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We were given the opportunity to attend “My First Taste of Union South,” one of the many promotional events leading up to Union South’s April 15, 2011, opening. Here we sampled a few items from the menus of each new restaurant that is set to open up in the new Union. These are our first impressions, and we look forward to the day when we can take in the full atmosphere of these new and exciting Union offerings!

Harvest Grains

Harvest Grains bills themselves as a gourmet sandwich establishment with a Wisconsin twist. A rich and creamy baked mac-and-cheese was the first inkling that this may, in fact, be truly authentic Wisconsin fare, a commendable (however expected, since we live in Wisconsin) detail in itself. The curly noodles and subtly spicy cheese made for a pleasurable dish, although it was debatable whether or not the crunchy baked crust added to or detracted from the deliciousness. Things took a turn for the worse once we finished the macaroni, however. On the sandwich, the bread was chewy on the outside and soft on the inside, but that could have only been because it was served fresh. If left to sit out for a while (as food court sandwiches often are), it seems like it would quickly become crusty. The Italian assembly of ham, salami and roast beef seemed to have a good flavor, but the meat was sliced so thin and layered so sparsely that the bread overpowered it. The same imbalanced bread-to-filling ratio made it nearly impossible to determine the flavor of the sauce, a pale yellow concoction with red specks in it. As for the salad, the dressing itself was taste bud-awakening and rich, but it did not work well with the bitter lettuce, savory walnut and glaringly piquant onion. While Harvest Grains deserves respect for their attempts to expand the typical UW student’ s palette, their efforts overreached the abilities of a typical Union food court chef (read: student workers). The actual presentation fell short of authentic gourmet and came across instead as pretentious.

Urban Slice

Urban Slice, a self-professed ” authentic” Italian establishment (brick ovens, family atmosphere, boisterous men, etc.), offered up two types of Stromboli: all-meat and vegetarian. At its core, the meat Stromboli was delicious. It’s difficult, after all, to go wrong with tomato sauce, cheese and pepperoni. But while the pale tomato-and-garlic flavor performed its job well, the singularity of this flavor did not match up with the appearance of the sandwich – a colorful combination of red meats, white mozzarella cheese and browned crust. As I bit into it, I couldn’t help but think, “Shouldn’t I be tasting something else here”? Also, the poppy seeds on the crust were distracting and did not meld well with the sandwich – an underwhelming experience as a whole.

The vegetarian Stromboli had a taste that was more multi-faceted. Though the innards were alittle soggy, the flavors of the white sauce, mozzarella cheese, green peppers and olives arose in a pleasing harmony, making this one of my favorite dishes out of the entire taste test.

Ginger Root

The pan-Asian fusion concept that lies at the “root” of this seemingly unique Union food joint is exciting when I considered the current Asian food offerings at Memorial Union. Grease-laden, poorly proportioned scoops of fried chicken-like chunks and meager vegetables come to mind, and Ginger Root’s offerings last week were visibly different. The ingredients seemed much fresher, sauces much lighter and flavors more sophisticated, although the dishes as a whole lacked coherence. A gingery, garlicky chicken stir-fry certainly had powerful flavor, but it was still quite salty, and the Asian cole slaw it was paired with, in comparison, had barely any flavor whatsoever. The delicacy of the flavors intended for both dishes made them come off as either overpowering, as in the stir-fry, or bland, like the cole slaw. However, Ginger Root’s dishes do seem much healthier than many current Union offerings, and Ginger Root will also serve sushi (made in-house!) once it opens. In all, a hopeful restaurant that could use some subtle recipe-tweaking before April.

Prairie Fire

At Prairie Fire, Union South’s version of a coffeehouse, you’ll be able to find espresso drinks, rich coffee and an array of baked goods, none of which were to be scoffed at during the tasting. A Union staple, Babcock Ice Cream, will also be available at Prairie Fire, so this restaurant is likely to be one of the most frequented at the new Union. Notably, though, the Union food scene will become a little trendier, as Prairie Fire will also feature a wine bar. You’ll be able to sip on many local and imported wine selections and enjoy a new element of the Union atmosphere that is certainly worth looking forward to.

The Sett

This pub-like establishment says they will feature live music, “recreational games” and specialize in appetizers meant to be shared by a group. They allowed us to mix and match four fried creations (regular fries, beer-battered fries, giant onion rings and onion “crunchies” ) with three mayonnaise-based dipping sauces (chipotle, black bean, and oregano).

The beer-battered fries were a darker brown and had a richer fry-food flavor than the regular fries. The competition between the two different onion concoctions, however, was a toss-up. Those who enjoy a batter coating with a little heft to it might want to go for the giant onion rings, which were basically thick chunks of onion plastered with the stuff. Those who prefer to crunch their food may enjoy the smaller, squiggly-shaped, French fry-like onion crunchies.

A caveat to all this: While there were no complaints about the taste (anything fried is invariably delicious), those seeking true variety in their appetizers will not find it here. These were basically all the same foods, just fried into different shapes.

The same goes for the dipping sauces: While The Sett endeavored to change it up by injecting them with an assortment of different spices, when it came down to it, they were all basically the same. That said, with its distinctive cilantro flavor and textured bean chunks, the black bean sauce stood out above the rest. The chipotle, which had a pleasing peppery kick, was a close second. As for the oregano… let’ s just say it’s the first time I’ve actually felt awkward eating mayonnaise. I hate to put down part of an appetizer plate geared towards big groups of friends and social settings, but the sad truth of it was that poor little black-speckled sauce just did not belong. Not in the condiment line-up, not on my fries, and definitely not in my mouth.

And if you’ re trying to cut back the calories, adopt a healthier lifestyle or lose weight in any form, stay far away from The Sett. Don’ t smell it. Don’ t even look at it. A prolonged gaze at those glistening beer-battered fries may just send you into cardiac arrest. A final note: As you leave the new Union Food Court, you might find yourself smacking your lips, searching for something shiny, metallic, fresh, familiar… ah, there it is! A drinking fountain. Those with high blood pressure, beware. The anti-sodium movement has failed to loosen the Union’ s vice-like grip on its salt shakers. This is standard Union fare, people, and some things just don’t change.