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Friday, December 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Santa, baby, you rock! Thanks for the gift of Union

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Union


1400 First Ave., Seattle, 206-838-8000

Contemporary american

$$$

***½

Reservations: recommended.

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, dinner 5-11 nightly (bar menu available 11 p.m-1 a.m.).

Prices: lunch "first" courses $7-$10, "second" courses $15-$17; dinner "first" courses $7-$10, "second" courses $10-$15, entrees $17-$23, five-course tasting menu $45.

Wine list: Modest size, global scope, few $40-and-under possibilities among the intriguing options. Impressive choices among half-bottles, magnums and by-the-glass offerings. Creative beer list with an international bent.

Sound: moderate

Parking: none provided

Full bar/credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, V/no obstacles to access/smoking in bar only after 10 p.m.

Santa!

I'm sending you this missive early, knowing that in the rush of post-Christmas thank-you notes, mine might get lost among your correspondence. Really, Santa dear, I can't thank you enough for checking your list (twice!) and finding me worthy. It's not even the Big Day yet, and you've given me exactly what I wished for: an outstanding new restaurant.

Obviously, you're a man of good taste, but with Union you've outdone yourself. Tapping a talent like chef Ethan Stowell was a stroke of genius. Granted, at 29 he's still a kid, but then you've always had a soft spot for the young ones. And how could you resist with Stowell? After all, his dad, Kent, choreographed Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker": The boy's got Christmas in his blood. Smooth move, finding a sugarplum who's honed his skills under Joe McDonnal at the Ruins (can that guy throw a party). And anyone who's sampled Philip Mihalski's keen approach to contemporary American cuisine at Nell's, where Stowell spent two years as sous-chef, will recognize his mentorship at play here at First and Union.

Honestly Santa, it's been too long since I've been so (you'll pardon the "naughty" expression), aroused by a menu — one that changes daily, is built for grazing, pays more than lip service to seasonality and tastes as good as it looks. It's a rare occasion when everything on a menu screams "Choose me!" From soup (a gentle purée of kohlrabi, the delicate root wafting with truffle cream, $10), to nuts (toasted Spanish almonds adding crunch to baby lettuces hiding a slice of vanilla-baked pear, $7), this one delivers.

I love knowing I can stop in for a light supper or late-night nosh, choosing among a list of "first" and "seconds" — pristine Kushi oysters slicked with Tuscan olive oil and bright with lime ($10), perhaps. Or oxtail terrine, the meaty shards enhanced by horseradish cream ($10). They aren't roasted on an open fire, but you might find petite roasted chestnuts lending sweetness to a lobe of seared foie gras ($15). Dungeness crab ($10) may come as a salad — the sweet leg-meat sparked with smoky bacon and crunchy with minuscule croutons, or as a generous timbale — gently bound with cream and studded with mango.

Even better, I can pair a small plate with an entrée. Among them, finger-licking little lamb chops perfumed with a port reduction and sided with the only elegant collard greens I've ever tasted ($23). A glorious roasted guinea hen in a simple pan jus accompanied the best side dish I've had this year, a stunning cardoon (imagine an upscale celery) and potato gratin in a tiny copper pan ($17).

Best of all, I can pull out all the stops with the five-course tasting menu, matching exciting wines by the glass to complement this incredible value. Surely you're subsidizing this boy, Santa. How else can he afford to sell a $45 prix fixe starring the following: three belon oysters glistening with sevruga caviar; a fat caramelized sea scallop in a drift of artichoke purée; an unctuous filet of seared arctic char; muscovy duck breast with sweet, ripe persimmon and a woodsy chanterelle ragout; an aromatic washed-rind cow's milk cheese; and — trumpets, please — a chocolate-espresso pot de crème.

As for Union's gracious servers, I couldn't be more impressed. This staff knows their stuff, sells it with heart and recognizes the fine line between friendliness and professionalism. They'll tide you over at dinner with such pre-meal treats as a taste of chilled red curry-squash soup, enlighten you regarding the provenance of your oysters, make astute wine suggestions, keep your delicate Speigelau water-glasses full and discourse on your perfectly ripened cheese course ($10).

Union's L-shaped dining room is cool and contemporary, accented by deep red walls and rich carpet. Glass windows dominate the space and bring the urban experience inside (whether you want it or not). Despite its corner location and inviting bar, the exterior design is so understated it's difficult to tell there's even a restaurant there. Hey Santa, any chance you might accidentally slide your sleigh into the entranceway — and give them a re-do?

And Hallelujah! Just in time for the shopping rush, Union opened for lunch. Lest I think they couldn't pull off the same tricks by day, I was in for a pleasant surprise. The lunch menu, a shorter version of the dinner card, might be a tad expensive, but it had my day-time dates swooning even more than my dinner-guests. It's perfect for a business lunch.

Anyway, Santa, when you're down this way week after next, pass on the cookies, won't you? Then stop at Union and special-order some cranberry bread pudding ($7). I promise: this warm, soufflélike affair and its wisp of housemade Meyer lemon ice cream will put the rum in your rum-pa-pum-pum.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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