As Pasadena continues its slow climb toward culinary self-sufficiency, the rest of L.A. County has been watching with varying levels of interest. Grist & Toll certainly has added charm to the place, offering urban flour milling and the occasional on-site bread bake, while the area's recent coffee boom - including the coming Lavender & Honey Espresso Bar - aim to keep Pasadena caffeinated. Look hard enough and you'll even find Claud Beltran around there somewhere, cooking up themed dinners that disappear faster than you can swipe your TAP card to get on the Gold Line.
Now Bruce Kalman has jumped into the mix. The soft-spoken, rock-inflected chef, known (depending on who you ask) for opening Santa Monica's the Misfit, manning the fires at the Churchill or winning Chopped!, has just opened Union in Pasadena's Old Town. The locally focused eatery comes with a serious Northern Italian lean, and Kalman himself - who also owns his own pickling company - will be crafting everything in-house.
At just 50 seats, Union is certainly not a spacious restaurant, though tall windows at the front let in enough ambient light to keep the long room from descending into darkness. Hanging Edison bulbs take care of the rest, with the brick wall and opposite chalkboard mural soaking up whatever light is left. That long, handcrafted mural is actually just about the only flash you'll find in the room; it's sweeping and eye-catching, and details Kalman's 100% seasonal approach to Union, by way of a few choice Alice Waters quotes. The rest of the room is full of sleek lines, a few seats at the cement bar and curious locals drawn in by the newness of the place.
Most of the other color can be found at the table, where heartily crisped hunks of Brussels sprouts are doted with a fresh vegetable medley and a few bright purple, edible flowers. A meatball appetizer relies on the vibrant pop of San Marzano tomatoes, and even the porchetta's muted hues mix in with a glowing salsa verde.
Other menu options color inside the Northern Italian lines, including a seafood cioppino, tagliatelle composed with head and shoulder cuts from the pork that's butchered in-house, and a spring lamb accompanied by grains from - where else - Grist & Toll. A focused wine list from George Pitsironis delivers expected Italian bottles and a few harder-to-come-by California options.
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Having officially opened last week, Kalman's Union remains - for now - solely a dinner option for curious Pasadenians (Pasaderos? Pasadinosaurs?) looking to dine between 5 and 10 p.m. during the week, and until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of Kalman's time is spent butchering, hand-rolling fresh pastas, aging cuts for charcuterie plates and making all his own cheeses. As if that pickling company of his weren't enough.