arrived at about 7, and after an hour, we were one of the last two parties in the restaurant. We watched with a kind of morbid fascination as a handful of tourists wandered into the Grand Hall from Crown Center, looking for God only knows what. Live music? Shopping? Sex? Trains?
"They're in the wrong place on all counts," Dennis said slyly as he dipped a fat strip of fried calamari into a tiny dish of smoked-onion aioli. The calamari wasn't as crispy as the menu promised, but at least it was edible. I can't say as much for the dry, overcooked, bacon-wrapped Tuxedo Shrimp, served with a "fresh plum tomato sauce" that tasted as if it had come straight from a can.
The restaurant's four salad choices ranged from a demure (and ungarlicky) Caesar to a more tasty and imaginative café salad heaped with tart Granny Smith apples and blue cheese. Meanwhile, slabs of "garlic toast" (that would have been called "Texas toast" at any cheap steak joint) proved awfully light on the garlic. A cup of vegetable-beef soup was stingy with the beef but had lots of thick, doughy noodles that the menu called "hardy," as if they'd survived a winter's frost.
Pasta dishes were equally forgettable: The fusilli carbonara looked and tasted second-rate, crumbled with bacon bits that hadn't been crispy in hours, if not days. Dennis sent back his gooey Café Pasta, smothered in tomato sauce, because it was barely warm.
Bob's tender fillet medallions, though, were sizzling, juicy and beautifully prepared, sleekly glazed in a balsamic-vinegar reduction and heaped with amber caramelized onions and mushrooms. And my own expertly grilled salmon, brushed with a "light Seattle glaze" (whatever the hell that is; our waitress had no idea) was damn good, though it came with enough whipped potatoes to feed ten more people.
The two desserts we sampled, an ordinary brownie topped with a scoop of ice cream and a hunk of drying chocolate cake, were inexpensive but didn't set off any bells and whistles.
"You have to go back for the Sunday brunch," a friend suggested the next day. "It's only $14, and it's really the best thing they do."
I was game, so I returned on Sunday to load up my plate. Yes, it's one of those hog-trough-style brunches, though there is an omelet station with custom-made versions of that breakfast dish. Patrons were patiently marching around various culinary tableaux -- a pastry table, a salad arrangement, an array of desserts, a cheese station mounded with orange and white cubes, and a few steel tureens heaped with the usual scrambled eggs, slippery "eggs Benedict" and baking-powder biscuits waiting to be drenched with milky sausage gravy.
I encountered a few nice surprises, though. A white-toqued chef carved thick slices of excellently prepared roast beef, dressed up with a tangy cranberry horseradish. And moist, pink lox accompanied miniature bagels. (But I had to be careful to avoid mistaking the whipped cream cheese, which looked like whipped cream, for the whipped cream, which looked like a bowl of cream cheese.)
It was the kind of relaxed, no-frills Sunday brunch where people should be able to sit back and watch familiar faces stroll by. But my friends and I didn't see anyone we knew or wanted to know -- except for Santa Claus, in his full red suit and black boots, who dashed through Grand Hall and out the front door.
If that was an omen, then, clearly, anything can happen at Union Station -- including a complete personality change for a restaurant that needs to pay homage to the past before it can take on the future.