It's chaos in downtown Minneapolis tonight. We've never been around pre-game, and would have chosen a different night had we known what traffic would look like. I cut the corner tight onto 8th Street, drop the car at valet and we dash in seven minutes late for our reservation. We're excited to be at Union in downtown Minneapolis for a special popup dinner called Workshop, a menu-test for the new concept launching in this space come September.
The two staff working the door are nice enough. They say our table is on the rooftop, show us the elevator and send us upstairs. On the third floor, the sun is intense and we are definitely not dressed for a rooftop party. I realize something is wrong when the hostess hands a runner a restaurant week menu to seat us.
Turns out our reservation is back downstairs and after a little back and forth and a lengthy elevator wait, a manager escorts us down and ensures we sit at a good table. I honestly think at this point dinner will be crap. The hostess that originally took the reservation was oblivious, mildly rude and very unclear, the restaurant's online reviews are shaky at best and it's rare that a front of house so disorganized has a back of house putting out any sort of quality product. We wasted $100... but, at least there will be drinks.
Finally sat in a booth set for four with a great view of a well-designed room, we hold cocktail and dinner menus confused yet again. The tickets we purchased include four drinks and a five-course meal for the two of us, but everything here is priced a la carte.
We ask our server, Matt, for clarity and he pulls a printed sheet from his pocket, apologizing for the presentation, sharing the cocktail menu that goes with the package and a little more info on dinner service for the evening.
Billy orders the Smoked Negroni (house-infused cedar Campari, juniper, Barolo) and I the MsMn (preserved lemon infused gin, vanilla flavors, black cardamom, egg white, olive oil emulsion). At first blush, both are good looking drinks. My MsMn, however, tastes nearly as awful as it smells and feels like it should never have made any menu - neither of us can palate it (rare for a glass full of booze).
Kindly, Matt swaps it out for his recommendation, the That's That (cardamom infused gin, maraschino liqueur, green chartreuse, lime juice, dash of absinthe) and it's far better. Oddly (and thankfully), he says the one I previously ordered has already been pulled from the menu.
Luckily, the menu takes our minds off the already sour taste of the experience. Each of the small course lists has several options we are aching to try. The amuse bouche arrives quickly following the cocktails; Fried oyster shooters with dashi broth are a welcome distraction - the dashi a perfectly buttery soup, the oysters with thin-crisp breading and fat, creamy centers. It's the only time this evening we can't restrain ourselves from ordering the same plate.
For mini apps, we order the seared foie gras with succotash and the chicken fried chicken egg with hen of the woods mushrooms, hot sauce and tasso gravy. The seared foie looks a little small on the large plate, though we're admittedly used to the whopping portions we ate almost daily in France and Spain. The succotash is delicious - crisp, bright, with a creamy sauce to match the depth of the foie, a soft and pillowy richness in contrast with the vegetables. The egg dish appears a little dried out when it hits the table, though it's soft, warm, spicy and soothing. Bites with the mushroom were absolutely fantastic, though once sliced the light batter would not stay on the egg, nor easily on the fork.
In the next app category, we order the crumpet "burger" tartare style with fries, and the squab with star anise molasses sauce and magical fruit, both at Matt's recommendation. The tartare is fresh, flavorful and creamy, and the first we've seen it served on a crumpet. The fries with this dish are really the stars, dusted with what tastes possibly like powdered sugar, the menu description does them no justice. The squab is the surprise of the night for me, I most certainly would have overlooked it on most menus, but am incredibly glad I did not. The bird is tender, the sauce perfectly sweet and the accompanying beans precisely firm enough.
Several of the entrees are worth serious consideration, and we finally select the beef hoisin prime strip, long beans and daikon and the lamb chop with cilantro pesto and carrot couscous. We completely understand the menu tonight is scripted for a single run of service, though it can definitely use a little more description on some of the dishes. Both entrees are outstanding, the meat cooked perfectly with a touch of char on the outside of each. The long beans have a nice snap in a salty, thick sauce and the daikon, actually a puree, really brings the plate together both in taste and presentation. On the other dish, the carrot couscous is rich with cumin-curry flavor next to the cilantro-fresh pesto, a nice kick next to the flavorful lamb.
As with so many dinners, unfortunately, dessert is best-suited to a stop at Izzy's on the way home. We (begrudgingly) do not order the epic-sounding banana split for four, but go for a root beer float and an ice cream sandwich with hazelnut. The sandwich is fine - bites with the toffee sitting in the bottom of the bowl are pretty good, without there is not much flavor - a simple enough improvement would run the toffee through the whole sandwich, using it inside or as one of the sandwich ends. The float, however, is a fail. The presentation - a pint glass with freeze-dried ice cream inside - gets sassafras-flavored fizzy water poured over it at the table and quite literally falls flat in the glass. As the ice cream melts, it gunks up and stays clumpy, the taste is just a watery clear root beer.
We leave the restaurant far more settled than when we arrive, and happily thank our server and another blonde girl on the floor for being well-skilled and enjoyable staff. The host team and the girl who ran our food could use more training and guidance to have a place somewhere with this caliber of menu, though we like to think that as Union overhauls their downstairs space into this new chef-driven concept, they will take the same care to overhaul their service team and processes, as well. Overall, the first five courses, two great servers, solid wines and all but one good cocktail seem to point to good things to come for this new place - we wish the Workshop team all the very best and hope to see them in September.