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About
Union Social Eatery - St. Clair is a moderately priced casual American restaurant located by St Clair Ave and Yonge St in the Yonge and St. Clair area of Midtown / Uptown. Union Social Eatery specializes in American cuisine and features open late hours, lunch, group functions, open on sunday in a casual atmosphere
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Review: Social climbing

By Alan A. Vernon, reviewed on February 27, 2014
 

When Didier Leroy closed Didier at Yonge and St. Clair, Rosedale's one percent lost their only fine dining haunt amid a wasteland of pubs. But, ironically, it took a pub to make a trip into this area a worthwhile experience with the recent opening of Union Social Eatery (USE).

By all accounts, since Fran's vacated that strip in early 2000, a spot it operated from 1940,  no other restaurant has been able to make a go of it. It was either Scallywags or nuttin'. But USE might just make it after all.

With its second location, the first begin a successful proof of concept in Mississauga, the owners seem to be attempting to go the route of SIR Corp, offering up a casual dining experience with a focus on food quality. Little surprise since the guys behind this rose through the ranks to become VPs at one of SIR Corp's most successful franchises, Jack Astor's. Only the food here is far superior.

At first glance, USE might look like just another pub to plant your butt down for a few pints and some wings while watching a game. But if you can get past the noise levels (I downloaded a decibel app to see for myself) that match that of a lawnmower or a motorcycle, you will leaving mighty satisfied if a bit hard of hearing.
​Decor isn't much to speak of: roughly-hewed wood walls lend an appropriately trendy roadhouse feel, but they could use some knick knacks to fill in the many dead spots. And they haven't quite got the lighting right: dimmers keep going up and down which has been known to cause nausea in some cases.

But an overly friendly and perhaps too chatty server (he'd be great working carnival amusements) takes our minds off this to point out a menu filled with "gluten sensitive" pub favourites. Nothing on the menu runs higher than $20, and that includes a steak frites ($19.73). Drinks, too, are insanely cheap: cocktails are $6.50, with martini specials coming in at $5. Clearly, management knows how to attract with a value-for-your-buck kind of bar.

With cheap drinks in hand, we're not expecting great things especially with this type of food. But an order of house-smoked mesquite chicken wings (1 lb/$10.75) is utterly unreal. A thick, deep-fried crust gives way to beautifully moist meat. A choice of sauces also impresses: a chipotle butter sports a smoky heat, while a mango BBQ is robust with a nice grease-cutting tanginess. More remarkable is a homemade, herbaceous dill dipper sided with freshly-foraged yellow, orange and purple carrots. Am I dreaming?

The wow factor ensues with a plate of tuna sliders ($10.96). Seared just ever so slightly, the perfectly purple-blue fish has a crunchy outer layer balanced by the wasabi-like heat of a creamy guacamole. And going to the bother to grill the buns is a nice added touch not oft seen at your local pub. Korean short rib soft tacos ($9.96) have the soft, gooey texture of slow-cooked pulled pork, though the sesame soy glaze and sirracha mayo make it decidedly Asian. But there is, ahem, a flaw: the pickled slaw has a sour, off-putting pungency.

Flatbreads are always great for sharing. Yet they're rarely done well. Then an FLT smoky club ($12.98) makes its way over. While the size of a hockey rink, it looks more like a chef salad on bread. What are you hiding under that heap of shredded iceberg? Plenty: a gigantic amount of garlic aioli smothers, making the thin bread soggy under the weight of cheddar and jalapeno Monterey jack, smoked bacon, tomatoes and tomato sauce, and enough grilled chicken for a typical entree. I never thought I'd ever advise taking away half the portions of these items. But do that and they'll really have something.

A gargantuan portion of fish and chips ($13.96) is bigger than the plate it's served on, its delicious Steam Whistle beer batter envelopes a huge fillet of haddock. And though it reveals a mushy consistency from overcooking, the fish still manages to hold on to its fresh flavour profile with scads of hand cut Yukon fries. Unlike the burger ($10.98) which is pretty blasé. While the ground meat is clearly top drawer, it is a bit dry and grossly under-seasoned. A better choice is the swordfish burger ($14.46) even if a bit of a misnomer: it's really just a nicely prepared hand-cut swordfish steak topped with an array of charred leeks, grilled onions, roasted red peppers and a creamy mayo that tends to overpower. But why not get creative and actually produce a ground fresh fish burger?

Let's face it, when it comes to pub food, most of the cuisine is cliche. But done right, even something as pedestrian as a NY-style cheesecake ($6.96) can be an unexpected winner. And this monstrous homemade one is utter perfection, not only showing off a rare kind of creaminess, but a wild blueberry and port compote that's the proverbial cherry on top. Now if only a watery house-made caramel didn't cut short this baked bliss, the same failed sauce drizzle that mars a lovely brownie ($6.96) topped with mint chocolate ice cream. But coffee is also memorable. At a pub? Pinch me.

Union Social Eatery's predecessor, Harry's Social Kitchen, tried a similar formula but failed miserably. Never underestimate attention to detail. The overall experience made some permanent hearing loss almost worth it. And though I wouldn't exactly call it a bona fide Gastro pub, I dare say USE might venture pretty darn close under exec chef Mike Rame who butchers his own meats and cuts his own seafood. Clearly, he has the capability to helm a much higher-end kitchen, but putting out pretty stellar pub food is something he can be equally proud of.

Reviews are meant to describe a dining out experience at a given period in time and are the personal opinion of the writer.
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