18 S. Main St., Clarkston
Hours: Mon-Thu: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday,
4-11 p.m. Friday,
noon-11 p.m. Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday
What's not to love about heaping platters of meat, big bowls of mac and cheese, and pizzas that spill over the edge of your plate? It's a hedonist's dream. And it's also a reasonable explanation for the almost unreasonable demand at Clarkston's Union Woodshop, which continues to see impressive waits even after a few years in business.
The proprietors have added a lounge upstairs where patrons can relax if there's a crowd, but it seems like most folks are content to do a quick lap around Clarkston's Main Street area. Of course, parties of one or two might be able to skip any lines altogether by dining at one of the two bars, where they'll happily serve anything from the menu.
Between the two bar areas lies most of the dining room, as well as a partially exposed kitchen that shows off a wood-burning oven. Eclectically decorated, the restaurant has a simple, kitschy, roadhouse feel, with bulky wood accents and a mix of art, old concert posters, and seemingly vintage signage covering the walls.
The aroma of smoky fat is subtle but omnipresent, and it'd thus be easy to accept the conventional chatter, labeling the Woodshop a barbecue restaurant. The visible smoker behind the building and the heaps of slow-cooked meats being shepherded out of the kitchen would suggest as much. But that's still not quite accurate.
More so, the Union Woodshop is a comfort food restaurant — barbecue, yes, but also pizzas, burgers, fried pickles and burritos. Of course, the irony of comfort food is that it generally elicits a fleeting sense of joy followed by a few hours of, well, discomfort. It's a perverse satisfaction in which we can't help but indulge — and the Woodshop seems more than ready to help.
Among the starters, the most curiously large dish is the smoked salmon pâté ($6.50), an overflowing bowl of a rich, creamy spread that would be enough for several relatives coming over for a spring dinner. It's perfectly fine, though our party would have preferred more smoked fish in the mix. More appealing, however, are the smoked chicken wings ($6.50 per half dozen, $12 per dozen). Wonderfully crispy on the outside and not at all greasy, they're flavorful, with great texture. They're also served without any glaze or sauce, so guests can add one of the Woodshop's house-made sauces.
Other appetizers include deep-fried pickles ($2.50), wood-fired breadsticks with garlic butter and cream cheese dip ($3.95), and a smoked shrimp cocktail ($8.50). Salads, surprisingly enough, also adopt the "smoked" theme with a smoked shrimp salad, a smoked pulled pork and cherry salad, a smoked Caesar, and so on.
But it's the entrées where waistbands really begin to stretch beyond their inherent elasticity. There's ample barbecue from which to choose, arguably the best of which is the pulled pork ($13.95). Smoky and rich with a nice rub, it's been well-prepared and never dry across a few visits. All the barbecue dishes are served with a corn bread muffin and a choice of sides. The muffin is, unlike many variations on cornbread, moist and nicely textured.
The sides include a lot of standards: baked beans, potato salad, beans and rice, slaw and so on. Try the collards: Paired with bacon, the undeniable influence of smoke and pork fat make them totally alluring. The much-lauded mac and cheese is also very good, albeit dry and sharp in flavor, which may be a bit much for those expecting a creamier interpretation.
Less satisfying was the brisket, which on more than one occasion had a vaguely institutional quality to it — no ribbons of fat, no visible smoke rings, and a puzzlingly bland flavor. In general, though, while no one who's had the good fortune to visit 100 percent wood-fired pit barbecue shops in the South will mistake this (or most Michigan barbecue) for that, it's all quite tasty and moist, including the chicken, impressively enough.
We were only able to try two pizzas, and while we weren't impressed with the crust, the wood oven provides good flavor. And they offer a variety of toppings, including fresh arugula on the Rocket pie and roasted garlic, garlic sprouts, and pickled garlic on the appropriately named Garlic pizza.
The remainder of the menu has its highs (a burger with house-made maple bacon) and lows (a sweet potato burrito with too much cheese accompanied by bland rice), but the portions are always quite generous, and the overall quality is quite consistent.
Should you have a second stomach and are interested in dessert, the butterscotch pudding ($3.95) is outstanding. Topped with sea salt and whipped cream, it's absolutely irresistible. The seasonal cobbler was made with blueberries on a recent visit, and the topping was too chewy and underdone, though the presentation and accompanying ice cream were lovely.
The Woodshop also boasts an impressive bourbon selection, periodically including such rare finds as Pappy Van Winkle, though the wine list is entirely pedestrian. And while there are no surprises on the beer list, it's also solid, featuring some decent Michigan brews.
While an hour wait for a humbly distinguished meal is a bit unreasonable, the consistency and quality of core items is undeniable. Union Woodshop is popular for a reason, and it's here to stay.