I was immediately reminded why I love Ottawa restaurants. No reservation, no room, no problem. The host quickly thought on his feet and offered me the end of a communal table providing I was done an hour later (a further amendment later allowed me to stay longer). A similar situation in Toronto might have left me walking out with my head down and seeking refuge at a hot dog cart close by.
Union 613 is located downtown away from the buzz of Byward market. The decor has a hip union hall feel, with lamp fixtures made of black pipe and wine bottles. The menu is what I would call “delicate southern food”, attempting to mimic flavours without the brawn of piles of chin dripping oversauced pulled pork or brisket sandwiches. George was an excellent waiter who provided prompt service, honest answers and a laugh or two. Oh ya..and boiled peanuts.
Other highlights include a small but current list of draught beer and a cocktail list which changes on a weekly basis.
The fried okra with buttermilk dip was a perfect start. The okra was fresh and crispy, a stark difference from the normal sogginess of most fried green veggies. The batter was equally crispy and not greasy to the touch. Probably most interesting was the thin buttermilk dip. Finally, an understanding that the fact that dip is meant to enhance the taste of food, not mask it.
I love the concept of the Berkshire swine. Deviating from the temptation to offer only pork shoulder in the form of tangy, slow cooked pulled pork, various cuts and preparations are offered, respecting other parts of the animal while still maintaining southern cooking styles and flavours. This night offered a nice sized pork belly served with a tart squash slaw. The pork was crisp yet tender and the slaw and fried sage were wonderful compliments.
As far as sides go, the cheddar and roasted garlic grits were as good as it gets. A spin on the traditional mac and cheese served at most southern restaurants, each bite brought a rich flavour and a contrast of smooth and chunky textures. The garlic taste was subtle and balanced.
The brisket was slow cooked and very tender. The chipotle/coffee sauce maybe not be for everybody and I found it a tad overpowering, taking away from the beefy taste I have come to expect from brisket. The salsa verde was a great touch and tamed the taste of the sauce a bit. Please forgive the picture…I had a faulty camera.
The lemon lime cheesecake parfait may have a polar following. After a meal of intense flavours, some people want to finish with a jolt of something sweet. This is not it. Instead, this is a large dessert characterized by a rich cheese flavour and heat from the cayenne coating the corn nut crumble. I found it quite delicious but not entirely what I expected.
When I eat an oyster, I’m looking for some acid, heat and/or salt. Despite the tobiko, there wasn’t enough of any these complementary flavours so the oysters were bland.
Union 613 provides good food with top-notch service. The menu as a whole pays respect to the foundations of southern fare but introduces innovative twists from appetizers to desserts. I would gladly return to try other dishes such as the crawfish boil or buttermilk chicken while at the same time anticipating new drinks, sides and of course fulfilling my curiosity about the Berkshire swine special, a curiosity only overshadowed by what’s really in the foot long I would be forced to eat when turned away in Toronto.