What makes someone want to start a restaurant in this economy?
Well, you might question it before you visit Urban Union in Chicago, but you sure won’t after you get a taste of what they have to offer. The passion and flavor that goes into creating this restaurant makes it clear—they started it because they had something to offer.
Of course, the owners are somewhat self-deprecating (which is, as restaurant operators go, a good thing). We talked with co-owner Jason Chan, who told us, “Michael worked in kitchens; I dropped out of college. This is all we know how to do.”
Sure. Like Einstein only knew how to do math equations.
Michael, as in Michael Shrader, was the former chef of Epic, a Chicago hot spot that has drawn great reviews ever since it opened. He’s had a career that included time with the N9NE Restaurant Group, the group responsible for numerous restaurants in Vegas, Chicago and Dallas.
Chan was part owner of Butter, a Chicago restaurant that, sadly, closed—but during its time drew headlines and patrons for its innovations that included some of the first dessert donuts in fine dining.
Together, they say they are now creating, “what we love” at Urban Union. It includes a raw bar, a wood-burning oven, a series of small plates and sharables, an exposed kitchen, and a European approach to dining. Their restaurant includes an extensive wine list drawn up by Executive Chef Shrader, meant to enhance and complement the menu selections.
Those include items such as—our favorites—the wood oven-baked organic apples with champagne vinaigrette, candied walnuts and chèvre. A beautifully crispy pork schnitzel, which Jason told us was made from one of the family recipes passed down to Chef Shrader. Wood oven-roasted rapini (really, who offers rapini? It was delicious!). Braised pork cheek ravioli with turnip greens.
The flavors all work well together, and the servings are enough for two or three at the table to get a healthy taste. They recommend ordering three of the small plates per person and sharing, and we found that worked great.
Other menu items include grilled baby octopus, wood oven-roasted bar harbor mussels, and steamed littleneck clams. And don’t skip dessert—you’ll want to try the signature Copy Kat, which includes hazelnut mousse, cake, chocolate pudding, and candied hazelnuts. It has a nice crunch from the cacao nibs and nuts that takes it out of the realm of normal desserts.
The restaurant itself is charming, with Chicago’s typical long and narrow architecture and wood floors. The open kitchen and “life signs” (“If you hate your job, quit,” is one) give the place attitude—just enough to have a little fun while still getting fabulous service. Our only concern was that they kept trying to take the plates, while we were still trying to surreptitiously lick them clean!
“This is the way we like to eat,” said Jason. “The economy is bad all over. You might as well do what you love. Plus,” he added, with a grin, “we’re just crazy, and the rent is cheap right now.”
Urban Union is self-described as “a place for food people,” and it is.
The partners may call themselves under achievers, but don’t believe them. Urban Union is obviously a place where their dreams have come to fruition—we should all achieve at that rate.
And, while you are still dreaming, go to Urban Union for some inspiration. You’ll also get some great hospitality, and a nice atmosphere in an unexpected part of Chicago. Not to mention some pretty amazing food.