In the past decade, chefs have reached celebrity superstar status. Bruce Kalman has his credentials — winner of "Chopped" Season 15 and head chef at the Churchill. At his new Pasadena restaurant, Union, Kalman is definitely in charge but he seems to have lots of friends helping him, friends who make and grow good food. Not only does the website enthusiastically share the names of farmers and local food producers that contribute to the restaurant, the place is run by a "chef team" composed of Kalman, Mike Garber, and pastry chef Crystal Espinoza.
Union is Kalman's personal take on Italian cuisine. He injects a little bit of soul into each dish. His plates and wood planks are not unlike assemblages, layers of seemingly disparate bites that work harmoniously together. More often than not, there is a signature tang of pickle somewhere on the canvas. Kalman has his own artisan line — Bruce's Prime Pickles. He doesn't stop at cucumbers either. Kalman will pickle most vegetables including asparagus, fennel, Brussels sprouts and purslane and probably some proteins too.
The delicious pickled giardiniera makes it onto the restaurant's bread plate. It costs $5, but it's worth it. Sadly, they don't mention the baker who bakes the amazing bread. The waiter confirmed that the grains come from Pasadena's Grist and Toll, but who makes the aromatic sourdough-meets-challah loaf? The slices come with beautiful cultured butter and mouth-stunning giardiniera, pickled chopped veggies with peppers.
Since I went there for dinner, the menu has changed, keeping in line with what the farmer's markets are offering. The phenomenal asparagus and artichoke salad with Meyer lemon, walnuts, pecorino and a duck egg ($14) has changed slightly. Now it's asparagus and radish, still with the vibrant yellow duck egg, lemon, cheese and nuts, now with a smattering of fennel, probably pickled.
The night I was there, Kalman created a deeply earthy tribute to morels and fiddlehead ferns that took me back to my summers in the woods of Maine ($16). The curly fronds of young ferns and mushrooms were sauteed in cultured butter and partnered with fresh peas and roasted sweet peppers. Tonight's menu will more likely include in-season tomatoes or peaches, such as the tasty peach, farro and arugula salad I had at lunchtime and which I've been making a version of at home ever since.
The spelt cavatelli is still on the menu which is good because it's like nothing I've had before. Homemade slugs of pasta mix with leafy broccoli in a strong, masculine arugula pesto ($13). The tagliolini was like a pit fire at the beach with Manila clams, delicate pea tendrils and guanciale, house-cured Italian pork cheek ($17).
For dessert, the gianduja chocolate budino ($8) with cocoa nib, truffle salt and Ligurian olive oil is a thing of beauty. And how can lemon pannacotta with balsamic pickled strawberries or olive oil and blood orange cake be bad?
The atmosphere at Union is stark save for an impressively adorned chalkboard. The vibe is busy and hip. The waiters are hurried but efficient. The wine sommelier is friendly and assists with the Italian- and California-heavy list. Be aware that the little sign on Union Street is easy to miss and that there's no validation for the parking lot across the street.
Lunchtime sees a different mood. Local workers pop in for prepared foods to take away or to plate and eat in store. The market vegetable salad ($9) is not your ordinary garden variety. It's chock-full of greens, asparagus, beets, figs, shallots and more from the morning's farmer's market. The sandwiches ($10) hold Kalman's cured meats, house-made cheeses and recently jarred pickles.
Union is at the same time a fully realized creative endeavor and a new idea needing honing and mellowing. But the artistry, the combination of flavors, and the pickles are a delight to imbibe.
What: Union Restaurant
Where: 37 East Union St., Pasadena
When: Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m; Saturday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; lunch weekdays, noon to 2:30 p.m.
Prices: Dinner starters, $5 to $19; pastas and mains, $12 to $32; lunch, $4 to $10
More info: (626) 795-5841, http://www.unionpasadena.com
--LISA DUPUY has written about area restaurants since 2008. Send her the name of your favorite diner at LDupuy@aol.com.