Live Long and Prosper
Sitting in the calm, cool darkness, bathed in the blue submarine glow of the television, I see them coming. Infomercials, spreading like kudzu across the stations, filling those weird hours between 3 a.m. and dawn. Paid programming: the last refuge of the terminally insomniac.
Get rock-hard abs with rubber bands. Make a delicious ham-and-cheese omelette in just ten seconds. Lose twenty pounds in time for bathing-suit season (a little late for that, I think, eyeing the curve of my professional belly beneath my T-shirt). Earn your first million dollars by placing tiny classified ads in your local paper.
I flip through the channels listlessly, abandoning the Beverly Hillbillies to catch a demonstration of a chef's knife that can saw through a tin can and then still cut a tomato into slices thin enough to read the newspaper through. I learn that through the power of positive thinking, I can release my untapped potential for making $10,000 a week in the real estate market. I spend five minutes debating whether my mother would actually like the gaudy, giant lump-turquoise necklace offered for just $99.95 on the Home Shopping Network. The host squeals over it, says the necklace is flying off the shelves, swears that it will make my dear, sainted mother the envy of all her friends and neighbors. Yeah, if all her friends and neighbors were living in a Coral Gables nursing home, maybe, and believed that rayon double-knits and slip-ons from Payless were the height of fashion.
Just 200 bucks will get me a bottle of pills that will make me sweat off hundreds of pounds while I sleep; the " before" picture is a Polaroid of a 600-pound woman in a hospital bed, the "after" a professionally re-touched shot that looks like it was clipped out of a back issue of Vogue, showing a model playing volleyball on a beach in Hawaii. There's another ad for an herbal supplement that claims (anecdotally, of course) to cure cancer. Still another features a man in a white doctor's coat, posed before a wall of diplomas, who promises that his miracle formula will grow hair on my bald spot and give me a hard-on like a Louisville Slugger.
The best infomercials -- which is to say, the ones so blatantly sleazy and pandering that you can almost see the wide eyes of the audience they're targeting in the spaces between the pixels and reflected in the mirrors of the host's porcelain smile -- offer the wholly impossible directly to the truly hopeless. They're selling longevity, the false promise of staving off death, decay and obsolescence with some pill, some salve, some magic beans.
As I sit there, eating a microwaved bowl of leftover cioppino, I have to laugh. Sure, I feel bad for those desperate enough to call the 800 number at the bottom of the screen, but I now know where you can find the true key to eternal life: 240 Union. And I know its secret.
Yes, I'm talking about restaurant longevity here, but short of personally living forever, there's nothing quite so difficult as keeping a restaurant full and vital well into its middle age. And 240 Union has managed to keep things cooking since it opened in 1989, an evolving outpost of good taste in the suburban wilds of Lakewood -- initially brought to us by general manager Michael Coughlin and partner Noel Cunningham (the man behind Strings, which celebrates its nineteenth anniversary this month), with chef Matt Franklin now also part of the ownership group.
In its way, the corndog is the most indicative item on the menu -- a signal flare showing precisely what this kitchen is up to. When you see a menu that includes a lobster corndog, you know you're not going to be eating Larousse for dinner, or Escoffier, or even Waxman. A lobster corndog tells you that you're going to be buried in Americana -- translated, maybe even deconstructed (such a filthy word these days), but recognizable nonetheless. A lobster corndog speaks of gimmickry, but at 240 Union, it's on the apps menu, which is where gimmickry belongs. Here, it denotes a certain intelligent, indulgent sense of humor, which is one of the benchmarks of a kitchen still operating at peak form.
You can tell when a galley is teetering on its last legs because all the fun goes out of it. But a lobster corndog? That's both quirky-cool and smart; an upgrade of an American classic and a dumbed-down luxury. At 240 Union, it arrives in a plastic basket, accompanied by coleslaw and bagged Fritos. The corndog crust is ideal; the shredded lobster mix bulked out with celery and pointless kernels of corn. I would've liked bigger chunks of lobster meat among the shreds. I would've liked texture from the shellfish, not from the corn. For that matter, I would've liked for the corndog to come dipped in solid gold and mounted on a bed of fresh hundred-dollar bills -- but hey, no iteration is perfect. This is still the best corndog you're likely to find anywhere, and despite its minor failings, it works pure magic on a psycho-culinary level.
And it's not the only gag in this house. There are crispy duck cigars -- delicious shredded duck meat, bound with Camembert, wrapped in crisp phyllo, then sliced and served with a squiggle of blazing sriracha. There's a tuna "ménage-à-trois" on a single plate: a straight tartare with capers, each tuna chunk a perfect cube; two lozenges of very fresh sashimi in a puddle of citric oil; and a slightly bizarro seared tuna that tastes almost like very good Texas barbecue. (I don't even want to venture a guess as to how the kitchen pulls this one off, because I'd say Liquid Smoke and probably be wrong.) There's even a "Quarter-Pound Crab Cake" on the menu, served with dilled mayo and dressed in red pepper puree -- although the house missed a joke at the expense of Mickey D's by not mounting this on a cheap hamburger bun with a little lettuce and tomato.
240 Union doesn't put all of its energy into the fun stuff, either. For a kitchen to survive this long, it needs more than just a sense of humor. It needs to pay attention to the easy stuff, too -- like pastas.
At a tired restaurant, formerly brilliant pastas become workhorse alfredos and primaveras; cunningly sauced-and-sided mains take on an air of barrel-bottom scraping. But this kitchen lavishes attention on even the lowliest noodle dishes, turning farfalle with tender chicken, smoky bacon, sundried tomatoes and peas into a masterpiece by mounting the sauce with mascarpone; a simple, shallow bowl of pappardelle (almost always the worst of any pasta board, because those damn noodles reject nearly every attempt at saucing) into a Maine picnic with a smart, summery blend of lobster in brown butter, damp tomato ragout, wilted arugula and corn.
For the mains, the kitchen depends heavily on its mesquite grills -- grills that were a symbol of the California Cuisine "revolution" of the mid-'80s -- and that's appropriate, because a lot of 240 Union reflects the slow, natural tempering of the Californian ideals of seasonality, center-plate proteins and locals-only bravado. The lamb chops are from Colorado farms and come simply glazed in apricot mustard, the salmon is Canadian (which is just like being American, but with a funny accent), the halibut is Alaskan, the rotisserie-roasted half-chicken that comes with mashed potatoes and a straightforward, natural jus is from Red Bird Farms. The birds used for the duck breast entrée don't have a pedigree, but since the duck is so perfectly cooked -- sliced, fanned and mounted over sautéed greens, ideally paired with a sour cherry and peppercorn sauce -- I wouldn't argue if the house said they were from Mars. And the spear of goat cheese-stuffed French toast that comes tucked along the side of the plate is one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth for money.
Finally, there's that cioppino. I love cioppino. I love bouillabaisse and fisherman's stew and sopa de mariscos and whatever else anyone wants to call a good fish soup. When I see such a thing on a menu, I have to order it, both because of my multiplicitous seafood joneses and because, no matter what it's named, this dish is a bitch to get right. It's perfect critic bait, encompassing a whole range of ingredients -- from seafood to produce to the spice rack and stocks -- and working out all the stations in the kitchen. Here the broth is built up from a wonderful stock, including as a base the mirepoix that started it, then adding layers of tomato sweetness and bright spikes of herbs. The seafood that finishes it -- scallops and shrimp and chunks of fish and clams and mussels and even crawfish meat, which is used nowhere else on the menu -- are poached, boiled and steamed to their ideal doneness, which is no small trick, since each requires a different cooking time, and half of them a totally different cooking method.
But the smell that results is intoxicating -- hot and meaty and ever so barely fishy. And the taste, even after all the other good food I've eaten at 240 Union, is heavenly. That I took most of mine to go -- that I'd barely touched it when I asked my server to have the rest poured out into a tall styro and double-wrapped in plastic -- probably drove the crew nuts. They have to know how good their cioppino is; how, even when held up against the dockside original, it holds its own. And I was damned if I was going to leave a drop behind.
At 3 a.m., just a spoonful gave me a new lease on life.
Longevity. That's one of the most important words in any restaurateur's lexicon. Every house wants to be the one in a hundred, in a thousand, that lives to see its ten-year anniversary in the rearview and its twenty coming Œround the bend. Most never get there. But 240 Union has.
That's because this restaurant has never just settled. It's never decided that it's okay to coast. Food this well-prepared doesn't automatically result when the menu is smart and the location long-lived. It results when the crew comes to the grills fresh every night, and steps up to each shift as though it were the first one. You can watch this crew at work, in one of the most open kitchens I've ever seen -- sixty feet of white jackets, top-broilers and fire, stretching the entire length of the back wall in full view of every table in the Miami Vice-meets-Spago dining room.
And at 240 Union, all hands are on deck every night. I've never eaten here when I didn't see Franklin in the kitchen or Coughlin working the floor, bossing a team of managers who quarter the place like casino pit-bosses, making sure everything's right, everything's as good as it can possibly be. The service staff -- many of them longtime veterans -- never become flustered, never trip, never stumble, never let me or any of my companions go without any little thing our hearts desire. Big night, small night -- it doesn't matter. To pros, it never does.
240 Union has learned the secret of eternal restaurant life. And that secret tastes a lot like a lobster corndog.
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