The State of This Union is Strong
Old Pasadena’s newest restaurant is right at home
By Erica Wayne 07/03/2014
I’ve eaten both lunch and dinner there and I’m glad to report that the state of Union — one of Old Pasadena’s newest restaurants — appears to be very strong.
I planned to review the restaurant a few weeks back, but our first experience was underwhelming. Like AltaEats, Union seems to prefer hiding its light under the proverbial bushel, with no exterior signage, and we missed it on first pass. When we at last located the entrance, we found ourselves almost alone in the relatively Spartan interior.
Once seated, we were presented with a list titled “Grab and Go Lunch” enumerating five sandwiches, each costing $10, two salads ($9), two sides ($4) and four sweets ($2-$3), all of which sounded interesting. Baskets of fresh, brown paper-wrapped sandwiches were positioned on top of the six-stool bar along the west side of the room. And the aroma of grilled baguette was irresistible.
For sandwiches we chose olive oil-poached albacore with pickled fennel and lemon-caper aïoli, and roasted sweet peppers and burrata with wild arugula and aged balsamic vinegar. These came with a baby kale salad advertised as having golden raisins and pistachios, Parmigiano-Reggiano and balsamic-Meyer lemon vinaigrette, but, as delivered, contained more arugula than kale and more almonds than pistachios.
We wanted to try both sides (cauliflower with golden raisins, candied garlic and thyme; and Persian cucumbers with wheat berries, fennel pollen and lemon). But our server informed us only the first was available. And when I requested iced tea, I was told that this too was not available. My “date” chose lemonade and was put off by the added basil and chiles that the server failed to mention.
Despite these glitches, we enjoyed our lunch. The sandwiches were fabulous, the salad large and tasty and the marinated cauliflower (in three brilliant shades of purple, green and orange) superb. We finished with a mini-cup of hazelnut chocolate pudding ($3) as rich and satisfying as any gianduja gelato I’ve ever tried.
If the wooden chair seat was hard on my bottom and the décor minimalist (gray banquettes, the requisite aged brick, high ceilings, dark wood furniture, light wood flooring, one painting, two boxed mirrors, and a blackboard with the local farmers’ market schedule and quotes from Alice Waters), we still left happy. And I, for one, loved the lemonade.
This past week, my husband and I partnered with another couple for dinner. By this time, myriad glowing Yelp reviews and a very positive write-up by Jonathan Gold in the LA Times made it difficult to get reservations. We gratefully accepted a 5:45 p.m. table on Tuesday and joined a room jam-packed with others pleased to have made the cut.
For a sold-out restaurant, service was outstanding. We got our wine (an excellent $45 Chardonnay from a somewhat pricey but carefully selected list) and a small half-loaf of house-made bread and giardiniera (pickled veggies), with cultured butter and pink Himalayan salt ($5) almost immediately.
I’ve loved giardiniera since my daddy put it on our toasted tuna-and-cheese sandwiches when we were kids, and Chef Bruce Kalman is a master. But our butter and giardiniera outlasted the meager four slices of bread. We were told there was a $2 surcharge for an extra two slices and paid the ransom so as to sop up the remaining marinade.
By then our two “Field” dishes had appeared. One consisted of three or four halved fresh figs (which disappeared too fast to get a proper count) set into a thin mortar of ricotta on a rectangular wooden block and dressed with honey and rosemary ($12). The other was a tasty Technicolor medley of golden and red beets, a dollop of whipped goat cheese, bits of blood orange, black and green olives, and a smattering of chopped walnut ($11).
Then two pastas: one, chitarra ($12), consists of house-made noodles, strands thicker and more angular than spaghetti, wound into a tight skein with a zesty sauce of tomato, garlic and chile. The other, agnolotti, was filled with burrata, goat cheese, wild fennel and pickled spring onion ($16). The chitarra helping was small but easily divvied into four small and delicious servings.
Be forewarned: Union’s agnolotti bear little resemblance to the traditional mini-ravioli-esque dumplings. Our plate’s contents were pale and flat in a half-inch-thick pond of melted cheese. Only by swirling through the liquid were we able to retrieve the tiny amorphous and translucent tidbits that swam beneath the surface. One portion did not suffice. We needed to augment it with another.
We then shared an approximately four-inch porchetta, a pork loin center surrounded by fatty belly complete with crackling ($22). Tiny heirloom potatoes, pan-roasted, accompanied the meat, along with a piquant salsa verde. Three of us adored the dish, but my husband’s quarter loin was mostly fat and his opinion far less favorable.
Italian olive oil cake has a homey, coarse texture. Union pairs it with fantastic honeycomb crème anglaise ice cream, a crushed almond sprinkle and paper-thin blood orange. The Meyer lemon panna cotta (like the cake, $8 and equally luscious) is perched on an almost beside-the-point smidge of crushed amaretti, with tart/sweet balsamic-pickled strawberry garnish.
Aside from, again, sore bottoms from the unupholstered chairs, we left the still-full dining room quite impressed. With a second bottle of Chardonnay, our half of the bill set us back about $110 before tip, or less than $40 apiece for the innovative and excellent food. (Artisan beers are mostly $8.)
FYI, Union’s corkage fee is a whopping $25, so I wouldn’t suggest bringing your own beverage. However, it might be wise to bring a spare piece of bread or two. You definitely won’t want to leave any butter, marinade, dressing or sauce uneaten.
Union Restaurant 37 E. Union St., Old Pasadena | (626) 795-5841 | unionpasadena.com Beer and wine/ Major cards