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Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar abuzz with creative flavors, urban energy

Executive Chef Chao ThapthimkunUniSushi Barbecue Bar 230 W. Erie. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Executive Chef Chao Thapthimkuna at Union Sushi and Barbecue Bar, 230 W. Erie. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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230 W. Erie; (312) 662-4888;

Hours: Open for dinner at 4 p.m. daily.

Prices: Snacks and starters, $3-$15; Barbeque Bar (skewers), $3-$5; sushi rolls, $4-$7; desserts, $4-$7.

Try: Buffalo duck wing, Brussels sprouts, lamb skewer, prosciutto-wrapped scallop, throwback surf and turf, rainbow roll, yuzu pie

Wheels: Wheelchair accessible on the first floor.

In a bite: Small plates are worked into a trifecta of starters, barbecue and sushi. The barbecue is meat and seafood done robata-style (open-flame grill). The atmosphere is eclectic, electric and unique. The clientele is mod, young. Noisy is an understatement; tight seating abounds. Two levels (lounge affair upstairs). Sushi bar and seats in front of the robata grill for a close-up of what the food on skewers is all about. Service (especially the sushi part) crawls when the place is jamming. Not good for children. Impressive sake and cocktail menu. Reservations for seven or more only.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary;

★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good;

★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:33AM

Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar. It’s new, modern, edgy, unique. It’s also noisy, nightclubby (the only thing missing is a dance floor), tight, uncomfortable.

The name of the restaurant as it relates to the food needs further explanation, but you know that the trend train has stopped at this station when the drink list — sake, spirits and “hand-crafted cocktails” — takes up more ink than the food.

About this hot new restaurant’s name. “The first robata grill in Illinois,” our waiter noted rather proudly. A robata grill is food cooked over an open-flame, charcoal-fired grill as opposed to a teppan or “iron plate” style of Japanese cookery. In either case (robata or teppan), food is served to customers who are seated around the cooking area. And at Union, you get to sit in front of a glass shield and watch the cooks grill meat, chicken and seafood.

As the name relates to the sushi, well, there’s also a sushi bar if you want to go all voyeur on that score. Yes, there is a lot going on, and it all takes place upstairs and at street level, at tables and banquettes. If you like a scene with your cuisine, then Union has it dialed in.

In the company of my wife and other designated eaters, I got to try something from each segment of the menu. Bottom line? Well done. Miscues were flying low and flavors were flying high. Chef Chao (formerly of Sushi Wabi) is a fine chef, one who deserves to be recognized more fully.

Edamame graced with a “Joshua Tree spice blend” made good snacking material to go along with a beer and a sniff of sake. Soon after those were dispatched, there were Brussels sprouts, but these were not your mother’s sprouts. Union elevates the taste level by adding earthy oyster mushrooms along with a dab of pesto and lemon. Very innovative. High fives!

Something a bit less than high fives (probably high threes) for another starter, the Buffalo duck wing, which was practically glowing from its glaze of chili and spicy “butter” sauce. Meaty-good, the wing was all dressed up with a crispy Napa cabbage slaw and yuzu blue cheese dressing (now that’s inventive).

On to some of the barbecue, a skewer affair (“one skewer per order” and a couple of bites per order), and meat-eaters as well as vegetarians have several choices. Shingles of lamb glazed with a garlic-soy sauce were quite good, the charcoal grilling effect very pronounced. The thrill of the grill was even better with the prosciutto-wrapped scallop. The idea of wrapping a scallop with prosciutto has been done to death, but Union goes deeper by jazzing it up with a sweet plum sauce, an avocado-wasabi puree and fried ginger. Layer on layer of flavor.

Another smart idea — “Throwback” surf and turf — shows up under the heading “Real Meat + Cooked Fish” (Union covers a lot of bases). Here we are into a small yet tender cut of beef filet along with two jumbo shrimp that get a bird’s nest of crispy potatoes and a sweet potato cream (totally does not work with this dish). I would order it again, but hold the sweet potato cream.

Now about the sushi, with “Rolls,” “The Classics” (spicy tuna, dragon, rainbow, etc.) and sushi bar (nigiri and sashimi). Had to try one of the rolls and one of the classics. The “Old City Market” roll was a winner. I liked the idea of using silky collard greens to wrap the filling of spicy tuna and seared salmon (with extras of ponzu, cilantro fried okra and scallion). It was soul-inspiring delicious, and it almost outdid the classic rainbow roll. I am not a rainbow roll expert, but I have had better than this thinly sliced smoked salmon wrapped around rice with a “stuffing” of tuna and hirame, avocado and mayo. The texture of the stuffing was a bit offputting, but I chopsticked my way through all four pieces.

Desserts were not an issue, but the “killer yuzu pie” was an instant put-away. A light coconut biscuit crust served as a platform for the actual “pie” part, all of which was topped with a swirl of whipped cream. Yuzu, by the way, is a Japanese citrus fruit, so in a fashion, this dessert was the Japanese version of Key lime pie.

Pat Bruno is a local free-lance critic and author. Listen to Pat Bruno talk about food and wine at 6:23 and 10:23 p.m. Tuesdays and 7:53 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on WBBM-AM (780) News Radio.

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