Abruzzo, alcohol, barolo, Bruce Kalman, Brunello, cheese, Col D'Orcia, dinner, italian wine, italian wine geek, Joanie Karapetian, Montalcino, old town, Oliver Mccrum, pasadena, Pasta, pelaverga, peppers, porchetta, Santenots, shishito, Spago, union, verduno, Volnay
Union is in a slightly non descript building in a vibrant part of Downtown Pasadena. It was slightly hard to find, but once inside the atmosphere is extremely welcoming.
I’ve been twice in the past month, and both times the takeaway has been the service. Excellent service on the back of soulful cooking from the school of Alice Waters and you have something worth driving for.
We started with a really fantastic sparkling Fiano with some age, I neglected to take a picture of the bottle because I was too busy enjoying the color and stemware. Yeast, bread, and salty air in a gentle sparkler.
Starting with some textbook shishito peppers which had a bit more heat than usual, due to their smaller than average size – which my Italian dining companion told me, “as it should be.” Clean and appetizing presentation here.
On my first visit I had the honor of dining with some Southern Italians and the Italian Wine Geek, Joanie Karapetian. She and her companions provided some outstanding wines, including this 1997 Brunello Di Montalcino from Col D’Orcia. I was at first very skeptical of this wine, having recently read some of Kerin O’Keefe’s, ‘Brunello Di Montalcino’ – given to me by the great Italian importer, Oliver McCrum.
Kerin she says of the ’97 vintage, “With very few exceptions, this is an extremely overrated vintage…A horizontal tasting of 1997 in 2006 also showed that those Brunellos aged in barriques had not held up at all, with wood and alcohol dominating..” As Joanie writes in her post on this wine, we were pleasantly surprised. It reeked of cinnamon with a decadent finish. Thank you to Palm Bay Imports.
We also tried a 2012 Pelaverga, from Castello di Verduno on the edge of the Barolo zone (also imported by McCrum). I love indigenous varietals that can hold their own without any oak as this wine does – ‘Basadone’. Pelaverga exhibits pleasant expressions of spice and fragrance almost reminding me of beaujolais -it’s also great with a slight chill.
Chef Bruce Kalman is changing the menu almost daily but there are quite a few dishes on the menu that are must haves if they are featured. In his words, “Light, simple, fresh, and clean” is the mantra.
The absolute must try on the menu is the house made stracciatella with smoked sea salt. We paired this with some Greco di Tufo. Greco bianco is widely grown in Southern Italy where it grows best in Tuff, a compressed and consolidated ash rich rocky soil that is ejected from vents during volcanic eruptions. The Roman’s used tuff to construct the Servian Wall to defend the city of Rome in the 4th Century. The texture and taste of this is so comforting, I loved it.
I loved the presentation of the Tenerelli Peaches. I am in agreement with Chef in that John Tenerelli is the best producer of Peaches in Southern California. His 35 year old farm is based in Little Rock, California and just 55 acres with 13 small orchards. These were full of flavor, but weren’t quite at their peak of ripeness. The stone fruit harvest has been incredible in this year.
Mussels are a favorite of mine and here they did not disappoint with heavy rosemary, microplaned garlic, and a tomato/garlic rubbed toast for dipping. Guanciale made an appearance in the broth as well – I wish this bowl would’ve been bigger for easier access the delicious broth. Also I would’ve liked to see a side dish for the shells rather than put them on my plate, but rest assured I ate most of this dish.
Everyone raved about the Squid-ink garganelli with lobster, fennel, meyer lemon, and finished with truffle butter. I would’ve preferred this dish without the truffle butter, (I feel like saying that is sacrilege) as I felt like it overshadowed this already extremely strong dish replete with great flavors and texture. Easily one of the best squid ink dishes i’ve tasted – loved the texture of the garganelli. The star of this dish for me though was the fennel, which worked alarmingly well with the other ingredients.
Normally I don’t particularly geek out for pasta, but the Spaghetti alla chitarra is easily the best thing on the menu (san marzano tomato, garlic, fresno chile). Can’t say anything about it other than order it.
We also had a Volnay-Santenots from Domaine Y. Clerget, an appellation outside the border of the commune of Volnay in Burgundy. There are 5 areas that traditionally are named, together they make up the Santenots and all are Premier Cru. While technically outside Volnay, this region is allowed to use the Volnay AOC and thereby the Volnay-Santenots designation. The reason here is purely marketing – though within the Meursault region, because Volnay is a more famous name for reds than Meursault, the rules are bent.
Contrary to popular notion, a great deal of 100% Pinot Noir does not age well outside of exceptional vintages and vineyards (although this is changing with global warming). I was not surprised to find that this wine was closed, tight, and not giving much on the nose and pushed it aside for other options. Then something magical happened when I returned to this wine about an hour later. So expressive and so rich, like velvet in the mouth and so elegant. The texture was like partially melted butterscotch candy. It went from Roseanne Barr to Sophia Vergara in one hour. Seriously.
I’m must say I am rather anti-decanter these days. Wine for me is like a child, I want to see it grow up and take it’s first steps. The joy is the transformation, just as I witnessed here. A perfect pair with the risotto, which was very al dente, featured an interesting use of corn, and the now recurring use of fennel frond. Savory and delicious.
Partner and Wine Director George Pitsironis who used to pop corks at Spago makes a pretty fantastic pinot from the Central Coast called Inception which we also thoroughly enjoyed. George is an all around great guy as well.
The final dish we enjoyed was the Porchetta, made from a pig butchered in house (Chef also told he he is making his own butter in house). For me this was a little overcooked, but I know for the overwhelming majority of guests anything pink in the center (like I experienced on the Autostrade in Abruzzo) would be a no go. The presentation was traditional, and featured the addition of potatoes cooked in the drippings of the pork. Nicely done. Union is basically going to put Pasadena on the map in a big way with the excellent cooking, fantastic service (enthusiasm, server knowledge, clearing, recommendations coursing, etc. – all excellent), and comforting atmosphere.
As we were leaving the doors were left open – almost as if to let the fresh mountain air come down from the Angeles National Forest to caress our turgid bellies.