On a corridor occupied by showy behemoths, making a splash on downtown Minneapolis' Hennepin Avenue bar and restaurant scene is increasingly difficult. But Union, the latest venture from Kaskaid Hospitality, which runs the Crave empire, has a running start to the end of the diving board.
The way Kaskaid founder and CEO Kam Talebi speaks of his tri-level posh palace, which opened Monday in the vacant building that once housed Shinders bookstore, going big was the only option.
"I knew I wanted to do something special," said Talebi, standing on the then unfinished rooftop a week-and-a-half before opening. "If we did something in this space it just couldn't be a one-level dining experience."
While each Union-inhabited floor has its own feel, the crowning feature sits at the top, where Talebi built a retractable dome to cover the bulk of his 6,000-square-foot rooftop terrain. The curved glass gable opens and closes like a sliding door on a motorized track, making for an open-air terrace or climate-controlled court as desired. A heating system hidden above the bar ensures that the mid-meal star gazing won't end in the winter months, when the patio party shuts down at his nearby Crave.
"Obviously, it's a unique offering -- there is nothing like this in the Twin Cities," said Talebi.
True. In fact, the pinstripe suit-sporting CEO spotted a prototype for his year-round patio project in Turkey. The roof looks like a lavish urban greenhouse. It features a white brick wall and an artfully blotched mirror behind the sleek bar, but downtown sightlines are the place's star attraction. A small uncovered area speckled with high tables overlooks the Hennepin Avenue theater district. It will become the premier perch during warmer months.
To help hone and realize his vision, Talebi tapped Shea Inc., the local design firm that has its offices on the second floor (Union leases the ground floor, rooftop and basement). The two have worked together on past projects, including Kaskaid's reopening of Figlio in the Shops at West End, making for a natural partnership, Talebi said.
"As we looked to develop the concept, David [Shea] and I traveled the country ... and really looked at what the trend was and what was happening in New York," he said. "I think we learned a lot from those trips. A lot of the experiences that we went through culminated into what the restaurant is today."
Talebi's club-hopping recon missions seem to have most informed Marquee, the "boutique nightclub" tucked in the building's basement. This slick subterranean lounge (which opens at 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday) has a separate back-alley entrance that smacks of NYC exclusivity. Color-changing LEDs line the side walls, while three large flashing screens are set behind a DJ booth where Talebi plans to bring in national DJs. "The look and feel is driven by visual stimulation," he notes.
Talebi said he intentionally separated the various functions under one roof. Limited small bites will be available at the full-service basement bar, and the rooftop restaurant closes at a late-night revelry-thwarting 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (11 p.m. the rest of the week).
Grand quarters mean little without palate-pleasing products, so Talebi went with a pair of local luminaries to design Union's food and drink menus. Cocktail kingpin Johnny Michaels created its 11 signature drinks, including the Persian Pussycat, an explosively sweet concoction made with pomegranate gin, orange, vanilla and rose. It's about as subtle as a pink Lamborghini. The Twin Cities' preeminent mixologist, who's created cocktail programs at La Belle Vie and Icehouse among others, was an obvious choice for such a high-profile project.
Meanwhile, Jim Christiansen of La Belle Vie, Sea Change and Denmark's world-renowned Nona, invented Union's upscale American cuisine. Only select drinks will be available at Marquee.
Considering the rate at which restaurant opening dates are delayed, perhaps Union's biggest feat was executing such an ambitious plan in what Talebi called a dilapidated building in a relatively short timeframe. Talebi said the long-vacant space was completely gutted after he signed the lease in February. "We built this and planned it in nine months, so this moved like a freight train."
Now that Union has passed the pre-opening push, it's time to let the reservations flood in and patrons judge whether it lives up to its lofty expectations.
"It was a complex project, but I think at the end of the day we're going to be very proud of what we created," Talebi said.Long-lived King to close
Last weekend beloved Loring Park eatery King & I Thai announced on its Facebook page that it plans to close its doors for the last time Dec. 17. In an interview, Gary Haanpaa, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Bou, said the lease is ending and they were unable to negotiate a new one with the building's owners, Maryland Preservation, LLC.
"I'm not sure what their plans are for the space, but I get the impression that it doesn't involve a restaurant," Haanpaa said.
The 61-year-old said he and his wife plan to retire after working at the restaurant for more than 30 years. It's a sad day for late-night happy hour fans.
1346 Lasalle Av., Mpls.,612-332-6928 www.kingandithai.comNew Louis
As part of a reported $10 million renovation, longtime downtown St. Paul pizza parlor Cossetta's unveiled its new Louis Ristorante and Bar on Monday.
With its ground-level cafeteria still intact, Cossetta's will continue to be a spot for that pre-event slice, but the third-floor bar and restaurant offers an affordably priced, full-service alternative with Italian beers on tap.
Louis' 160-seat patio figures to open sometime this spring.
211 W. 7th St., St. Paul 651-222-3476 www.cossettas.com