Russian Hill's Union Larder Is No Ordinary Wine Bar

Union Larder
is exactly what wine bar proprietors mean when they come back from Paris or Rome and wax poetic about how they just fell in love with the wine bars there. They always seek to bring back that European formula because our bars are just…what is it? Boring? Impersonal? Lackluster food? BevMo quality wine?

[jump] It was a cava bar in Barcelona that provided Jay Esopenko with the epiphany that he later turned into Union Larder. He just didn’t know it at the time. After living on seemingly every continent of the world, Esopenko and wife Melissa Gugni came here and opened North Beach’s adorable wine-and-cheese shop Little Vine a few years ago. Then came this Russian Hill project. Working with this new 800-square-foot space and the different neighborhood dynamic, the couple felt Little Vine II wouldn’t be right. So the Barcelona initiated Union Larder concept switched from dream to reality.

Union Larder’s refined industrial atmosphere hits that Euro-style sweet spot as a neighborhood gathering spot for all times, whether it’s with lunch with kids or date night. The front half of the 30-seat space sports a counter parallel to the sidewalk overlooking Hyde St., two communal tables in the middle and a prominent wall of bottles. The rear half features the mandatory U-shaped, zinc bar and an Instagram-worthy sign listing the charcuterie. It makes no sense to say but it’s true: This is an intimate and spacious room. Union Larder is no sofa-filled, candle-lit cougar den like too many other wine bars.

To eat, the menu finds that difficult balance of being more exciting than just slices of mortadella and wedges of Camembert, while not quite ambitious enough to truly be a food-centric restaurant. Chef Ramon Siewart, formerly at prominent kitchens like Quince and Cavalier, doesn’t let limited tools (not much more than a low temperature radiant-heat oven) or the adjective “wine bar” get in the way of some impressive creations.

That would be sandwiches, such as the coronary alert of a Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk BLT with pork belly and heirloom tomato. There are those wine bar staples duck liver mousse and oysters, but also uni pâté and an heirloom tomato and pluot gazpacho. A composed salad ($15) of baby squash coins and ribbons, dots of vadouvan carrot puree, a generous scattering of chèvre, candy-like prosciutto crumbles, and a subtle honey gastrique spoke of summer like the 76-degree sunshine outside. If there is one mandatory order, it must be the boquerones ($12) where the Albariño- and espelette-pepper-marinated sardines spread on Acme baguette slices somehow unearth a secret bacon flavor profile combined with a relentless umami punch. What a powerful, fantastic dish.

Don’t fear, there is no shortage of cheese and charcuterie, with some of the latter made in-house. Kristi Bachman of the Cheese School of San Francisco runs the cheese side. Where to begin with the extensive selection of each is up to you (for both, it’s 2 selections for $15, 3 for $22, 4 for $29). 

There is lots of wine, too: close to 50 options by the glass alone. The list basically could function as the unofficial gift shop of Jon Bonné’s The New California Wine. Oregon, South America, and Europe do make a couple cameo appearances, but since Esopenko and Gugni fell in love in Australia, where is the Aussie wine love? If thinking white, consider the full-bodied, Chablis-like Martian Viognier from Santa Barbara that really is from another planet. For a red, the Cabernet Franc by Field Recordings in Paso Robles is where it’s at. And for sparkling, zero in on the crisp, fun Lichen Estate Blanc de Gris from Anderson Valley. Best of all, there are no tasting notes to be found anywhere! The whole bottle list is available to buy for home enjoyment with a 25 percent discount for retail purchases. Pay special attention to this because several challenging or impossible-to-find California labels like A Tribute to Grace and Sandlands are available (or at least they were before word got out). With the Italian wine staple Biondivino a two-minute walk away, Russian Hill has now got wine shopping covered.

Two other notes: Yes, Swensen’s is next door but the call of ice cream for dessert gets subdued when housemade chocolate truffles beckon here. And as a family of tired tourists entered off the cable car and learned the hard way, there is no espresso machine. There is cold brew, however.

Thankfully this idyllic type of gathering spot straight out of Europe is slowly growing across this city of craft double IPA and barrel-aged Negronis. Union Larder has the formula down — a charming place, good food, and great wine. And a bonus view of the selfie stick-clutching crowds on the packed cable cars. I bet somebody from Barcelona will try to replicate Union Larder soon.

Union Larder, 1945 Hyde, 415-272-7567.

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