It’s just after 7:00 on a Tuesday night and my wife, Karina, and I are out celebrating our 3rd anniversary of being married. With no pun intended, the restaurant we’re going to is Union in Pasadena. So far, the night’s been a bit of a rush. I’ve driven to my in-laws and back to drop of our almost 2 year-old, my wife came home from work, we both got ready to go out, and I’ve just finished navigating the drive from L.A. to Pasadena during rush hour with moderate success. When we walk into the restaurant we’re immediately greeted warm and graciously by the hosts, thanking us for having called to say we may be a few minutes late.
The restaurant is a smaller space with a 50-seat dining room and it’s completely full, ours is the only empty table. The host walks us over, and as we’re sitting down neither of us has any idea that we’re about to enjoy the best dinner we’ve had a in a very long time.
Owners Marie Petulla and Chef Bruce Kalman opened Union a little more than a year ago, and in that time it has received a flurry of rave reviews, establishing itself on numerous “best of” lists. Believe the hype, folks, because it does not disappoint. At the top of the chalk board next to the bar is a quote from Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and matriarch of the farm to table movement: “Let things taste of what they are.” Featuring a northern Italian cuisine with a California influence, Chef Kalman does a masterful job of doing just that. From house made pastas, to in-house butchery, and farm to table ingredients, Union reminds you that, in the end, it’s all about the taste.
At our server’s recommendation, we decided to dine family-style, and requested wine director George Pitsironis to pair the wine with our courses. Anytime a restaurant has a wine director or sommelier, use them! George amplified our experience by a factor of ten. The portions, while not enormous, are certainly filling. The dinner opened with duck confit ravioli that immediately let us know we were in for a special night. With parmigiano-reggiano, ricotta cheese, pickled beets, arugula, huge chunks of duck, and a touch of a savory sauce, this pasta dish was truly exceptional.
This was followed by the squid ink garganelli with lobster, truffle butter, fennel, and meyer lemon. Wow. Oh my God, wow!!! Unlike anything I’d ever had, literally, since I’d never had squid ink before. I ordered it like I completely knew what we were getting and then looked it up on my Wikipedia app. This is one of their most insanely popular dishes and with good reason: truffle butter, truffle butter, truffle butter! Just when we couldn’t get enough of it, our last dish hit the table. Porchetta featuring Weiser Farms potatoes and topped with a touch of salsa verde. Juicy pork with just the right amount of fat and spice: of course it was amazing and delicious. Two bites in for each of us and we immediately knew we had to take the rest home, and I got to have the best leftover lunch ever.
The ambiance is very intimate and reservations are a must. The décor is made up of white walls on one side, exposed brick on the other, and mason jars with their house made pickled vegetables. You’re definitely sitting in close quarters to other guests, and as a result it can get a bit noisy. None of this is a negative. It’s not about being sleek and chic, it’s about the food on the table. For us, we honestly felt as though we were a part of a big dinner party in someone’s home. As it turned out, the couples sitting to our left and right were also celebrating anniversaries, so we all raised our glasses toasting one another. I can’t think of a better way to have ended our experience. Three couples all celebrating their union at Union.