Having successfully carved out a space for culinary artists to tinker with our collective taste buds, the mad scientists at Union Kitchen have moved onto the next phase of epicurean domination: market-ing.
Union Kitchen Grocery, a combination retailer and eatery, took up residence at 538 Third St. NE in early May. The corner store dabbles in a little bit of everything, operating from morning (8 a.m.) to night (9 p.m.) and filling the hours in between with curious food and drink from around the region.
A cursory exploration of the neighborhood establishment revealed goodies galore.
Six-packs of craft brews (we spotted signature offerings from Port City Brewing Co., Evolution Craft Brewing Co. and Lagunitas Brewing Co., among others) beckon from a neatly packed display case. Frosted-over pints of signature delights created by Milk Cult (Avocado and Chocolate, Bangkok Bliss, Bread and Chocolate) and Ice Cream Jubilee (Honey Lemon Lavender, Fresh Minty Chip, Blueberry Pie) chill out alongside ready-made baked goods from Mason Dixie Biscuit Co.
Patrons can stave off hunger pangs with single-serving containers of Asian nibbles (carrot and cabbage, beef and onion, pork and cabbage, chicken and celery) supplied by Pinch Dumplings or giant chocolate chip cookies developed by Blind Dog Café and Bakery, while others whet their respective whistles with competing cold brew coffees (Stumptown and Growl), myriad kombucha concoctions, assorted flavors of Honest Tea, Zivot probiotic beverages or piping hot Compass Coffee.
And that’s just the tip of the synergistic iceberg.
Mary Beth Marks, director of marketing and partnerships at Union Kitchen, said the fledgling shop carries more than 150 products culled from dozens of current and former Union Kitchen members.
A partial roster of the intertwined entities includes: Banana Love Muffins, sauces and spreads from Bear’s Made, peanut butter from Black Pug Smokehouse, Capital Kombucha, fruity condiments from ‘Chups, District Cheese (honey chevre enrobes tangy dairy in floral sweetness), Element Shrub, Embitterment bitters, Go™ter tonics and raw organic cleanses, Langdon Wood Barrel Aged Maple Syrup, gourmet snacks from Popcorn Queens, desserts from Pops by Haley, Singer’s Significant Meats, Spoil Me Rotten Dog Biscuit Co., Sweet Farm, Udderly Nuts and Undone Chocolate.
“In its first month of operation, Union Kitchen Grocery sold more member products than any other retail partners that month, including Whole Foods,” Marks said of the rousing start. “It’s an early and encouraging signal that this community is hungry to support local makers and District-crafted products.”
The modest dining operation relies, at least for the moment, on deli-style sandwiches.
Breakfast options ($5.45 apiece) include a trio of hand-helds — pimento cheese and egg; chorizo, cheddar and egg; or bacon, goat cheese and egg — as well as a yogurt/homemade granola/strawberry preserves package deal.
An egg and pimento pairing mostly got the job done.
While mulling our choices, we spotted a jumbo croissant — a ready-to-bake building block procured from Lecoq Cuisine, Marks explained — already split and pre-filled with twin egg patties. Once the order went through, the counter guy retrieved a sealed Tupperware from down below, scooped out the house-made pimento and slathered it on one side of the croissant.
The featured spread was medium chunky and sported a pleasantly peppery finish. The croissant was extra buttery on the outside yet light and airy within.
Sadly, a chorizo-cheddar mash-up left us cold.
Same flaky croissant (excellent), same eggs (dull). But now, there’s a muddled mass of diced chorizo and melted cheddar to contend with.
In isolation, the seasoned pork was pretty good (dug the paprika). But the mess of mushy cheddar one had to dig through to enjoy it killed those precious few moments.
The lunch carte promises heartier fare ($8.95 each).
Featured players include: chicken salad doctored with herbs; tuna salad perked up by pickled shallots; a Caprese-style marriage of mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and pesto mayo; a cold-cut combo packed with savory meats, salty cheese and pesto mayo; a turkey club bolstered by avocado, bacon and Sriracha mayo; and a meat-free offering composed of roasted beets, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar.
The Italian was molto bene.
A fragrant rosemary-spiked roll envelops seasoned ham, prosciutto, pepperoni, pickled onions, olive oil, shredded lettuce and raw tomato. The generously proportioned crowd pleaser was all about complimentary flavors.
The chicken salad (Marks’ favorite) was a close second.
Chunks of juicy chicken, moistened with mayo and studded with whole grain mustard seeds, get a boost from aromatic basil and zesty chimichurri. Things tend to get messy toward the end, though, with ribbons of dressing-laden lettuce dripping off the sides of the rapidly diminishing bun, while bites of half-eaten bird tumble free at will.
(Maybe build a dry cleaner into the business plan?)
According to Marks, a consulting chef has already been brought onboard to broaden the market’s appeal.
“Dinner will be rolling out later this summer,” she said of a plan to weave in rotating entrée-style selections for the later crowd, while tempting early risers with additional baked goods (muffins, quick breads).
Salad and grain bowls, Marks said, are also in the works. A market worker mentioned that she was looking forward to having fresh pasta on hand.
The principals are so excited about the growth opportunities, in fact, there’s already talk of exporting the grocery concept elsewhere.
“We have begun to explore other corners throughout the city that may serve as a good home for a Union Kitchen Grocery,” Marks said.
Food Court is an ongoing series of semi-regular spot checks of new and evolving eateries with ties to Capitol Hill.
Union Kitchen Grocery: 538 Third St. NE; unionkitchendc.com
Average entrée: under $12. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.