The gaudy theatrics of an opening-night extravaganza have become as expected as meat and potatoes for Philadelphia's new herd of luxury steak houses. But when Union Trust threw its preview bash in February, just as the economy was spiraling toward the abyss, it haughtily raised the bar to a prime new grade of crass.
With showtime searchlights on Chestnut Street strafing the night, a $550 vertical rib-eye tasting for four on the menu, ice sculptures channeling rivers of vodka, and a Brink's truck making special delivery of a $29,000 bottle of Black Pearl Cognac, the bombastic debut was meant to send a message: In a city being courted by ever-grander palaces of beef, the $12.8 million, 280-seat Union Trust intended to be the grandest of them all.
The soaring former bank space (and Jack Kellmer jewelry store), with its ornately coffered ceiling arching 60 feet over the terraced dining room of velveteen booths, private rooms peering down through Palladian windows, and a marble staircase sweeping up to a glass-wrapped mezzanine, was the closest thing we'd get to a carnivore's cathedral.
But could the timing have been worse? Probably not, as Union Trust's rapid fall back to earthly reality in recent weeks - in both its prices and its notably more conservative approach - demonstrates.
Philly's once insatiable appetite for prime red meat is finally showing signs of hitting its lipid limit, from one early entry abandoning the steak concept altogether (Table 31) to another's bitter public dispute over contractor bills (Del Frisco's) and an overall buzz of dwindling revenues industrywide.
Yet, few have shown the strain of the current sirloin stress-test quite as much as Union Trust, which has spent a tumultuous first few months churning through key staff (two chefs gone in the first 10 weeks, including founding partner Terry White), slashing its lofty prices, and reining in the haute ambitions of an early menu to a safer, more familiar Capital Grille-style shell. That's no surprise, given co-owner Ed Doherty's long and successful tenure at "the Cap."
But I had to wonder the other night, as Doherty hustled in his natty suit and spiky gray hair after a team of contractors to jump-start the gimpy AC in the sweltering dining room mid-meal, whether there was enough sustainable breeze to push this grand endeavor in the right direction. At that moment, with a light dinner crowd despite a stellar raw bar and some more-than-worthy chops, its big sails were sagging for lack of wind.
It doesn't help that this was the last of the city meat palaces to open, or that it's situated on the less-convenient east side of Broad, or, especially, that "extreme" disagreements between two key partners seeded a managerial meltdown from the start.
But the price cuts are a plus, down an average of $10 a chop (thanks in part to lower fuel costs for prime wholesaler Allen Brothers), bringing prices more in line with the competition. That vertical tasting of four dry-aged vintages (hung from 35 to 56 days) has dropped faster than the Dow on a bad day, slipping quickly to $500 and now $400 on the latest menu. (I'm waiting until that meat index hits three bills before I even try to sell my bosses on that kind of splurge.)
But there are still plenty of opportunities for decadent consumption here should you be so inclined, even though the menu's early pretensions - of being a more "culinary" steak house along the lines of a Barclay Prime - have been pared back. I'm glad to report that most of the essential elements here are well worth the fee.
One of the city's best raw bars is among the notable distinguishing virtues at Union Trust, with an outstanding array of expertly shucked oysters (loved the meaty Shigokus and briny Pemaquids), salty Nauset clams, and sweet snow crab ("broiler") claws. I saw the flash of diners' cameras more than once welcome a gorgeous, multitiered seafood cascade to a neighboring table. (I wonder, though, what genius named the different sizes "gold," "silver," and "bronze"? Nothing like trying to woo an important client with a "third-place" dish!)
When it comes to the main event - the steaks - Union Trust more than holds its own. The wet-aged prime chops were simply spectacular, from a "rib eye filet mignon" cut two inches thick from the eye of a rib steak that tasted like filet injected with butter to a Kansas City strip wrapped in an L-shaped bone that sang brightly with well-peppered complexity. A thick mallet of 14-ounce, grass-fed veal chop was among the most flavorful veal chops I've had. Even the steak sandwich at lunch, a half-inch pad of rib eye layered with spicy fried onion laces and blue cheese, was memorable.
Aside from the vertical tasting, there are only a few dry-aged options to choose from here for serious meat-heads, including the porterhouse and a gargantuan 32-ounce, long-bone rib eye that wore a light mineral funk and a sublime tenderness. But it was also erratically seasoned, oversalted on one hemisphere and completely underseasoned on the other.
That loose attention to details, from seasoning to starters, sides, and the temperature of plates (too cool for hot meat), shows that work remains for this kitchen, now run by first-time head chef Quincy Logan, a veteran chef from Capital Grille.
The lobster bisque was too thin and overpowered by the concentrated sweetness of tomato confit. The tuna tartare was generous, but burned with way too much wasabi. The crab cake was dry, with too many crunchy vegetable bits inside. I liked the free-form shape and beefy purity of the pounded filet carpaccio - but the meat and salad were wildly salted and over-peppered.
The fried calamari were light but chewy. Worse, the onion rings were doughy, which, emotionally for me, is always hard to recover from. A bread basket filled with food-cart-grade soft pretzels didn't help.
We had better luck with the sides and salads, with the decadent crock of creamed fresh corn and bacon, old-fashioned cheesy macaroni, solid creamed spinach, and crispy hash browns that passed rösti-muster with my Swiss guest. I was charmed by the mini-wedges drizzled with BLT dressing whirred up from tomatoes, bacon fat, and citrus.
Sauces here are traditional, but well done, from a buttery bearnaise (ideal for the veal chop) to the house UT steak sauce that reminded me, in its swirl of dried fruit, Worcestershire and spice, of a house-steeped Pickapeppa - ideal for the marbled cuts.
The dessert list avoids some of the molten-lava cliches, but also indulged too much gelatin for my taste in the triple-layer mousse. I preferred the zaftig coconut moistness of the German chocolate cake and the warm brioche bread pudding with brown butter caramel. The complimentary truffles at the end were a nice touch.
The servers, though their ranks are noticeably thinner (20 percent) than at my early visit, were all well-informed and pleasant pros, capable of reciting the subtleties of each oyster, or giving able counsel on the wine list. The cellar isn't quite as huge as some of the other new chop-house contenders, but still has plenty of interesting choices, from the usual steak-house cabs to good zins from Seghesio and a valpolicella from Allegrini ($54) that was a highlight of the lower price tier.
All in all, though far from perfect (and well shy of its once grandiose visions of the ultimate Philly steak house), three recent meals here were satisfying enough on the basis of raw bar and beef alone.
And yet, I had to wonder at that final dinner why the see-through cellar near the front was almost empty, the wines-by-the-glass case ominously left understocked. This stunning room - once packed to the balcony with the glitz of opening night, enough to incite its competitors to gnash their catty teeth - was barely half full. And all of us, from diners to waiters and Ed Doherty himself, wore the shine of perspiration from the stifling heat as we waited for a little AC breeze - and a breath of fresh life - to kick in.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.