Grilled watermelon gazpacho. Photo by Nicole Sprinkle

Union Saloon Brings the Wild West to Wallingford

There is an old-time vibe, but the food is clean and modern.

If you’ve been to Delancey in the past few months and wondered where that omnipresent, efficient-yet-friendly manager has been, here’s the scoop: Michelle Magidow has opened her own place—in quietly cheery Wallingford, where restaurants abound, but typically not ones batted around in conversation among foodies. That’s why it’s great to see the 20-year veteran—she has worked at Lark, Salumi, Harvest Vine, and of course Delancey— come into her own. Plus, there’s the added perk of witnessing someone who’s had a hand in the success of so many spots deliver something as inviting and surreptitiously delicious as this.

Union Saloon (3645 Wallingford Ave. N., 547-2280) evokes Western nostalgia without being campy. The front door is saloon-style, and the all-wood interior—from the rough, unfinished rafters to the raised booths, walls, bar, tables, and chairs—adds to the rusticity. But whereas most trendy restaurants would add modern lights and colorful accents to offset the vibe, at Union Saloon old-fashioned chandeliers and framed photographs of yore punctuate instead. When the menu arrives, don’t be surprised, though; comfort food or bar fare are not operative here. In fact, the tightly curated offerings are the product of chef Blake King, who recently spent time cooking in Japan. The result is something that has hints of Delancey’s seasonal flair, yet is wholly new and energized. For instance, Billy’s heirloom tomatoes (a staple there) make an appearance, but on an open-faced sandwich with house-smoked mozzarella, a sunflower-seed gremolata, basil, and herb mayo. And that’s the sneaky, perfect premise of Union Saloon: something completely composed and finessed playing out on a humble sandwich. Other open-faced options include brisket, pork cheeks, and tuna conserva. The brisket is spot-on, piled high on the grilled bread with a house mayo and a jumble of fried shallots. But a beautiful, unexpected side of shredded napa cabbage, fennel, mustard seed, and champagne vinaigrette turns it into a plate with panache. It’s like the ultimate culinary collision of Magidow’s time at Salumi and Delancey.

While nods to saloon culture can be found in bar bites like kettle corn, chips and dip, and a Bavarian meats plate, most of the menu is sophisticated simplicity. From the small-plates section, gazpacho gets a summery farmers-market treatment with the addition of grilled watermelon floating in a chilled heirloom-tomato base finished with cucumber and a tangle of spicy greens. It has kick, bite, and sweetness, all in perfect proportion. The fishiness of sturgeon rillettes is softened with crème fraîche, lemon zest, dill, and pickled pearl onions—a fluffy, salty, citrusy heap—and served with triangles of relentlessly addictive fried pita bread. For salads, there is a green-bean gribiche, which would have easily felt at home at Delancey alongside a pizza: Green and yellow beans intersect with sugar-snap peas and fingerling potatoes, a light pesto dusting the veggies, and chunks of cured egg. A cold mayo/egg sauce (the gribiche) dresses it all with a tangy touch. This dish would easily make it to my top-10 summer salads/sides. It’s the kind of thing you wish you would think to make at home.

Moving on to the plates, the black-peppercorn chitarra is a seriously flawless dish. If you’re going to have just one pasta option, it’s a good idea to make it memorable—and Union Saloon does. The housemade chitarra—essentially spaghetti, but with square ends—is coated in a lush sauce studded with bits of maitake mushrooms, ribbons of zucchini, and slivers of guanciale. It has the mouthfeel of carbonara, but is light and summer-forward, yet still a little naughty thanks to the cured meat. Again, there’s that balancing act of hearty and honed. The fried chicken has the least wow factor, but the thighs are cooked expertly. Unfortunately, the togarashi spice is a bit too toned-down and the pickled green tomatoes more of a scant garnish.

Drinks here shoot from the hip; house cocktails aren’t overthought. There’s a Negroni, a Manhattan, a Dark & Stormy, a Paloma, and two versions of an Old Fashioned: Michelle’s and Nick’s. Nick’s (named after bar manager Nick Barkalow, formerly of Brimmer & Heeltap) is more classic, while Michelle’s is muddled with cherry and orange. Ditto for dessert. Three cakes can all be seen on their perch atop the back shelf by the kitchen; carrot, German chocolate, and fennel olive oil were the choices when we visited. We tried the latter, and it was everything I’d hoped: moist, with the quiet recognition of fennel, just sweet enough, and topped with a lemony mascarpone and a handful of big, juicy end-of-summer blueberries. Served on a pretty plate of flowery grandmother china, it was another subtle touch in the no-fuss space.

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