"When you have the best and tastiest ingredients, you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary," said Alice Waters. This, and many other quotes of hers, are declared on a massive chalkboard and scattered signage throughout Bruce Kalman's new Pasadena restaurant, Union, where he is cooking cusine with a Northern Italian focus. There is a list of the farmers' markets, too, where Kalman and his staff shop every day, and our waiter was quick to point out all that is done in-house, including marinating a pig's head for three days as part of the "Chef's Choice" porchetta. At this point, farm-to-table talk has become de rigeur, but the proof is in the food at Union, where tasty ingredients are, in fact, resulting in something quite incredible.
A roasted beets salad was almost too pretty to eat. Here, thinly sliced radishes are mixed in with meaty beets and chunks of cara cara oranges, while sweet olives and walnuts are scattered about as garnish. All of this sits atop a mound of milky burrata, so that each forkful results in a complex bite of savory and sweet, bitter and creamy. It was a light starter that hit all the right notes, but if you're looking for something more hearty, the mussels and guanciale is stellar. Our bowl came piled high with huge mussels and the most delicious broth, which you can take advantage of once the shells are cleared out: using the toasted bread to scoop up bits of salty guanciale and garlic, there is little excuse to leave anything left in the bowl.
Can we talk about polenta? I have never been thoroughly convinced by it, assigning equal wariness to the starchy dish that I also reserve for grits, which my Southern grandmother would coax me into trying each summer I spent with her. So when a hefty serving of polenta arrived as a side to the lamb roast, I did not immediately dig in. The lamb itself was tender with a fragrant garlic rub; the small dish of romesco sitting beside it was a perfectly lovely accompaniment. But that polenta? "What is this?" I asked our waiter. "I know, right?" he said. "It's from Grist & Toll. And it has butter in it. Lots and lots of butter, and cream, and..." I'm not really sure what else he said, because I was too busy scarfing down the golden grain infront of me. The cornmeal had been whipped into such an airy consistency that it was like taking bites of savory Cool Whip. And yes, there was lots of butter, but it didn't detract from the polenta in any way. It's hard to admit that I'm now a polenta convert, but Kalman's dish did it for me.
If you can move on from the polenta and lamb, a bowl of squid ink garganelli is the next best thing. Be forewarned: it is heavy on the squid ink, and the addition of large lobster chunks means you better be craving seafood if you order this in the first place. The housemade garganelli are blackened with ink and doused in truffle butter (if there is a running theme to Union, butter just might be it). It is a hearty order, but one that displays Kalman's talent of turning quality, but basic, ingredients into something quite beautiful. The only complaint: our serving of pasta was on the small side, and had it not been for the two appetizers and a course of lamb, we would have still been hungry.
In a surprising move, the dessert was our least favorite part of our visit, perhaps because—in contrast to our main dishes—there seemed to be so much of it. We tried a toasted olive oil cake with candied oranges, but the cake was far too dry and left us more thirsty than anything else. Still, it was a mere blip in an otherwise fantastic meal. And I mean, that polenta.
What to Eat: The menu is constantly changing at Union, but if any of these dishes make an appearance, don't hesitate to order them: The roasted beets ($11). The mussels & guanciale ($16). The squid ink garganelli ($21). The spring lamb leg roast ($23).
What to Drink: There are a number of choice wines and beers available, although our waiter was quick to note with exasperation that they were out of more than a few options. The Manifesto Wit Bier from Eagle Rock Brewery was on tap, however—a phenomenal pairing with our meal. Opting for a glass of vino but not sure which one? Ask for a couple samples, which they are happy to dole out.
Where to Sit: Union is small, with only about 50 seats scattered around the restaurant. There really isn't a bad seat in the house, but if you like to people watch, choose a spot by the tall windows that face Union Street.
Conversation Piece: Lunch service recently started here, and you can get sandwiches, salads and a bevy of sides. Just don't expect to sit down. The lunch menu is à la carte and takeout only.