It's not something a Chicago-bred boy wants to hear when deciding on where to eat. I was a bit skeptical that three guys would have a satisfying night at a small plate place without overspending to be satiated.
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Union House0S050 Winfield Road, Winfield; (630) 456-4188, unionhousekitchen.com
Cuisine: Small plate, farm-fresh-to-table, Southern American inspired
Setting: Intimate narrow space
Small plates: $5 to $15
Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday; 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
The new Union House American Kitchen in Winfield serves small, shareable tapas-style plates … and those selections surprised, and, yes, satisfied.
Featuring a Southern-inspired, farm-to-table (with supplies coming from local farmers' markets and the restaurant's co-op Slagel Family Farm in downstate Fairbury) and cooked-as-ordered philosophy, Union House's menu is limited to about 15 options with a handful of nightly specials. Our initial concern that we'd have to order nearly the entire menu to have a full dinner proved unfounded. After having only seven plates between us we left with full stomachs.
The creation of owner Midge Miscel and chef Adam Howard, the bi-weekly-changing menu is still evolving a bit, and while there are some near-hits and misses, the hits tip the scales.
A small bar area runs down the long, narrow dining area, and this place fills up fast on weekend evenings. Staff is very informative and friendly, and we never got the feeling we were being rushed. Beverage selections include a limited but inspired list of craft beers on tap (including Chicago-brewed Revolution), high-quality wines and specialty cocktails.
We started the evening with one salad and two "appetizers" that seemed to be a buzz with previous diners: the fried Romaine salad, the deep-fried pickles and the shrimp hush puppies. The salad was more of a "wilted" than "fried" offering and was good size -- nearly the size of a lunch salad -- yet lacked punch; bites without the crumbled bacon were a bit bland. The fried pickles, however, were full of flavor -- juicy-hot brininess of fresh-made dills in a light, crispy coating. The shrimp hush puppies were the evening's biggest disappointment. When brought to the table, we could smell the aroma of shrimp, but when biting into them, there was a lack of "shrimpiness" and they were somewhat mushy on the inside.
We decided to go with more of the meaty small plates in the next round. One additional disappointment was that our choice of the Union House's popular pork ribs was sold out by the time we ordered (7:30 p.m. on a Saturday) -- but the menu did give us fair warning that the ribs were in limited supply.
We instead went with the smoked chicken wings, barbecue pork sliders and one of the night's specials, the shrimp corn dog.
While we all respected the idea of the shrimp corn dogs -- fresh shrimp skewered on wood prongs, coated in a pancake-like batter and deep-fried -- the performance lacked any zing. Perhaps if the shrimp were marinated or seasoned, this would have been a winner.
Two highlights, though, were the wings and sliders. Fresh chicken wings are first smoked then deep-fried and coated in an apple-barbecue sauce. These wings were tasty, succulent and meaty -- and at six for $6 a great value. There are a lot of places trying to do wings; Union House has just raised the bar.
Sliders seem to be all over, as well, lately, and many are pretty pedestrian. Again, Union House has created a very tasty version with tender pork slices on a soft pretzel roll (yes, that ubiquitous pretzel roll!) with a nice slaw.
Save space for a dessert. While it's a limited selection, there was one that seemed like the chef knew I was coming -- chocolate pecan pie. Served with fresh whipped cream, this was decadence rolled in down-home love. With the right amount of chocolate, salty roasted pecans and caramelized sugar in a fresh, flaky crust, this pie made me feel right at home. Just this is worth a return trip.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.