I wasn't sure what to make of The Union Kitchen's namesake burger, a thick brute stacked with three-count-em-three tall onion rings, until I experienced the infantile pleasure of squashing those onion rings down underneath the sweet sourdough wheat bun. It was as much fun as my first (and second, and third) bite into this considerable piece of work. Come along for the ride where Southside Place meets Bellaire, one of two locations of this contemporary American grill launched by Paul Miller, an alumnus of the Pappas empire, Grand Lux and McCormick & Schmick's.
*PRICE: $11, including house-made potato chips.
*ORDERING: Table service only. You may have to search for a staffer for guidance, or permission, but find a seat in the boxy main room or on the plastic-sided porch with its burbling fountain.
*ARCHITECTURE: No salad stuff on bottom or top unless you want to add it yourself from the side. On a toasted sweet wheat bun that I would guess came from Sheila Partin's Sourdough empire goes a swipe of mayo followed by an irregularly shaped, grill-striped beef patty ranging from 1/2" to almost 1" high. Bacon slices follow, surmounted by overlapping squares of orange and white cheese. On top ride three mammoth onion rings followed by the top bun.
*QUALITY:This is one of those happy instances in which an upscale burger delivers on its upscale price. Ordered medium rare, that's exactly the way it came, with a little wooden marker stuck in attesting to its medium rareness. The flavor was great: expansive beefiness telegraphed by a spurt of rosy juices at first bite; a sweet-savory dance between bun and patty; a deep porky note of bacon against melty, milky cheeses.
Add the mellowing influence of those big, squashed onion rings with their crisp-against-soft texture, and you have a sandwich which needs no further condimentization save the touch of mayo it comes with. There was a pallid sliced tomato, and a pro forma handful of wilted spring mix on my plate, plus a big old dill pickle spear and a cup of red-peppery mayonnaise sauce. I didn't need them. It was enough to enjoy the sear and the drippage on this grill-striped patty, and the way all the sandwich elements clicked, without too much getting in the way.
*GRADE: Solid A.
*OOZE RATING: Good drippage from a medium rare patty.
*BONUS POINTS: There's St. Arnold on tap, or a small slate of red wines by the glass, including a Cotes du Rhone that suits a serious burger well. The comfortable dining room of brick, dark library-style woodwork and ochre-sponged plaster is attractive enough in a corporate, rather anonymous way.
*MINUS POINTS:The thickish house-made potato chips that come with this burger simply didn't hold my interest the way a heap of well-made French fries might have. They had an inert, slightly stodgy quality I couldn't get past, and I ended up just eating a few for science, not for pleasure. Maybe they were better earlier during lunch service, when they were freshly out of the fryer. (I was there about 1 p.m.)
The "Hearts of Romaine" Caesar salad that could and should fall into the Bonus Points category here — thanks to a convincing twang of anchovy in the dressing — instead earned a demerit for some blacked lettuce edges and a mix of leaves that included plenty that weren't from the crisp, paler lettuce hearts. Nothing wrong with the outer leaves per se, but don't bill a salad as hearts of romaine if it's not.
Also in the debit column: a so-called "Ice Cream Sundae" that proved to be a dreary pileup of solid brownie, squiggles of chalky chocolate sauce, maraschino cherries (plural) and sliced strawberries, with one sad little scoop of vanilla ice cream holding down the fort. I will admit that a childlike thrill smote me when I saw the words "Ice Cream Sundae" on the menu, but this modern version left me cold.
LOCAL COLOR: My fellow diners ranged from tables of businessmen to affluent retirees to young Bellaire matrons who lunch, chic in their workout gear and chatting in a mix of Spanish and English. An outdoor porch sided in plastic and fitted out with a fountain drew some al fresco patrons. Service was pleasant and good in spurts, but several management types spent most of the time I was there conversing with each other near the bar (I am sure they would have described it as "a meeting"), while another conducted an audible employment interview at the other end of the room from me. Meanwhile, inexplicable service lags made my meal a bumpy affair.
(The Union Kitchen, 4057 Bellaire Blvd. @Weslayan, 713-661-0025. Open daily. Monday — Thursday 11 a.m. — 10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 11 a.m. — 11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. 9 p.m.)