Inland wharf 

My winter hunt for cuisines that remind me of summer continued the last week of 2019, with a slight complication: holiday closings. The season can be a bit difficult for me to navigate anyway -- I don't really have immediate family, and I wasn't planning to go to my hometown to see old friends. Most of my local friends were off to spend time with their families, and I am not one to intrude (and likely witness arguing with curmudgeon uncles).

Were I back in Baltimore, I'd be cozied up to a bar, chowing down on fresh seafood dishes in a pub that was converted from a bicentennial-era bed and breakfast in the Canton neighborhood (AKA the non-touristy version of Fell's Point). Sadly, we don't have Chesapeake Bay here, but we do have Lake Ontario. So on Christmas Eve, I met some friends who hadn't yet started their mini-family reunions, and we ventured up to the lake to try out a new restaurant on Culver Road.

Marshall Street Bar and Grill owners Don and Kelly Bush bought the former Reunion Inn and re-opened it as Union Tavern this past summer. It's located directly across the street from Seabreeze Amusement Park, but that's not the first thing I noticed. As I drove up Culver, I could see a shimmer of the early afternoon sun bouncing off the surface of Lake Ontario. I was so enchanted by the sight that I nearly missed my turn to enter the tavern's lot.

I parked and stood before the solid-looking, two-story brick building, painted white with hunter green trim, which resembles a wharf-side village tavern from the 1800s. Incidentally, I later learned from the owners that the structure sits on land with 200 years of significant history (including rumors of involvement with the Underground Railroad and Prohibition-era bootlegging), so my hunch was actually on target.

click to enlarge Not your usual flash-fried squid: the Calamari di Roma is sautéed with cherry peppers, onions, garlic, and tomato sauce. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Not your usual flash-fried squid: the Calamari di Roma is sautéed with cherry peppers, onions, garlic, and tomato sauce.

Atop the tavern is a widow's walk, or more positively, a good view of the lakeshore scene. The first floor interior is nearly all lacquered wood, including the bar, and despite the dark hues of the walls, the space was warm and welcoming. I half expected fishing crews to fill the bar and treat each other to rounds of beer and embellished tales of their marine adventures. The upstairs is almost a different world, with light green walls, tan wood floors, and flowery art hanging on the walls. It resembles a New England bed and breakfast dining room on a spring morning, illuminated by a glowing sun. My friends and I got a table in the corner so that we could take advantage of as much natural light as possible.

click to enlarge The fish fry and pub fries. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • The fish fry and pub fries.

The menu is a decent mix of pub fare and fine dining, including fries, burgers, and wraps, but also calamari, steak, and swordfish. We decided to start with the pub fries ($6), coconut shrimp ($9), crispy calamari ($9), and Calamari di Roma ($11). I normally wouldn't order two of the same type of item, but both calamari dishes intrigued me. The crispy calamari is made the way most folks recognize: breaded and flash fried. It's quite delicious, but the Calamari di Roma is a unique treat, sautéed with cherry peppers, onions, garlic, and tomato sauce and served in a bowl with a grilled lemon and a piece of bread from Seabreeze neighbor Giuseppe's Restaurant. The rings of squid absorbed the flavors of the peppers, onions, and garlic, and the tomatoes and lemon juice added a zesty finish. For those who don't eat calamari, the tavern offers the same preparation with hearts of palm.

The coconut shrimp was sweet and crisp, and the pub fries are in the running to be a mainstay for my future visits. I cannot resist a decent fry, and these were nearly potato wedges in size, and neither undercooked nor fried to oblivion. My main course was the Seafood Tuscany ($16), a dish of swordfish and fatty tuna belly cooked with asparagus, onions, and tomatoes in a butter-wine sauce.

I'm usually skeptical of anything too buttery, it's usually too rich for me to enjoy. But this sauce was light, almost clear. The tuna was cooked rare and soaked up the flavor to yield a combined mild and sharp flavor. The swordfish took up the flavors as well, but there was no denying its signature sweet and hearty nature.

My friends ordered the Asian glazed salmon ($18) and the ribeye steak ($23). Though I did not sample the steak, I can say that it's a large portion that I would not have expected for the price, and its accompanying potatoes and green beans were delicious. The salmon was a huge steak of fish with even larger flavor. Eating all of this good seafood brought me back to Canton; I could almost smell the Inner Harbor air with each bite. The chef who created the menu, Andrew Bush (no relation to the owners), attended culinary school in Rhode Island and traveled around the world, training and honing his craft.

click to enlarge Lobster ravioli. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Lobster ravioli.

As we descended the stairs to the exit, the bar area was filled with folks reuniting with friends and family from out of town. Whether you're from the coast and want a taste of home or an inlander and like a good meal reminiscent of a seaside wharf, Union Tavern is a good bet. On top of that, it's a great place to get together with family, related or not.

Chris Thompson is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to [email protected].

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