Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Restaurant Review: Union Social Eatery

"How was everything?"
"It was fine. The vindaloo wasn't very spicy and..."
"Next time, we'll just add sriracha mayo for you. Thanks for coming." 
My dining companion suggested I open this way. It encapsulates the experiences I've had at the restaurant succinctly. A short yelp! type review would go something like this.

Pros: Attentive service with lunch served in less than an hour for under $20. Extensive bar menu including a lot on tap. Menu has something for everyone including vegetarians and gluten sensitivity.

Cons: Can get loud and busy at lunch. Some of the dishes were just okay. Tiffany didn't like the guy standing next to her and there wasn't a television where we were sitting.

Okay, that last line was snark on the focus of yelpers. I could write a whole blog on how to get the best out of yelp, urbanspoon or any crowd sourced review site. I'll put that in the idea pile. Anyways, let's expand this review for the parts that I found interesting about this type of restaurant in general and some of the bits about this restaurant in particular.

I've been here a few times largely on the merits of the affordable tap list and the cost of a sit down lunch in the area. It is cheaper than the Monk's Table and Rebel House and better tap list and food than the Sports Centre Cafe. 

This transplanted Mississauga restaurant looks like it has been dropped from your local big box mall parking lot and squeezed, wedged and shoehorned into a largish space at St. Clair and Yonge. High industrial ceilings create echoes and loudness at lunch and make for an empty feeling when the place is not busy. There is the whole high tech/high touch vibe going on where natural elements mix with synthetic to create a sophisticated but overly used trope on retail and dining. This aesthetic extends past the physical trappings and makes its way onto the menu. 

When you consider the number of items and the breadth of selection, you wonder how they do it. There is a separate gluten sensitivity menu that is shown on their website but not offered at the door. The food itself is a mix of East Asian, bar food, and Southwestern cuisine. Most plates are a mix of food service items dressed up and some original additions. From afar, it looks extensive and inclusive, reflecting the city from which it sprang. Closer looks shows where this approach begins to break down. 
"We are obsessed with quality ingredients and delivering addictive, tasty food. Its common food, but done uncommonly well." U.S.E.
Much has been made recently about racism in describing food such as kaffir which is used in their description of the popular Goan dish, vindaloo. In an effort to be exotic and to add flourishes of ethnic cuisine, it ignores the overall composition of the dish. Most of their menu items are about adding something. Truffle salt to fries or tortillas to a Mediterranean platter. More is more. So, when asking for a spice on the aforementioned vindaloo, the response makes sense - add an ingredient that doesn't make sense for the context and will just add more tastes to further muddy the flavours. In some ways, this unintentional homogenization reflects the ethos of most suburban environments in Canada. There is a blending of conservative elements that lead to a tasty, exotic but ultimately bland palette. 
"We are a premium casual restaurant known for its well crafted menus and cocktails, an extensive draught and wine selection and the kind of place where comfort rules, and your table is your own little escape. It’s a place where you can be yourself, relax, laugh with friends and enjoy great food."
Their beer tap menu is eclectic, stretching from big brewers to micro brewers to craft beer. Unfortunately, the servers do not seemed well versed in helping the customer through the list. They will always lead you to more popular and less offensive (read that as bland) options rather than considering your tastes or what you are eating. Anyone with Delirium Tremens on tap gets a nominal pass for me. Just don't ask for it like that. It's just Delirium on the menu and it confuses the servers.

The servers. All female. Verging on breastaurant territory. Sometimes I feel infantilized and wonder if it is a policy of the restaurant or just the experience of the staff that this type of behaviour garners more tips. The first time I went here, there was a super excited server who was really curious about the food and beer. She got the answers to my questions. I've never seen her there again. No other server has been as interested as her and the service, while always professional, has been spotty with the feeling that there are many scripted moments. 

Look, this isn't a bad restaurant. I try to stay away from reviewing places like this because I like to see other regions cuisine slip into white people's food. My objection lies where there seems to be a commodification of culture. The mainstream takes a highly distinctive dish and reprocesses it to appeal to the most people and sells it back. That makes sense for a restaurant trying to appeal to a sub $20 lunch crowd where it needs to fill butts in seats a couple times in a few hours to be successful. If it just paid attention to the small details then it could become a really good restaurant with no extra cost and that's what pains me in these type of restaurants. By having less scripted interactions but adding a knowledge of the beer menu for instance, could yield more profit by selling that one extra draught. Sure, it is harder to teach and control the experience but it may increase the profit margin. Instead I'm left with the feeling that no one cared what my preferences were because there was already something for everyone. Add a little sriracha mayo. That will fix the problem.

Union Social Eatery on Urbanspoon

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