The highlight: Croustade of apple and Armagnac-infused prunes with pistachio sorbet.
Foghorn Leghorn has a wife. She is at the table beside us at Union Dining this Wednesday night – braying, boisterous and oblivious to the discomfort of her fellow diners.
“We often have two bottles of wine between us,” she bawls at a waitress as her friend’s eyes dart to the floor, perhaps hoping it will cleave open and swallow her. I’d prefer the floor swallowed her friend so we could all enjoy Swan Street’s new sensation in peace.
On a stay-at-home, shivery weekday evening, a fortnight after it opened, Union Dining is heaving with hungry types lured by the promise of Nicky Riemer’s restorative European fare.
Riemer, recently of the Melbourne Wine Room, and business partner Adam Cash (Cutler & Co) must be thrilled with the enthusiastic reception to their new?business.
They’ve opened on a historic corner site made over in broadly French-brasserie style – walls of mirrors, banquette, Thonet chairs – with Mediterranean stone-tiled floors, so it feels sort of midway between bistro and trattoria.
This is the unloved end of Swan Street, beyond Church Street, where the neighbours are a petrol station and a car wash. Very unglamorous. But step beneath the iron-lace verandah into Union’s twinkling, bustling interior and the location becomes irrelevant – its confidence and polish seem destined to replicate the Cutler effect and eventually gentrify their surroundings.
Warm and welcoming: smoked ham hock, fregola, soft egg and cornichons.
Cash’s fastidious service standards are obvious in the vigilance with which tap water, wine and bread are refilled and the diligence with which black-aproned staff expound on the menu and wine list. Perhaps sometimes they’re even a little too diligent – a brief description, thanks, not a dissertation.
Riemer describes her cooking at Union as provincial European which, on the menu, mostly translates to subtly French and Italian-accented dishes.
We start with the piedmont tartare – it’s uncooked beef, yes, but instead of raw egg, this northern-Italian version is spliced with celery and horseradish and coated in pecorino cheese. In fact, it is so densely dredged in pecorino and parsley that the red meat is completely disguised. Perhaps that was the intention.
In the absence of eggy goo, the meat is light and fresh, its clean, slightly metallic flavours accentuated by the crispness of celery hearts and the snifter of horseradish. Tartare can be such a hardcore dish but Riemer has recalibrated it into a sophisticated entrée that will be difficult to resist on the next visit.
Our second entrée is ham hock, slow braised to fall-apart consistency and muddled with al dente fregola and cornichons. It’s a lovely ensemble dish where the various flavours and textures play nicely together and the smoked hock, surprisingly, doesn’t steal the show.
Abbacchio of goat, braised peppers and Manzanilla olives.
The spatchcock is a glutinous, rib-sticking casserole of braised bird in red wine with olives, shallots and kaiserfleisch (smoked pork belly) that is so suited to this bleak wintry night that, on the first bite, I can almost feel my eyes roll back into my head a little.
I’m less impressed with the goat abbacchio, slow-braised beast on the bone in a tomato-based ragu with olives and braised capsicum. The sauce is pleasant but every time I jab my fork into the oversized hunks of roasted ruminant I hit bone, not flesh. The meat-to-bone ratio is rather slim.
On the bright side, side dishes of hand-cut chips and portobello mushrooms are excellent.
Pity the poor sod out back who has to sliver the spuds, but these fries are awesome. They’re not that hot when they arrive, but that doesn’t matter; as they cool down their salty, crispy, stick-like goodness more and more resembles those Smith’s French Fries that used to come in chip packets. (They probably still do – I don’t get play-lunch any more, so wouldn’t know.)
The mushrooms, simmered with garlic, onion and?chilli, are voluptuous and slippery.
Dessert is the definite highlight. Not so much the dessert cup of raspberry sorbet sozzled in limoncello, which is light on the booze and, anyway, the lemon liqueur seems a dubious match with the super-sweet berry ice. But the croustade, mon dieu.
Thonet chairs reinforce the French brasserie feel.
Its rustic, golden-brown pastry casing resembles the Bilbao Guggenheim in miniature. Cut inside and it explodes with the cooked caramel flavours of apple and intense, Armagnac-infused prunes, sweetened with melting pistachio sorbet.
It’s like an enormous man-hug, a sensation that pretty much sums up Union Dining. It’s comfort central, the perfect antidote to a long, cold Melbourne winter … and a noisy neighbour.
272 Swan Street, Richmond
Cuisine \ European
Chef \ Nicky Riemer
Hip pocket \ About $70 a head, wine extra
Open \ Tuesday-Saturday 6-11pm
Highlights \ Service, style, substance
Lowlights \ Bony goat
Bookings \ Recommended
Phone \ 9428 2988
We rate it 7/10