Union Bear Brings Farm-to-Table to the Bar
If you're perched at the outdoor section of the bar at Union Bear on a warm spring day, you may just catch some sunshine on the nape of your neck while you sip on an Anchor Steam draft. Or perhaps a crisp Albarino is more your taste: The Spanish grapes produce a bright, acidic wine that tastes of summer citrus and pears.
Whatever your preference, you'll likely find something that suits you, and the small rectangular bar lends itself to socializing while you wait for it to arrive. Large, louvered windows shelter a bar that's half indoors, half out. The panes let the weather in when it's agreeable but will undoubtedly cinch tightly shut when summer drapes Dallas in its oppressive wool blanket.
When the heat does come, you can envision the rest of Union Bear's dining room as a subterranean den. A place to lay low, keep cool and explore the most interesting beer menu the West Village has to offer. Maredsous, Deschutes, Ommegang and other craft brews sit comfortably beside Brooklyn Lager and Pabst Blue Ribbon, all supported by a menu that charts some mostly new territory for Dallas: farm-to-table cooking applied to casual bar food.
It's been open for several weeks, but it's still a new space. On some evenings, if the smell of sandwiches and pizza isn't too strong, you can still smell the freshly hewn pine that lines the host stands and upstairs bathroom wall.
Just past the bar, stairs lead downward, into a looker of a dining room lapped in the cooling whites that have become the trademark for Spillers Group restaurants. The other two spots owned and run by Matt Spillers and his partners, Oddfellows and Eno's in Oak Cliff, boast similar washed-out tones.
The space is carved into distinct sections. You can sit in a small room with a handful of tables, with naked wood walls that make the room look like a sauna, or grab a stool at a bar that might as well be installed on a New England front porch. There's another section that feels coastal casual with multicolored chairs, and then an open-air kitchen that focuses on ingredient sourcing as much as hand-crafted cooking.
I don't typically spend a significant amount of time on roughage, but I did here. It was the Caesar that drew me in: adorned in a viscous dressing, tinged brown with Worcestershire sauce, and thickened with egg yolks emulsified into a sea of brine and umami. John Kleifgen, the chef responsible for the Bear's menu, employs tender greens rather than crunchy, stiff romaine. The leaves have a hard time standing up to his heavy-handed dressing, but all is forgiven as your knife plunges into the chicken-fried egg that tops the salad.
It almost sounds crass — "chicken-fried egg" — but what's encased in that fatty, crunchy crust (the same you'd expect to surround a chicken-fried anything) is actually a gem. The ovum in question comes from Yellow Prairie Farm in Caldwell when available, and while some may debate the flavor nuances of farm-fresh over factory eggs, you can't deny the visual cues. Massed-produced eggs produce a comparatively anemic, canary-yellow yolk, but this egg induces rapture when the edge of a table knife liberates a gushing orange sunset. Even when cooked through and crumbled on a spinach salad, that yolk is still a very purposeful yellow.
That same yolk finds its way into another dressing that's also heavily applied in a hanger steak tartare. The butcher's cut is coarsely diced, giving you something to chew on compared to the more finely minced versions that most restaurants serve in Dallas. It's raw meat with bravado, and the pickled onions and peppers served on the side make the dish.
If you like the paper-thin, crackery crust you've had at Eno's, you'll like what you get here, topped with ingredients like freshly ground rosemary sausage, spicy salami, fresh tomatoes, sport peppers and even honey. Or, if you're less carbohydrate averse, you can indulge in flat breads with a little more lift. One comes topped with shredded beef short rib and simple black olives, another with shrimp, goat cheese, tomato and thyme.
The cubano is no Cuban sandwich, but if a cubano's distant cousin made it with an Italian hoagie on a bed of oil-stained butcher paper, a sandwich this good might result. The kitchen employs ham, glazed on site, and spicy calabrese salami, with provolone cheese, whole grain mustard and spicy pickles also brined in the back. It's not pressed, but the bread is fresh and toasted crisp. Purists be damned, this multicultural love child is a more than worthy sandwich.
Order yours with fries, cut in-house and dusted in herbs and sea salt, instead of the chili powder-dusted potato chips. The kitchen serves the fries with a tangy aioli, again whipped up on-site. They won't be the greatest french fries you've ever had (they're fried in flavorless canola instead of peanut oil or duck fat), but they get the job done, which is really what most of the menu does.
This isn't cooking that will blow your Alice Waters-inspired doors off, but it's worth heading through those doors for. The most expensive item on the menu costs $15 (the sliders are $22, but only if you feel the need to order nine at a time), and many items can be had for under $10. Even the beer is affordable. The bar throttles the glass size (from 10 to 16 ounces) depending on the cost of the suds, and the result is a diverse beer menu full of drafts that are all five bucks.
Considering that so much of this menu offers scratch cooking, and works with higher quality ingredients than you'll encounter at most cafes, it's impossible not to appreciate the value Union Bear offers.
Many Dallas restaurants pay local ingredient sourcing and "house" cooking lip service, buying arugula from a name-brand vendor and the rest of their culinary ammo from Sysco. Other places cook farm-to-table like it's law but charge a car payment for a dinner for two. Union Bear is doing something perfectly in between: embracing local and high-quality ingredients whenever it makes sense, and using decent technique in a place that anyone with a beer budget can afford. Fold in a dining room that's far more interesting than anything else in Uptown and you get a fine place to eat, a fine place to drink and a fine place to be.
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