New and old come together at Union Stop Café
By Dan O'Heron 03/21/2013
Approaching the new Union Stop Café, I began having conflicting ideas about what kind of place I would be walking into.
Knowing about its warm brick setting, great tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches led me to believe that the café was “old-fashioned.” But later, after hearing about its WiFi, a barista and a sandwich heavy on vegetables, I decided it was really “New Age.”
As it turns out, both styles are meant for each other: Nostalgia at Union Stop Café isn’t what it used to be. It’s better.
Interior brick walls, decked out with framed railroad photos, conveyed to me the thought of an old town with a water tower at its gateway.
But while looking forward to a bowl of tomato soup ($3, as are other soups of the day), and wistful for the days when my mom added a dollop of whipped cream, I would have left home for the new way it’s made here.
I was surprised how readily Chef Mary Keledjian revealed how it was done. When asked for recipes of distinctive dishes, many chefs feel they have a right to keep details to themselves.
At ease with sharing the wealth, she spilled the beans. “It’s a simple matter,” she said. “I sauté onions and peppers, add them to a can of cold tomatoes with basil, salt and pepper, hit the blender, then stir while cooking. It comes out less gelatinous than standard tomato soups.”
Keledjian’s recipes come in a tin box of cards she brought from New York City. This is where she spent eight years studying at a culinary school and cooking at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in the Four Seasons hotel, a world-class institution.
She was hired by owner Tina Adamian, a food industry event planner. I feel that the Union Stop event turns the tables up a notch for classic dishes, which, like the simple grilled cheese sandwich, had an advantage up to this time.
With pumpkin-colored cheddar on country white bread, Keledjian’s grilled cheese ($6) is toasted on a Panini press, which gives it an appealing waffle texture. It’s a big improvement in taste and appearance over the Kraft American on Weber’s I once relished. You couldn’t ask for a tastier marriage at lunch than Keledjian’s tomato soup and grilled cheese.
Totally new to my taste, and very satisfying, is the “Mind the Gap,” an English cheddar cold sandwich on honey/oat white bread ($9). It is fully packed with audibly crisp cucumber slices, a mash of avocado and a juicy tangle of sprouts. It made me think about what I’d missed “back in the day,” when alfalfa sprouts were only eaten by goats.
For assurance that modern items like straight and flavored coffees and espressos are made and served with flair, barista Emily Hillburg is at the pour.
While she has WiFi to go with the morning libation, it’s not as intrusive as it is at my triple espresso haunt — Starbucks of Eagle Rock. The products and prices compare favorably, but in Eagle Rock the seats are taken by customers with laptops who are in business but don’t pay rent for an office. Compared to Starbucks for comfort, Union Stop is a quilted bedcover.
Accompanied by fine coffee, I’m looking forward to breakfast and see how it goes with baked goodies and the small menu of well-chosen breakfast specialties. As a tribute to New York City, these include “The Upper Eastsider,” with cream cheese, smoked salmon, red onion and capers on a dark, slightly sour pumpernickel bagel ($10). But to put me back in touch with the comfort foods of my youth in Los Angeles, I’m going to order almond butter and jam on country white bread ($4).
The restaurant opens at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast, and closes after lunch at 5 p.m. However, it is awaiting a beer and wine license, and an OK to open a canopied patio outside, over the Gold Line underpass. When permits come through, said Keledjian, “Our hours are likely to be extended until 10 p.m., and the menu will grow with snack items to mate with beer and wine.” My hope is that expansion won’t drain the charm.
In mitigating the nostalgia over charming salads with names like Cobb and Caesar, I’m eager to try two Union Stop creations with spanking new touches. One is the “Peter Rabbit.” Dressed in raspberry vinaigrette, cabbage, cucumbers, almonds and Parmesan, the salad is served with frilly leaves of kale ($9). A bit acidulated, kale is a member of the cabbage family but without a head.
The other is the “Union Chop.” Comprised of Romaine lettuce, artichokes, olives, tomato and cucumber, hearts of palm — resembling white asparagus without the tips — are added ($11). It’s dressed with unique sumac/mint vinaigrette. Sumac is drawn from a pungent, fruity, gorgeous wild berry.
But that’s enough of wide-eyed words about feel-good food.