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Our first look at Union 50

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It wasn't you, Union 50, it was me. I just didn’t get you.

We clearly had a communication problem, because I just wasn’t getting what all the fuss was about. Oh, you’ve got a great location, just off Mass Ave. on East Street, and yes, the former union hall is a cool building (I love what you’ve done with the place), but when I looked at the menu, it just wasn’t speaking to me.

And it’s not because diners won’t find the steaks, ribs, pizzas and sandwiches of most other Cunningham Restaurant Group menus. It’s just that items on Union 50’s menu – divided into petit, bistro and grand sections, with about half a dozen dishes in each – didn’t sound particularly intriguing.

So, see? It’s me.

I just couldn’t get excited about wings, barbecue pork, roast chicken, fancy fries or a charcuterie board. And the short dessert list of assorted chocolates, cookies or shortcake didn’t do much for me either.

I was ready to say, well, okay, Union 50 must be more about the entertainment. After all, the restaurant offers music nearly every night of the week. And besides, I liked the cocktails (we tried the spicy Other Woman and the classic Vieux Carre, both $10), so I figured the key was to time a later visit to catch the music.

But then I tried the food.

And here’s where I got over my communication problem – because even though the menu didn’t speak to me, the food did. I should have known. Cunningham’s corporate chef Carl Chambers and Union 50’s executive chef Layton Roberts certainly bring plenty of talent to the table, and that shows in the food itself.

Now, I didn’t try all that much. Like I said, the menu descriptions didn’t sell me. But my server did. He mentioned some favorites, and he also had some great advice about dessert.

I had planned to start out with one of the petit plates, the $7 bacon dates with bacon-onion jam and honey ricotta, but our server smartly advised that we save the sweet dish for later.
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So that meant we would start with the chilaquiles, $12, one of the two poutine options, and one that our server enthusiastically recommended. And once it arrived, I could see why. You get a generous serving of Union 50’s hand-cut fries topped with cheese curds, pulled pork and avocado (you can add an egg for an extra buck). It might even become my go-to poutine. The flavors area great, there’s plenty to share, and the fries can stand up to all the toppings without collapsing into a soggy mess.

What more do you want from a poutine?

Well, for us, timing of the dishes was key, not only from a pacing perspective, but also because we were seated at a small outdoor table, and with plates, water glasses and cocktails, you just couldn’t squeeze in much more than one dish at a time.

But that wasn’t a problem, because between two of us, we finished off the chilaquiles in pretty short order.

Mussels, also from the bistro section of the menu, arrived next, after a sampling of a delightful acorn ham (which you should definitely try if you spot it on the menu).

Once an out-of-the-ordinary option on local menus, mussels have become much more common in recent years. So, no, they’re not a surprise anymore, but they are one of my favorites, so I tend to try them when I see them. Union 50’s mussels, $14, weren’t the plumpest, but they packed plenty of flavor. And if I hadn’t been sharing, I would have definitely ordered a loaf of artisan bread for another $4, because that spicy garlic and white wine broth was delicious.

So our waiter’s recommendations had been spot on, but remember that dessert suggestion?
That we save the bacon dates for last?

Brilliant.

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I’ve said before that, given the choice, I could easily skip dessert and order another appetizer instead – especially since few local restaurants go beyond the typical trio of cheesecake, crème brulee and bread pudding.

So I didn’t mind at all having an appetizer for dessert. It was sweet and salty. It offered a variety of textures. I mean, come on – there was even fruit. True, the fruit was stuffed with bacon, but I’m definitely not opposed to bacon making an appearance in a dessert. So for me, the dessert course was a highlight of the meal.

But what I was happiest about is that Union 50 and I worked out our problems. I’ll definitely try it again.

Jolene Ketzenberger covers local food at EatDrinkIndy.com Follow her on Twitter @JKetzenberger.

Food: 4 stars
Service: 4 stars
Atmosphere: 4 stars

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