Is there anything more frustrating for a critic than to write about a restaurant that's bursting with as-yet-unrealized potential? For this critic, there is not. Let's put aside, for a minute, the old and tired debate about when it's fair to judge a new restaurant (I wait at least six weeks, usually way longer) and look instead at when a restaurant truly becomes what it's going to be for the long haul. This varies, of course. In recent years I've encountered many places that benefit from the energy and perfectionism of an opening team, only to slip into mediocrity a few months later. And I've encountered just as many that start out with shaky service and not-quite-there cooking but manage to set themselves right over the course of a few months or years. These are restaurants that, like some people, take a little more time to bloom, those for which awkward adolescence lasts longer. Usually I can taste the potential of eventual maturity, and I can see what's holding the chef or staff back. But it would be unfair to readers (and unhelpful to owners) to write about what something is going to be rather than what it is right now.
This week I circle back to two such places, restaurants that had huge potential in their early days but, at the time of my review, still hadn't quite grown into what they ultimately would become: Girasol in Studio City and Union in Pasadena.
Girasol's chef and owner C.J. Jacobsen was at the forefront of a restaurant renaissance in the San Fernando Valley when he opened there in the summer of 2013. Back then, the chef's ambition was obvious. Between appearances on two separate seasons of Top Chef, Jacobson had spent time at Noma in Copenhagen, and the modernist, naturalist influence of that experience was obvious. Things were being foraged. Ingredients arrived scattered across the plate in artful disarray.
But while the flavors were often interesting and inventive, the cooking itself was lacking. I sensed that Jacobsen might be having trouble finding kitchen staff to match his aspirations. The ideas were all there, but the execution of those ideas was often clumsy.
So I was surprised and thrilled during a couple of recent visits to find food that was not only far from clumsy — it was some of the more elegant and meticulous cooking I've experienced lately. Jacobsen has managed to create a menu with a broad appeal while still injecting a high level of creativity.
If kelly green had a flavor, it would probably taste like the wild sorrel broth that comes pooled around Jacobsen's hamachi crudo, vibrant in both color and taste and shot through with white fir and finger lime for a citrusy, woodsy, grassy combination. The buttery fish comes jumbled with sea beans, and the dish as a whole makes you think of the ocean and the forest and the orchard all at once.
Jacobsen has an affection for interesting ingredients manipulated in interesting ways, such as toasted lovage, which he uses to flavor the butter that comes with the hearty, springy, house-baked bread and also on a beautiful octopus salad with roasted eggplant and rosemary-ash oil. The lovage reminded me immediately of a bloody Mary, its subtle whisper of celery hitting on a specific sense memory. That ability to conjure nature and transport you, to make you really think about what's on the plate, is rare.
Entrees tend to be a little less adventurous than the forward-thinking appetizers, though no less well-prepared, and touches such as grilled lettuce and dashi broth accompanying an otherwise straightforward roasted chicken, or a sauce of fermented Fresno chili, kumquat and sorrel alongside the whole fried snapper, make these dishes far more interesting than the copious roasted chicken and fried snapper dishes elsewhere.
Did I love everything I ate at Girasol? No. Some dishes could stand to be taken a step further, and some a step back. I had a persimmon and burrata salad that was basically a bowl of odiously sweet, creamy glop. But at least it wasn't boring.
If Union in Pasadena suffered from anything when I first reviewed it in mid-2014, it was less tangible a problem than the cooking slipups at Girasol. The small storefront Cali-Italian restaurant in downtown Pasadena from chef Bruce Kalman had some service issues, and I sat through one special-occasion meal there (Mother's Day) that was expensive and felt anything but special.
Yet I wondered if I'd just had a string of bad luck at Union, a thing that can happen even over several meals at a good restaurant. OK, maybe that much bad luck shouldn't happen — and I stand by my original review — but almost everyone I know loved the place from day one.
After revisiting Union a few times in the past few months, I finally get it. The service has improved significantly, and there's always an affable manager type circling the small, bustling room keeping an eye on things. Everything about Union feels welcoming — the warm buzzing space, the perfectly calibrated food. Large family groups commune at long tables, the babies among them happily gobbling meatballs as their parents drink interesting Italian reds.
It's the type of place where people stop in for a quick plate of pasta and a glass of wine at the bar, a perfect first-date spot, a perfect 100th-date spot.
Starters, such as a beautifully spiced cotechino sausage served with braised collard greens and a soft poached egg, are inventive but comforting above all else.
The handmade pastas are the star of the show, however, from the simplest tomato sauce–dressed spaghetti alla chitarra to heavier ragus. A dish labeled lasagnette — basically strips of the ruffly edges of lasagna noodles, served as a jumble with golden chanterelles and porcini — is about as warming and rich and deeply musky as anything you might hope for from your friendly neighborhood gem.
Union is a better restaurant than you'd expect on first glance, and it looks pretty good to begin with.
In my original review, I said that Union was the perfect Tuesday night restaurant. These days, I'd be more inclined to say you should go whenever you get the chance.
GIRASOL | 3 stars | 11334 Moorpark St., Studio City (818) 924-2323 | girasolrestaurant.com | Daily, 5-11 p.m.; brunch: Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. | Entrees: $16-$38 | Valet parking
UNION | 3 stars | 37 E. Union St., Pasadena | (626) 795-5841 | unionpasadena.com | Mon.-Fri., 5-11 p.m.; Sat., 4-11 p.m.; Sun., 4-10 p.m. | Entrees, $14-$36 | Street parking, paid lot across the street