The appearance of the Tuesday-night restaurant in a neighborhood usually is a very good sign. Ironically, it often happens well after the special-occasion restaurant, the Friday-night restaurant, and the restaurant with a weirdly specific concept that may not fit neatly into plans for any night. The Tuesday-night restaurant — laid-back, not too expensive, family-friendly but not dumbed down — is a harbinger of maturity for a dining scene. It signals that enough people are eating out regularly that a restaurant owner can bet his or her livelihood on something quieter and more subtle.
In many ways, Union, in Old Town Pasadena, is the perfect Tuesday-night restaurant. With its vintage-storefront location, brick-walled interior and large windows looking out over Union Street, it feels like a restaurant on Main Street in small-town America. Seating only 49 people max, it's also modest, and that intimacy, paired with the simplicity of the room, creates an atmosphere of easygoing comfort. The food Bruce Kalman is cooking, an ode to Italy through a Californian lens, is pretty much exactly what a relaxed weeknight out calls for.
Union is a collaboration between chef Kalman and owner Marie Petulla, a front-of-house veteran (in Chicago and in L.A., at Firefly in Studio City). Kalman is best known in recent years for running Bruce's Prime Pickle Co., a company that specializes in jarred and pickled products using farmers market produce. But prior to his pickle kingdom, the New Jersey native worked in kitchens all over the country. Most recently, he was chef at the Churchill in West Hollywood.
There are hundreds of restaurants in America that claim divine guidance from the words of Chez Panisse founder, and godmother of locavorism, Alice Waters. Union takes that concept a little more literally. The room's main decorative element is a large chalkboard adorned with quotations from Waters. "When you have the best and tastiest ingredients, cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary," the board instructs. More Waters quotations are sprinkled around the restaurant — Alice talks to you from over the bar, and also when you're on your way to the bathroom.
"Let things taste of what they are" is the Waters mantra running across the blackboard, and that's apparently the most basic guiding principle driving Kalman's cooking. Most of what's on offer here is produce-oriented, and the best bites of food often are simply tried-and-true combinations done right: Sweet summer squash jumbled with dusky sage, or an asparagus salad with walnuts and pecorino, tossed with artichoke leaves and topped with a fried duck egg.
The chef's pickle prowess is on display on the charcuterie plate, which features a number of delicious vinegary morsels, along with a selection of house-made salamis and pate. Kalman also is making all the pastas on-site, and he's doing a fine job of it. The noodles in a braised lamb lasagne were both delicate and hearty enough to stand up to the heavy meat filling, and the spaghetti alla chitarra, bathed in a sprightly puree of San Marzano tomatoes, had the exact right amount of chew and heft to support the zing of its sauce.
While simplicity is certainly a good guiding principle, Kalman really seems to shine when he veers in a direction that's slightly more unexpected. Mussels with guanciale were that much better for the bright green pea shoots added to the mix, their curlicue sweetness giving the dish a whole new dimension.
Much of the cooking here is expertly done — halibut comes crisped and golden on the edges but tender in the center, and other proteins generally follow suit. This made the burnt underside of a breaded pork milanesa all the more baffling. Topped with a heaping salad of bitter greens and grapefruit segments, it could have been a perfect summer dinner had it not been for its black bottom.
Service can be a little wonky, and I encountered long waits for tables even with a reservation. But aside from small slip-ups, my main beef with Union arose the time I found myself there on a Sunday night, and not just any Sunday night: Mother's Day.
It was stupid, I know — I regularly tell people to avoid restaurants on Mother's Day and Valentine's Day at all costs, but Union delivered a particularly disheartening lesson in why you should stay home.
Kalman was serving a $49-per-person prix fixe menu, consisting of a bunch of family-style dishes, all culled from the regular menu. The food was fine but the portions were modest, even as the bill for four of us came to $300 with the addition of tip and one $36 bottle of wine. I found myself calculating this as I stared glumly at the three small squares of slightly dry olive oil cake presented to us for dessert. I don't know why we got only three when there were four of us, just as I don't know why the two-top seated next to us got the same one-bowl portion of pasta we got.
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It's hard to fault Union for this gouging when practically every restaurant in town is up to the same tricks on such holidays, but it drove home the point that this is not a special-occasion restaurant. It seems as though perhaps Pasadena already knows this, though — in what's usually a packed dining room, that particular Sunday was awfully quiet. (Incidentally, Kalman offers this $49 prix fixe every Sunday night, though usually the à la carte menu also is offered — on Mother's Day it was not.)
Union is, however, a fantastic weeknight destination, a place where a wine-soaked meal for two runs around $100, and the buzz of the neighborhood fills the room with cheer. It's the kind of restaurant you want to have just up the street, that go-to spot for times when cooking seems insurmountable but good food is in order.
Kalman and team have a few kinks to iron out, but on the whole Union is one heck of a Tuesday-night restaurant, and Pasadena is better for it.
UNION | Two stars | 37 E. Union St., Pasadena | (626) 795-5841 | unionpasadena.com | Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (takeout only). Dinner: Tues.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 3-9 p.m. | Entrees $16-$32 | Beer & wine | Street parking