Union Standard: A Look at an Ever-Evolving, Seasonal Restaurant

Wood grilled salmon nestled on a bed of asparagus spears.

Wood grilled salmon nestled on a bed of asparagus spears.

Derek Stevens, an experienced and well-traveled chef, offers Pittsburgh a restaurant that is a culinary tour in its own right. Union Standard—open since February in the beautifully restored Union Trust Building downtown—is a chef-driven, seasonally influenced restaurant. The ever- changing menu features cuisines of the American Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Appalachian regions.

That turns out to include an amazing (and tempting) variety of foods. Over the summer season alone, selections at Union Standard have ranged from calamari and sea scallops to Berkshire pork and Amish-country chicken, plus an intriguing assortment of savory side dishes, refreshingly fruity drinks, and lusciously sweet desserts.

This review describes dishes sampled over the course of several visits. And, since Union Standard is Stevens’ first restaurant as owner, we’ll start with some insights from the man himself.  

The Man Behind the Meals

Chef Stevens may dress casually, but he's serious about serving the best in seasonal fare. Seen here on the server's side of Union Standard's open kitchen.

Chef Stevens takes great joy in creating dishes using the best in seasonal fare. Seen here on the server’s side of Union Standard’s open kitchen.

Operating a seasonal restaurant with a changing menu is a challenge that Stevens seems to relish. “You need to be very flexible and have a lot of communication with purveyors and farmers about what’s in season,” he said. “There needs to be a level of passion for food and [you need] to get excited by it.”

How frequently do the selections change? “We do little tweaks of the menu every day, some dishes change weekly,” he replied. “There’s a need to balance the changing of the seasons with also having some consistent items. Customers want to enjoy their favorites as well. At the end of the day it’s about what the people sitting in the seats want. We always look to see what the most popular items are and what should stay on the menu.”

Stevens, a native of Pittsburgh’s North Hills, found his calling early in life. He said his first cooking job was at age 15 at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Discovering that he had a passion for food, and that he liked the atmosphere in kitchens, he would go on to many more places while developing his skills. Stevens earned a degree in culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of New York. He’s worked in California at Bradley Ogden’s Lark Creek in San Mateo and Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant in St. Helena. His Pittsburgh experience includes working in the kitchens of the Duquesne Club, Hyeholde, and Casbah before a 10-year stint as executive chef at Eleven.

And now? “Union Standard is doing good; it’s an adventure,” he said. “To be a chef-owner for the first time can be daunting, overseeing all aspects of the business.” Stevens smiled and added: “Some days I feel that I’m doing great as a business owner and other days I feel I’m doing great as a chef, although usually both of those thoughts don’t occur together on the same day.”

Perhaps he is being overly modest. Our series of tastings revealed Stevens and his staff to be doing excellent work over the summer.  

First Visit: Early Summer Season

My friend J.B. and I first visited early in the season on a recon mission. We hadn’t made reservations and when we arrived in the middle of lunch, the only seats available were at the bar. Not a problem as J.B. and I sauntered up to take our seats there. Sleek and minimalistic in design, the bar area features big windows that look out on Oliver Street.

The Union Trust Building is set on a slope and the restaurant follows the terrain. Union Standard is laid out in such a manner as to be reminiscent of the multi-level chess game that was played in the “Star Trek” TV series. The main entrance and host station are on William Penn Place. There’s an array of tables and booths on that first level. To get to the second level, which holds the bar and some small tables and chairs ringing its outer perimeter, you walk up about five steps.The third level is used as an area for private parties and overflow seating when needed. Union Standard’s open kitchen is also located on the third level.

J.B. and I placed our orders with the friendly bartender. Our appetizer of six oysters on the half shell was prepared by a kitchen staff member at the raw station set up at the bar. It was served with a green apple mignonette, fresh horseradish, and hopped vinegar hot sauce. The oysters tasted very fresh and succulent. We also tried some of the accoutrements which imparted good additional flavors. The raw bar menu and seafood in general is an emphasized part of the restaurant’s offerings.

Oysters on the half shell from the raw bar.

Oysters on the half shell from the raw bar.

We also enjoyed a loaf of freshly baked potato bread, which is one of the appetizers listed. It arrived warm with a light sprinkling of sea salt on its top crust. I put some of the butter from one of the two accompanying butter selections on the plate. As soon as I tasted it on the bread I knew something was really different. It was goat butter, which has a deep savory flavor. Also served with the bread was a cultured butter, and a ramp and benne mustard (this has changed since my first visit to reflect seasonality).

A few moments later our main dishes arrived. I had ordered the crispy halibut sandwich. The fish filet was sauteed with a cornmeal breading and served on slightly grilled potato bread slices with cabbage and carrot slaw and smoked pepper remoulade. A zesty pickle and onion relish was served on the plate with the sandwich. The fish was cooked just right, juicy with a sweet fish taste. Over the summer the sandwich has changed to the crispy cod.

J.B. enjoyed his wood grilled (hickory and oak) salmon salad which was set on a bed of asparagus spears, a nice vegetable of the time, and a mixed grains salad with sunflower seeds, fava beans, and a cucumber vinaigrette. The salmon filet was cooked just right and bestowed with a pleasant wood smoke flavor. This dish now has pea shoots and baby carrots instead of the asparagus and is listed as a main dish on the lunch menu.

Dessert was an ice cream sandwich. It was an underwhelming combination of toasted maple oat ice cream, oat toffee, and almonds. The outer sandwich (two cookie/cakes) was brushed with a strawberry jam. This dessert is no longer on the menu.

One of the highlights of our visit was seeing actor Chris Noth (“Sex and the City,” “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order”) come in and sit at the bar. I said a quick hello, that I was a fan, and asked what brought him to Pittsburgh. Noth replied that he was working on a TV production. Information has since been released that the show is “Gone,” a crime drama which NBC has the rights to air in 2018.

A Midsummer Night’s Meal

On my second visit I popped in for dinner in midsummer. I enjoyed the sea scallops appetizer which was sweet and tasty. Ramps were in season, so I ordered the ramp and cauliflower soup. The soup had a deep savory flavor enhanced by a swirl of a turmeric and yogurt mix.

Berkshire pork chop.

Berkshire pork chop.

My main course was the Berkshire pork. It was a grilled chop, topped with grilled apple pieces, pea shoots, ditty beans, and homemade onion rings. The chop was medium-sized and served on a little bit of a flavorful pork jus with creamy polenta to the side.The pork was cooked to medium temperature as requested, with a light wood grill char on the outside and juicy on the inside. The fruit dressing on the pork selection moved through the seasons too, from apples to peaches. Now the Berkshire pork dish is a shank and has more of a fall flavor profile with sauerkraut, basil spaetzle, cippolini jus, and cider mustard.

I paired my selections with a lemon thyme tuco: Old Grandad and lemon-thyme simple syrup. The drink was refreshing, like a strong lemon punch. Neither too lemony, nor too Old Grandaddy. It was served in a metal tumbler with a metal straw and a sprig of fresh thyme. The crushed ice in the drink had a rounded top that extended about an inch above the rim of the tumbler, giving it the fun appearance of an adult snow cone. A squiggly lemon twist was also along for the ride. The cocktail list also changes periodically.

Again the service was friendly and top-notch. The server cleaned the table up very well after the main course. A nice touch. Union Standard is casual in operation and design and does not use tablecloths.

Peak of Season

Wood grilled Lauren Bay calamari.

Wood grilled Lauren Bay calamari.

For my late summer visit I again stopped by for dinner after work. I started the meal with a wood grilled Lauren Bay calamari appetizer. It was nice to see calamari that wasn’t breaded and deep-fried. The mingle of the calamari and wood smoke made for a delicious flavor profile. The calamari was accompanied by escarole, white beans, and grilled lemon halves. The meal was off to a good start.

It being the peak of the local growing season, I opted for the watermelon and peach gazpacho. The restaurant features Chambersburg peaches when available. The sweetness of the watermelon and peach was nicely balanced against the acidity of the soup’s tomato base. This was a smooth, thick soup with no chunks. Garlic croutons and a light drizzle of olive oil floated on top.

Wood roasted Gerber Farms chicken with grilled green tomatoes and polenta.

Wood roasted Gerber Farms chicken with grilled green tomatoes and polenta.

For the entree I ordered the wood roasted Gerber Farms chicken. Gerber Farms is a family-owned farm in Ohio’s Amish country whose chickens are hormone free and humanely raised. The chicken was seasoned with a light rub of salt, spices, and something a little bit sweet. Four pieces comprised this selection: two good-sized pieces of breast meat, drumstick, and thigh: basically half a chicken. The skin was moderately crispy; it could have been just a touch crispier. The chicken was tender and juicy, accompanied by grits and grilled green tomatoes. This dish has been on the menu all summer and deservedly so.

I paired my meal with a fruity summer drink, a watermelon rum punch. What’s not to like with Maggie’s (Farm) white rum, Plymouth sloe gin, lime, pineapple, watermelon, IPA? Other local names spotted on the beverage list were Boyd & Blair, Arsenal, Penn Pilsner, East End, Erie, and Pittsburgh Brewing.

Vanilla Dutch baby dessert.

Vanilla Dutch baby dessert.

When asked about desserts the pleasant server raved about the vanilla Dutch baby. I went with the suggestion. About ten minutes later a runner returned with a small metal skillet, warning that it was still very hot. At the base of the skillet was a thick, eggy crepe-like pancake. Topping the dessert was pistachio honey ice cream, peach jam (normally blueberry), marshmallows, and a drizzle of honey. As the pancake was still bubbling hot the ice cream slowly melted. The dessert was both visually pleasing and decadently delicious. This dish has also changed with the seasons and now features honeycrisp apples. Most of the restaurant’s desserts involve ice cream. It would be nice to see Union Standard create an updated version of the Pittsburgh pecan ball tradition. Millie’s seasonal sorbets are available too.

Other offerings seen throughout the summer are steaks, lamb, seafood, cauliflower schnitzel, pasta, and salads. Lunch sees a variety of sandwiches on the menu in addition to entrees. Prices for main dishes at lunch range from $12 to $19; at dinner they run from $19 to $36.

Union Standard takes pride in using high quality meats, chicken, and seafood, pairing them with local fruits and vegetables as much as possible. The food I tasted was smartly seasoned—not so much that it overshadowed the flavors of the ingredients. Another Union Standard highpoint is the staff who are friendly, knowledgeable, and well-trained.

Although the Pittsburgh summer has been cooler and rainier than normal, it has been a fun season of culinary adventures with each meal at Union Standard.

Union Standard

524 William Penn Pl.,
Union Trust Building

Lunch: weekdays 11 a.m.-2 p.m., with brunch on Sat.-Sun. from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Dinner: Mon.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.

Photos and story by Rick Handler executive editor of Entertainment Central.

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