- TAPAS AT UNION: Order several and you'll like many.
We'd figure most members of the see-and-be-seen set who saunter into Union Restaurant for a meal of tasty tapas or a late-night cocktail probably didn't make many trips to Lenny's, the sub shop that preceded Union in its smallish Riverdale strip-center home.
If they had, this particular Lenny's, the purveyor of some of the city's best subs, wouldn't have perished. And these Lenny's regulars would certainly have giggled as they pondered the jarring paradox of Union's “up or on the rocks?” replacing “you want to make that a combo meal?”
When we heard about the Union concept, we were skeptical. Surely the owners had bitten off more than the public would chew with a combo tapas restaurant/late-night cocktail emporium in a failed semi-fast-food shop. It really isn't easy to turn a stark, dead sub shop into a trendy hangout, but Union's owners, interior decorators, staff and, most important, clientele appear to have done just that. So far.
There are tangible, tasty reasons to expect the success to continue. Tapas is a fun concept, particularly for a group. Sharing a large number of varied dishes, in smaller portions, makes for an interactive, bonding experience. And when you order several items at Union, you're bound to like many, most or all of them.
By nature of their small-plate status, most tapas at Union understandably are pretty straightforward: A petit filet ($11) — hunks of tender, flavorful, seared beef that almost melt in your mouth. Lamb chops ($12) — similarly well seasoned, tender, medium rare delights … only with handles. The sesame asparagus ($6) — tender/crisp and nearly perfect. The herb scallops ($10) — pan-seared, meaty and not overwhelmingly herbed/spiced, allowing the taste of the superb mollusks to shine through. The shrimp and garlic ($8) — almost prawn-size shrimp sauteed in a garlic-studded olive oil to a delicate firmness.
Not everything was notable. The “cevichetini,” ($10) served as it sounds in a martini glass, was a bit chewy and lacked distinctive flavoring. The pork pot stickers ($6) were decent but not much more.
Still, our meal for three was a very positive experience, and (not counting our wine) was $90, including tax, for 10 items. It's important to note that the experience itself was a good one, too. We had a great time splitting things, comparing notes with every bite.
If left only to its appeal as a dining destination, Union might still do just fine. But tapas aren't all that's going on there. Union stays open late — 2 a.m. five nights, 1 a.m. Saturday, midnight Sunday — and serves food until 30 minutes before closing time. But a sizable segment of the clientele rolls in, especially late, primarily to have a glass of wine, cocktail or beer.
Union is a preferred watering hole for the younger set, and it fills that role well. The wine list is varied and reasonably priced. There are plenty of signature cocktails, plus all the mainstays, prepared well. The atmosphere — sub shop roots be damned — is sleek, chic but comfortable. And when the crowd's bustling, it sports a vibrant feel.
The restaurant/bar business is as fickle as any, and the Little Rock audience has proven to run more hot and cold than most. So there are no guarantees for Union — or anybody else for that matter.
However, the raw ingredients for success are there and in action on many fronts — food, drink, atmosphere, clientele.
3421 Old Cantrell Road
Don't think small plates can't add up to big satisfaction. Mixing/matching is the way to go, particularly with a crowd. And satiety can be achieved at a reasonable price.
4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday. Kitchen shuts down 30 minutes before closing time.
On the pricy side, as are all tapas restaurants. Credit cards taken. Full bar.