Chef Derek Stevens made his name at the helm of Eleven, a well-respected fine-dining destination. Thus, there was much anticipation around the opening of Stevens’ own venture, Union Standard, in the gorgeously restored Union Trust Building, Downtown.
The building is a fantasia of Flemish Gothic ornament, with a spectacular 11-story atrium, surmounted by a stained-glass dome. In contrast, Union Standard’s two-level space is decidedly simple, but not austere. Its finishes suggest quality without ostentation: supple leather booth seating, walnut-topped tables and marble flooring. There is a four-sided raw bar and a stunning mural of the Western Pennsylvania mountains.
The mural sets up the menu, which emphasizes local and foraged ingredients on a level that goes beyond the rote. Western Pennsylvania’s culinary history is a humble one of immigrant traditions and mill taverns. A beet-pickled egg on a paté platter feels like a gesture toward this heritage, a straightforward streak in the midst of the luxury symbolized by the building and, frankly, by paté. In all, Stevens’ menu is an amalgam of refinement and unpretentiousness that holds a lot of promise.
The promise went unfulfilled by our first dish, a dandelion salad that should be effortless to produce in early spring. But the leaves in our salad more resembled raw kale: tough stems and bitter, dark greens that weren’t wilted, massaged or even sufficiently dressed to render them remotely palatable. In this context, the other components — a mix of halved baby French radishes and sliced regular ones, hard-boiled eggs, cucumber and goat cheese — struggled to come together in the bacon vinaigrette. The best texture in this salad was provided by brilliant little ribbons of crispy parsnip.
An appetizer of roasted cauliflower was also afflicted by passive dressing, in this case, “deviled-egg dressing.” We were intrigued, but its mild flavor and scant amount were hardly sufficient to season the aggressively fire-roasted brassica.
Oyster and clam stew paired in-shell littlenecks with grilled and shucked oysters and big oyster crackers in a broth that, at first, tasted pleasingly briny, but grew saltier with each spoonful. Salt also took over a side dish of onion spaetzle, which had good texture and flavor, but needed to be paired with bites of something blander.
A mini-loaf of potato bread, warm from the oven and served with cultured butter, goat butter, and an apricot jam inspired by Italian mostarda, had a glossy, deep-brown crust and tender, luscious crumb. Unfortunately, too much coarse salt was sprinkled on top, so that when sliced, some bites were very salty and others, not at all. Moreover, the knife we were given for slicing was a steak knife with serrations only at the tip, resulting in each slice being half-cut, half-torn. This didn’t affect the flavor, but it was a surprising failure of detail at a restaurant whose prices suggest that every detail receives meticulous attention.
Which brings us to the service. Union Standard employs a battery of servers: water-pourers, order-takers, kitchen-runners. The advantages of this approach are prompt delivery of hot dishes and never risking dehydration. The disadvantage: Only our main server seemed empowered to actually address issues like a mistaken glass of wine or a request for another side, so when that server disappeared for 15 minutes mid-meal, we were left hanging.
Most of these concerns vaporized with the delivery of our main courses. A high-quality strip steak was cooked close to perfectly, with a consistent, deep-mahogany crust that wasn’t sullied by excess char. A wood-grilled pork chop took a different path to excellence, with smokiness and light grill marks. The steak’s accompaniments — batons of lightly roasted celeriac and grilled baby bok choy — didn’t add much, but alongside the pork, grilled apple and sunflower sprouts over polenta were delicious.
Ramp fettuccine served the gems of West Virginia’s forest floor in savory combination with braised lamb, maitake mushrooms, asparagus, fingerling potato and goat cheese over tender green noodles. Apparently housemade, these had clumped up a bit in the cooking, but the sturdy, earthy flavors of this dish showcased pungent ramps at their best.
In all, Union Standard does a number of things well, notably meat. But it needs to modulate its approach to vegetables, seafood and starch to achieve superlative results across the menu board.