A year after opening, Union Standard has become the Downtown mainstay

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Full Article: http://www.post-gazette.com/life/dining/2018/02/21/Union-Standard-Downtown-Pittsburgh-Derek-Stevens-Union-Trust-Building-lunch-dinner-brunch/stories/201802200204
By Melissa McMart February 21, 2018

In 1917, Henry Clay Frick opened what’s now called the Union Trust Building on Downtown’s Grant Street, a grand display of Flemish-Gothic style. It is captivating, with its interior stained-glass dome and exterior chapels that tower over the roof.

Originally named the Union Arcade with more than 200 shops and galleries, the building marked an era when Pittsburgh was on the rise, where there was an air of possibility, reinforced by the growth of the steel industry. Decades later, hard times hit Pittsburgh’s industries and economy, and this glorious building was put up for sheriff’s sale. It was purchased for $14 million by Boston-based real estate firm Davis Companies in 2014.

When the Union Trust Building opened to the public last year after a $100 million restoration, restaurants were the face of the building’s — and the city’s — turnaround. Yet with Downtown real estate prices climbing out of reach for mom and pop restaurants, chains from out of town have set up in the first round of openings in the building: Toronto-based Freshii, another Jimmy John’s, and Eddie V’s from Darden, the parent company of Olive Garden and The Capital Grille.

Union Standard from chef-owner Derek Stevens is the only independently owned restaurant in the building so far, opening about a year ago this month. “Looking back,” he says, “what a year.” He describes himself as “a very involved chef,” and in the case of his own restaurant, he’s even more present: “Trying to juggle between cooking and being a good owner, it’s like two full-time jobs,” he says.

This is a sprawling two-story restaurant, at more than 7,300 square feet with seating for 170. In a room with a granite motif, red banquettes and stools add pop to an otherwise monochrome space, with the scene at the bar and the foot traffic outside plate-glass windows adding movement to the space.

Even though Union Standard is pretty casual, it’s fitting that the ornate Union Trust Building is the site of Mr. Stevens’ first independent project. He is one of the most well known and the most talented chefs to come out of Big Burrito — the city’s anchor restaurant group since the ’90s. He was head chef at Eleven in the Strip for about a decade.

I sometimes wish the restaurant offered a more adventurous menu, but even without fancy or hyper-refined dishes — both of which Mr. Stevens is capable of —  it’s a very good restaurant, and it has gotten better since my first visit in September. Mr. Stevens gives a shout-out to a chef who joined him in November, Brandon Fisher, who ran the now-closed Salt of the Earth back in 2015, as an essential addition to the team and “a really good cook.”

The restaurant has seen success in building a daytime clientele with a menu of starters, salads, soups and mains. Consider plates such as an oversized fried fish sandwich with carrot slaw and red cabbage ($14). Or opt for a chicken pot pie that releases the scent of curry as you fork open the pastry to reveal a stew of root vegetables, mushrooms and Gerber farm chicken ($16).

Whether it’s lunch or dinner, get the burger ($15). In a departure from his over-the-top grilled Eleven burger with its braised veal, bacon and a choice of cheeses as part of the excess of that particular dish, the Union Standard cheddar burger is “simple and straightforward,” griddled “for a nice sear” he says, on a potato roll with bread and butter pickles. I prefer it.

Union Standard’s raw bar marks Pittsburghers’ enthusiasm for raw shellfish, a turnaround from the days when Eleven was one of the only places in town that served Fishers Island oysters -— and that was the extent of its raw offerings. Here, six oysters are listed among varieties, most from the East Coast, with one or two from Prince Edward Island (about $3 a piece). A half-lobster, Top Neck clams, shrimp cocktail and a cousin of stone crab, Jonah crab claws ($3 a piece), also stock the raw bar.

Other dishes display Pittsburgh’s changing tastes, such as the snacky fried lake smelt ($6) on the bar menu served with a pepper remoulade. Among entrees, the bacon-wrapped monkfish served with new-crop rice from South Carolina’s Anson Mills, along with red pea gravy and greens ($29), is also popular, along with local Laurel Hill trout that’s become a darling of Pittsburgh dinner menus. Here it’s cornmeal-crusted, served with pork belly-seasoned fingerlings.

Mr. Stevens’ take on salads and vegetables have always been some of my in-town favorites, especially something like the radicchio, Brussels sprout and romaine salad ($10 or $11) that’s well-seasoned and finished with a miso dressing, as opposed to overwhelmed by creamy dressing or cheese. Pair that with the pillowy potato bread ($8) with three types of butter and it’s dinner.

Mr. Stevens’ take on salads and vegetables have always been some of my in-town favorites, especially something like the radicchio, Brussels sprout and romaine salad ($10 or $11) that’s well-seasoned and finished with a miso dressing, as opposed to overwhelmed by creamy dressing or cheese. Pair that with the pillowy potato bread ($8) with three types of butter and it’s dinner.

Mr. Stevens says he or Mr. Fisher makes desserts -— and you should get the Dutch baby ($11): a fluffy, eggy pancake for two, served with apple pecans, vanilla ice cream and honey. While it’s no souffle, it is a dramatic presentation. The rice pudding with gingersnaps and luxurious chantilly cream would be a runner-up.

When Union Standard opened a year ago and he was fielding national press, Mr. Stevens told Eater.com that he wanted his restaurant to be “among the best.” But for him, “that doesn’t mean being the hottest new restaurant in town. It means staying power.”

Here’s hoping this grand building continues to support him.