First Look: Pasadena's Union Restaurant

By Lesley Balla  |  March 12, 2014
Credit: Lesley Balla

The Gist: Pasadena has been waiting a long time for a restaurant like this. Bruce Kalman, the pickle king behind Bruce's Prime Pickle Co. and the former chef at places like The Churchill and The Misfit, debuts his own 50-seat bistro in the heart of Old Town this week. The emphasis here is local and seasonal everything, handmade pastas, head-to-tail butchering and charcuterie. Think: Northern Italian cuisine with a decidedly California edge. There's paper on the tables and foods that arrive on big slabs of wood for a rustic touch.

The Food: The menu isn't large but it is varied. Some starters come with jars of piquant giardiniera alongside cultured butter and bread. There is baccala topped with winter truffles; roasted cauliflower with agro dolce, capers and golden raisins; guanciale-roasted Brussels sprouts tossed on top of burrata; and really good pork meatballs. Kalman has a penchant for pastas: handmade squid ink garganelli with chunks of lobster and fennel, or tangles of tagliatelle with pork "head and shoulder" ragu. Entrees like porchetta, spring lamb with polenta and roast chicken diavolo swing toward the heartier side. Desserts are kept simple: things like olive oil cake with honeycomb gelato, chocolate budino and lemon verbena pannacotta.

The Drinks: The beer and wine lists are really fantastic, especially for Pasadena. George Pitsironis, a former Spago sommelier turned winemaker (Inception Wine), created a fun list full of Central Coast finds, like the just-released Habit grenache rose and Storm's late harvest sauvignon blanc from Santa Ynez Valley, along with some great Italian varietals. 

The Space: The one-room bistro is off the beaten Colorado Boulevard path on Union - hence the name - near the Blind Donkey whiskey bar and Slater's 50/50. The room is simply decked out with exposed brick, a beautifully detailed chalkboard sign and low-slinging Edison bulb lights. It's all a good match for the fare. There's also a small bar for walk-ins to grab quick bites and a glass of wine or two.

The Details: Union, 37 E. Union St.; 626-795-5841

  • Kalman's pickling is front and center on the menu. Exhibit A: this bread board with cultured butter and giardiniera.

  • One wall of the restaurant is covered by a chalkboard touting slow food, farmers markets and seasonality - all hallmarks of Kalman's cooking.

  • Housemade ricotta crostini with pickled onions, pancetta and a golden duck egg.

  • Really good pork meatballs with lardo and caper berries.

  • Mussels with Israeli cous cous, guanciale and lemon.

  • Batuito di baccala is whipped potato and salted cod with winter truffles.

  • Squid ink garganelli with lobster, Meyer lemon, fennel and truffle.

  • Tagliatelle with pork "head and shoulder" ragu.

  • Porchetta with pork confit and Weiser Farms potatoes.

  • Loving the pea tendrils in glass jars on the tables.

  • With only 50 seats, the room will fill up fast.