Spring has long-since sprung, but in the precious weeks before Memorial Day, when the sun is already high in the sky and the summer crowds have yet to appear, a pal and I take a ride out to Southampton for some ocean air and a blowout dinner.
Until late last year, Union Sushi & Steak — located on lovely Bowden Square, across the street from Tates’s Bake Shop Inc. — was the Tex-Mex restaurant, Union Cantina. It is still under the same ownership, but the joint has morphed from Latino to surf and turf. Well, I love a good morph and I also love a good steak and sushi, so I’m intrigued to see what the new incarnation has brought to the safe if rather stagnant Southampton dining scene.
Walk through Union’s enchanted garden (the place to sit on warmer nights) and up the few stairs and you come to the host stand. Here, your path diverges. On the left is the well-established Burger Bar, a brick and heavy wood interior doing little to conceal the building’s former pub status, where Hamptonites will tell you the 8-ounce Black Angus hamburger, served on your choice of bun, is the nattiest patty for miles around. To the right though and our destination this evening, is the new steakhouse, with its baby grand piano, its slightly saucy chandeliers that wouldn’t look amiss in a boudoir and swathes of shear curtains that can be moved back and forth as well as sideways to create private spaces — for Covid concerns or simply for, ahem, privacy. (Think “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by the ocean.) Little gilt chairs, the sort you see at a fancy outdoor wedding, give the room a dainty if slightly impermanent feel.
Seated by Fernando, whose frugal conversation is oddly in inverse proportion to the amount of charm he exudes, first and foremost we address the business of drinks. For me, it’s going to be a classic martini, the steakhouse standard. A great martini is, or should be, the harbinger of a great steak to come. And, this one is — Hendricks gin, the faintest murmur of vermouth, a paper-thin twist of lemon, ice cold on the lips. The pal takes a Social cooler, which is to say Casamigos tequila, with watermelon purée and fresh lime. Any “cooler,” it strikes me, is an appropriate cocktail for the era of social distancing. Talk about the power of advertising, though, because I can’t think of Casamigos without seeing George Clooney, co-founder of the billion-dollar brand, sliding into view, to the point where I half expect him and the missus to wander over to the Union’s host stand and ask for a table.
The menu stays true to the steakhouse model but with a wider ambit. A lobster bisque, pale as straw, with a silky consistency and fleshy pieces of lobster, is in fact not quite a bisque. It’s more than a regular cream soup, for sure, and stops short of a chowder, but what you call it is, in any case, irrelevant, because it is quite lovely and we could have eaten it by the bucketful. Other appetizers, like ramen with pork belly, a duck egg roll with sweet Thai chili sauce or Prince Edwards Island mussels, reference Asian and shellfish themes, and all of them attest to the dexterity of Union’s chef Scott Kampf. He’s as confident at sea as he is on dry land.
The appetizers make a good introduction, too, to the sushi. The sushi we tried, including hamachi, toro, shrimp and unagi, was spankingly fresh, and if you choose to supplement it with, say, shrimp tempura or spicy tuna rolls, you would already have had a feast and leave happy. From the large selection of “signature” sushi rolls, if you opted for, say, the Union roll (lobster and avocado topped with marinated skirt steak, eel sauce and yuzu mayonnaise,) it would turn what was already a feast into a banquet and ring down the curtain on a thoroughly balanced and utterly swish and filling supper.
If, on the other hand, you go the steak route, then the Union’s porterhouse for two, a beast of a chop — half filet mignon, half strip steak — means business, which is fine, since you are here to trade. You offer up a hearty appetite in exchange for what seems like half a cow, cooked rare in our case and arriving at the table pre-sliced. A vast platter of golden pommes frites is honestly the only accompaniment the beef needs, but you won’t regret the extra indulgence of creamed spinach, which has such an affinity with beef. And the indulgence continues, with generous, artery-clogging desserts, such as chocolate lava cake or fresh berries with heavy vanilla cream.
When Union’s co-owner, Ian Duke, he of Southampton Social Club renown, stops by the table to shoot the stiff Southampton breeze, he says he has envisaged the new place as a kind of supper club and, right on cue, Ella Fitzgerald — recently honored by her hometown of Yonkers on her 100th birth anniversary — comes over the stereo, gently warbling her plaintive invitation to the dance. Indeed, I would actually be delighted to begin the Beguine or indeed any other dance, right now, in the cause of working off the excesses of dinner.
Instead, we take a slow walk back to the comfortable and well-established Southampton Inn, where we are staying, and contemplate lunch the following day at the Union Burger Bar.
At the end of the day or even in the middle of it, I think it’s fair to say I am a Union man.
For Union Sushi & Steak reservations, visit dineatunion.com. For more on the Southampton Inn, visit southamptoninn.com