169 Union Rd Ascot Vale, VIC 3032
Friday lunchtime at Union Food & Wine and it's the quick and the dead. Half the entrees are finished, one main has been modified and a crowded room is competing for the attention of two sweet, overworked waitresses. Ascot Vale hasn't been this exciting since the Morans were sorting out their family differences.
Stuart McVeigh has cast off from a career in high-flying corporate kitchens (Sofitel's No. 35 and the Botanical account for the past seven years) to dive into the world of BAS statements and other rewarding accoutrements of the owner-chef.
No more kitchen brigades for this Brit-packer. With the help of just one other chef, his bantamweight menu of four entrees, four mains and the best chips since Trocadero is getting one hell of a workout.
So is the glass half full or half empty? Sure, the service is a little stretched, the food a little slow and the last beef shin ravioli gets snaffled by another table, but the place looks great, the food is fantastic and the prices are very attractive.
I'm calling it a win.
Housed in a grand Victorian corner building, Union Food & Wine scores stylistic points for the bold turquoise and charcoal colour scheme, the schmick white marble bar and spunky glazed pottery that makes bistro-standard white plates look as dated as shoulder pads. Down the stairs there's a sturdy timber communal table well suited to accommodating broadsheets and the breakfast crowd that kick-starts the day here in Union Road.
At its essence, Union Food & Wine is a local with plenty of meat on its bones. The lunch-dinner brief is bistro, but the delivery sparkles with McVeigh's Euro-leaning panache. His beetroot-cured New Zealand king salmon, for instance, kicks its almost-raw fish rivals to the gutter: a plate of jewel-coloured loveliness with bright and zingy travelling companions in a smooshy piped avocado and mustard vinaigrette, pickled beets, sliced radish and blood orange.
The onion tart - the default position after the ravioli was cruelly sold from under us - is just as good. It's more onion than tart, with the thinnest chewy base supporting a thick smear of onion jam, onion rings caramelised into sweet submission, a heady puck of black savarin goat's cheese from Yarra Valley Dairy and a crown of baby rocket. A mayo-like white onion puree and sticky puddles of vincotto amp up the richness then scythe through it.
Where's the bread? It's a handbrake on Union being an unequivocal success story. Ditto the lack of sides, with the exception of those fabulous chips.
Another is the wine list, a short but pithy document, priced with varying budgets in mind but with only six by the glass. It's a backhanded compliment. A drive-worthy destination deserves more glass-led choice for anyone worrying about blowing 0.05.
On the other hand, this is the kind of place where morels might turn up because the supplier dropped some off that morning.
The prince of mushrooms slots nicely in with the barramundi fillet cooked under a brioche, parmesan and egg crust. There's an umami-rich mushroom puree, fennel cream and a pile of sauteed cavolo nero. At $29, it's the kind of pricing that deserves a grateful army of returnees.
At $27, the duck flirting with Middle Eastern flavours - the sticky, pull-apart braised leg sitting on a puck of cracked wheat has hints of orange and star anise, coriander and cumin seeds - also gets a tick in the value stakes. It's the attention to detail that makes this food standout: the smooth, not too sweet date puree; the orange zest kicker.
A warm, comforting prune and walnut frangipane with poached quince arrives cloaked in almond milk froth - very cheffy - although the toasted honey and walnut ice-cream is from Gundowring. The owner-chef chooses his battles and in-house iced confection can wait, while the rest of the seven-week-old operation is nailed down.
McVeigh might have changed down a gear, but his successful run in fine dining says plenty about the success of Union Food & Wine. He has taken his skills and aimed at the local crowd with the kind of food they'll probably want to eat all the time, at prices fair enough that they can. That's a win.
The best bit: This food at these prices
The worst bit: Bread would be nice
Go-to dish: Duck leg braised with spices, $27