Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Eating Out: Union Bar in Cliffside Park

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Eating Out: Union Bar in Cliffside Park

Article excerpt

There's a lot to like at Union Bar in Cliffside. First (and most notably), it actually has a bar in this land of BYOs. But second, Union Bar's stylish decor -- with pressed-tin walls and a prominent Dale Chihuly-esque chandelier -- means there's plenty to look at while you're eating. Union Bar's service is generally earnest, though (to be honest), depending on the diner, the involvement of Union Bar's ever-present owner can feel either attentive or intrusive. Also, Union Bar offers a respectable roster of American craft beers, which can make navigating the disparities of Union Bar's half Italian/half Japanese menu a little bit easier.

After a pleasant welcome from a fragrant Union Martini - vodka, sake, cucumber and ginger ($12), I started with hamachi tartare ($12) from Union Bar's short menu of raw appetizers. I was surprised to find that the tartare arrived rather heavily dressed. In fact, the fish was acidulated to the point where its soft translucence had changed to the firm opacity of cooked fish. Pitiably, the hamachi's silkiness was a memory, leaving a mouthful-of-feathers chew. Even worse, the dish's seasoning outshone the subtler flavor of fish. My companion fared no better. Her first course of soft shell crab arrived as a pile of dismembered crustacean limbs bathed in a wincingly salty, muddy brown sauce of indistinguishable components.

Another visit with a different dining partner yielded at least one winning starter. The lobster tail sashimi was delicious, fresh and translucent. Great, but the menu's "market price" turned out to be $24 for one split, miniature lobster tail only about 1 1/2 inches in diameter -- which, it must be said, didn't even have to be cooked. My partner on this occasion chose less wisely. His undercooked yaki nasu, broiled eggplant with walnut miso ($8), was lashed with a staggeringly sugary, oily sauce that still couldn't counteract the bitterness of raw eggplant.

Mains offered about the same rate of success. After he sat unasked at our table, we took the owner's suggestion and ordered a main of Japanese meatballs ($16). It was a baffling recommendation, because the meatballs arrived gray and juiceless. What's more, their "sweet soy glaze" was relentlessly cloying. The sushi rolls on the sushi platter were marred by strange rice - instead of the glutinous, chubby-grained rice that one usually finds vinegared in sushi rolls, this rice was oddly dry and elongated. Plus, the fish was mushy and cut into thick, hard-to-manage chunks.

A pappardelle with wild mushrooms and duck ragu ($16) bore breaking, overcooked noodles in a thick brown sauce to which slabs of chewy duck breast didn't add much (and subtracted quite a lot). But here's the surprise: After some pretty regrettable food, it turns out that Union Bar slings a very respectable pizza. It's the go-to dish here, and a perfect match for that craft beer. …

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