With PB&J conducting, the Bistro at Union Station is on the right track.
T he other day, I was trying to count up the number of times ill-fated vows have been taken with the restaurant formerly known as the Union Café.
When the newly restored Union Station opened in 1999, the one-time ticket counter in the center of the Grand Hall had become a double-decker restaurant. That first incarnation was the brainchild of restaurateur Forbes Cross, best known for his clubby, long-closed Michael Forbes Grill in Waldo. Cross has unyieldingly good taste and created a sophisticated bistro with woven wicker chairs, linen napkins and pretty appointments.
But it wasn't a bistro in the classic sense because the food was an oddball combination of fussy and plebeian (crepes and fondue were on the early menu along with fried catfish) and not particularly good. Union Station's micromanaging board of directors wanted a restaurant that attracted an impossibly huge demographic: everybody. That's fine in theory but tough to pull off in the real world. Cross told me at the time that his Union Café was supposed to be "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."
The same wide swath of visitors, I imagine, were also projected to flock to the depressing collection of fast-food cubbyholes tucked into the so-called food court in the grand old Harvey House space. That was another not-so-bright idea that flopped. Not unlike Science City itself.
Anyway, the Hereford House's Rod Anderson made a game attempt at running the Union Café in 2003. Still, I wasn't impressed with the food or the lackluster service ("Train Wreck," October 30, 2003). After that, if I ever dined at Union Station, I insisted on Anderson's superior Pierpont's over the pathetic, nearly empty "bistro" in the middle of the Grand Hall. Apparently, a wide swath of visitors felt the same way.
Meanwhile, the lower-level space once occupied by Fitz's Bottling Company is still empty. (I miss the frosty root beer but not the food.) And back upstairs, the Harvey House Diner got a quickie divorce after a short-lived marriage with corporate food purveyors TreatAmerica and immediately tied the knot with Paul Khoury and Bill Crooks of the PB&J restaurant group. This was a distinct step up for the Harvey House, which is now serving breakfasts and lunches that are actually pretty good ("Back on Track," March 6).
Across from the diner in the Grand Hall, TreatAmerica had also been running Union Café after Anderson gave it up. Now PB&J has taken over this space, too, and has even given it a new name, the Bistro at Union Station.
OK, so Union Station has had a hard time establishing itself as a culinary destination. The problem is that the gigantic old train depot isn't always busy (except when there's a blockbuster exhibition such as the current Bodies Revealed), and it's hard to keep a stable staff of servers if they can't turn a few tables on a weekend night.
The good news is that Khoury and Crooks have not only spiffed up a dowdy space but also given it a menu that's uncomplicated but imaginative and well prepared. The fare at the Bistro at Union Station captures the fresh simplicity of an urban bistro: sandwiches, salads, a few good pasta choices, and five delicious small pizzas. The service is attentive and good-natured and — stop the presses! — professional in appearance and attitude.
I've eaten at the Bistro four times now: three lunches and a pre-theater dinner. There wasn't a clunker dish or an awkward moment during any of these visits — and I was dining with extremely fussy eaters.
Take, for example, my lunch with Laura and David. Laura and I hadn't seen the formerly chubby David in many months, and we hardly recognized the slender soul who sat down at a ground-floor table with us.
"My wife cooks only healthy meals for us now," he said, looking over the one-page menu. "You know, vegetables and stuff."
The menu wasn't exactly chock-full of vegetables and stuff. Most of the salads and pasta here have meat or seafood in them (though they can be prepared without), and there's only one meatless starter: the steamy and creamy jade-colored spinach and artichoke "fondue" — a dip by any other name — served with corn chips. What it lacks in meat it more than makes up for in calories, but it's tasty. I passed on the crispy spring rolls filled with Asian vegetables (you know, like carrots) and spiced chicken, but David and Laura liked them. "They're fried," I said, watching skinny David devour two. "Not exactly diet fare."
David could afford to cheat a little, though he stayed on the straight and narrow with the salad of spinach and grilled salmon, leaving the crispy bacon off the dish. Laura had the steak salad, with slices of juicy flat iron steak, blue cheese, tomatoes and spiced walnuts. I was dieting that day myself. I ate a bowl of clam chowder and a piece of cheesecake.
The following week, Bernita, Sharon and Bob joined me for an early dinner at the Bistro before we saw a play at the Unicorn Theatre (performed by frequently naked actors who obviously eat vegetables and stuff). But Union Station's Bodies Revealed crowd was mostly leaving; we were seated on the second level, overlooking the eerily quiet Grand Hall.
Bob loved the dramatic view, and Bernita and Sharon admired the dining room's unfussy sophistication, with tables draped in white linen and sheaths of butcher paper.
"It's a great menu," said Bob, who wanted to try everything. He and Bernita split a Cobb salad (generously stacked with roasted chicken, blue cheese, bacon and tomatoes), then he ate a couple of slices of pizza topped with sweet Italian sausage, polished off a bowl of bow-tie pasta in roasted-garlic cream sauce with chicken and mushrooms, and finished a hunk of cheesecake. "I didn't want to get too full before the play," he announced.
Having the same idea, the rest of us ordered salads and soups. Our server convinced me to try the California Asian chicken salad, made with roasted chicken, those ubiquitous Asian vegetables and crispy noodles in a soy-based vinaigrette. It was nice and light, but the romaine lettuce and noodles seemed to expand in my bowl — after every bite, the salad got a little bigger. Finally, I pushed it away before it devoured me.
On my most recent visit, I brought along the highly critical Franklin for a late lunch. Looking around, he pronounced the servers "charming and attractive" and said there was finally a professional vibe to the place. "Like people are happy to be working here," he said.
We were pretty happy, too. Franklin ate a first-rate slab of cheese-and-beef lasagna, and I fumbled around with a "wrap" of sautéed beef tenderloin tips and caramelized onions tucked into a flour tortilla that was sliced into bite-sized pieces. I think I would have liked it better on a baguette, but it was great.
Since then, I've actually wanted to eat in the joint again. Here's hoping this marriage lasts.