Brunch is okay sometimes but paying such high prices for what tends to be the cheapest meal of the day gets old. And so do eggs. And bacon. And Hollandaise. I enjoy the culture of brunching, that of slapping on one’s Sunday best – perhaps a wide-brimmed hat and some wide-framed sunglasses – and getting together with the girls to rehash the events of the ruckus night before, the who-texted-who-what’s, stories of the cab ride home, the is-it-worth-staying-with-him’s. I also enjoy Bloody Mary’s. What I do not enjoy is bland, homogenous masses of filling but unsatisfying leftovers from dinner the night before thrown together in pan and sprinkled with chives or salsa to make them look new again. That’s why when a friend of mine suggested checking out Union Market a few weekends ago, and getting an early lunch of mixed local treats instead, I was all for it.
Union Market is great. Local vendors who specialize on one or a few products and do those well. There is a pickle guy, a salmon smoker, an herb chick, a wine tasting section, a bakery and pretty much everything is up for sampling to ensure that informed decisions are made. One can get a slab of a gourmet cold cut from the butcher, walk over to the creamery to pick out a matching cheese and then stop by the bakery for a hunk of crusty country bread to layer these on. Just outside the market there is a grassy patch by a parking lot with some benches laid out for those who can’t wait to get home to try all their purchases – people like me, in other words. Gourmet coffee and dense, delicious gelato is a perfect treat to end on. It’s like a cavalcade of gourmet products.
One stand I particularly enjoyed was the Oh! Pickles stand run by a charismatic fellow who seems to know everything about the anaerobic fermentation of vegetables in brine. He has about 7-8 different pickled cucumbers all of which are available for sampling. He also carries pickled onions and gooey, gunky pickled okra. My absolute favorite from him are the sliced beet root pickled in apple cider vinegar and flavored with a wide array of spices as well as a hint of sugar for a kick of sweetness. Drinking pickling liquid being one of my weirdest little secrets, I asked him what the possibility was of there developing a trend of using acidic brine in cocktails, specifically the vibrant purple brine of beets. His surprisingly thorough response initiated a rather long conversation in which I learned a lot. It also kept me at his stand long enough to try everything.
The first place my friend and I hit up was Rappahannock Oyster Bar, where the raw stuff rules, though in the company of some wonderful looking chowders and prepared dishes. We tried the Rappahannock River Oysters which were roasted inside their shell, allowing them to steam in their natural pressure cooker, in their own juices. The flavors were concentrated and picked up some smokiness from the grill. They were served with a simple parsley butter to melt over the already pretty damn buttery flesh. I still prefer the fresh ones for their slippery, cool, splash in the face texture but these were definitely some of the best prepared oysters I’ve had.
From the raw bar I tried one of each of the three oysters raised in the Chesapeake Bay. There was the Rappahanock River Oyster, the Stingray Oyster and the Old Salts Oyster. The Rappahanock River had a nice saltiness to it and a very crispy, cool finish. It was slightly smaller in size than the buttery, flabby Stingray Oyster (above) but had a somewhat more interesting flavor, with a blend of sweetness and minerality. I liked the Stingray Oyster for its texture, very soft and deflated but firm in the adductor muscle. The Stingray was a bit sweeter as well and had a subtle brininess. Very different from both of these were the Old Salts, which were much brinier and tasted more like the ocean. The fibers of flesh were also more defined, making for an altogether “rougher” experience. Well, as rough as an oyster-slurping Sunday lunch experience can go…
Next up, a stall that caught my eye first with its grand variety of sausages and wieners, and then with its funky charcuterie creations. Red Apron Butchery has recently been named one of the best producers of cured meat by Food & Wine. I can certainly see why.
We bought a nice block of their Tête d’Pho, a very interesting take on traditional fromage de tête. The aspic is made of the broth of Vietnamese pho and the flavors of the meat, as well as the parts used, mimic the soup beautifully. The gelatinous base melted against the warmth of my tongue without too much struggle, leaving behind a splash of moisture and a very nice, salty, meaty flavor reminiscent of pho broth. The bits of pork were beautifully tender – head meat, jowl, skin, tongue, cheek, snout and, I think, pigs feet with their various textural characteristics mixed up in each bite. There were soft, fibrous pieces and tough, chewy ones. There was cartilage and skin and fat but also very soft dark meat. A wonderful and very creative idea.
Next up the Smoked Pork Jowl Rillette. Moist, fatty shreds of delicate chin meat, very smoky in flavor. The mustard seeds dotting the block were great at alleviating some of the excess fat, giving the rillette a balanced flavor and a bit of tangy heat here and there. We got a block of this as well and spread it over some bread, with it melting like butter over the coarse, grainy surface of the slice.
Craving something substantial after a few hours of snacking on samples, we opted for Neopol Savory Smokery at the far end of the market. Here, slices of fish are displayed with pride – a variety of coated slabs, such as Herbes de Provence, Whole Grain Mustard, Candied Ginger and Green Tea, alongside the plain smoked salmon. We also tried some of their Smoked Bluefish Spread, which was remarkably flavorful, if a bit too creamy for my palate for a Sunday midday meal. They specialize in traditional methods of smoking but get pretty creative with seasonings as well as with the base ingredient (the smokee, if you will). I saw tofu and garlic and sausages for example. Checking the website, I noted a wide array of other smoked products – smoked jalapeños and olives to cook with, smoked egg salad and the (tough non-smoked) cutest array of herb-coated goat cheese hills I’ve seen in a while. Cool little place which I will definitely recommend highly to anyone looking for smokey treats.
Neopol also has a little sandwich bar in which they utilize many of their smoked products. I ended up getting the Smoked Salmon Sandwich, made with their signature house smoked salmon, artisan greens, tomato, red onion, a thin smear of dijon aioli, and a choice of bacon, avocado or fuji apple on a choice of white, rye or sunflower flax bread. Upon the recommendation of the place, I chose fuji apple and sunflower flax bread. The salmon was smoked to perfection – that is, just enough to contribute a delicate touch of smoke to the supple flesh instead of overpowering the natural sweetness. The apple was a great contrast to the flaky, savory fish in both crispy, juicy texture and its touch of acidity. The bread was great too, nutty from the sunflower seeds dotting the outside, which toasted along when the bread was grilled. Very well proportioned and satisfying in its thickness, this is the type of sandwich I could have every weekend.
I also had a head of their Smoked Garlic. I got this because I thought they would approximate something that my mom makes for me almost every time she puts anything into the oven – whole garlic drizzled with olive oil, wrapped in aluminum foil and roasted until creamy, caramelized and soft. Sprinkled with kosher salt, they are awesome, though maybe not the ideal pre-date getting ready snack. I was disappointed by these, however, since they were a bit too dry and stiff, very difficult to squeeze out of their little cells. The smoked flavor made the meat of the garlic too bitter for me; I think I will stick with the natural caramelized sweetness of roasted garlic.
After lunch I was in the mood for something fruity and hydrating so we went back in and happily stumbled upon Goshen, specializing in the live/raw and vegan diet, which is usually far from being my thing. Her juice bar seemed pretty popular though and I was intrigued by the potion bottles she stored the stuff in, so I decided to try one of her signatures.
If the vibrant purple color of her beet juice hadn’t been enough of a draw on its own, her description of the blend of ingredients got to me. Beet root, lemon juice, apple and ginger seemed like such an interesting combination I had to try some. It was weird and delicious. The beet root maintained that mineral flavor which the lime juice and sour apple just barely lifted up from bitterness. The ginger added a nice above-ground, fresh floral flavor to the under-the-earth root. All in all, it was a very well-balanced drink with the charismatic flavors of the beet root still dominating. A relatively thin, light juice, it disappeared in a second, rejuvenating my liver (or whatever she said…) and leaving me very satisfied. She also has a carrot and a kale juice which I will have to go back for one of these days…