Union, practically unmarked along its namesake Union Ave. in the heart of Pasadena, has maintained quite the stir across the community since its opening years ago. But this modern Italian eatery has only picked up steam, its modest quarters packed so tightly that another body would inevitably exceed building capacity. So what is it about Union that has people waiting past 10pm for a table?
The answer to that question, at least as of late, is Executive Chef Christopher Keyser. He takes the helm under Owner Marie Petulla’s mantra of sustainable ingredients and, incredibly, complete in-house production. That means everything from house-made pastas all the way down to house-made cheese and butter. And while the menu doesn’t exactly overwhelm you with options, its breadth is impressive given the tremendous effort needed to create nearly every new ingredient. But create is Keyser’s culinary middle name, and he has certainly mastered his craft.
Case in point with the wild mushrooms, a mind-blowing compilation of its flagship ingredient mixed elegantly into a creamy, velvety, heavenly and wildly addictive polenta and coated with a generous coat of house-made Parmesan. Going on record to list this as one of the top dishes in all of Los Angeles. Keyser’s magic keeps going with a perfectly charred octopus, robust and meaty with a lobster jus to boost its character. Then there’s the pork meatballs, huge and confidently devout of filler, served with house-baked bread.
Union’s pastas are as forward-thinking as they are decadent, and while they hold only loose ties to their Italian origin, they fit in perfectly with Union’s ‘so LA’ approach. The bucatini is a clear winner, perfectly textured with coarse almonds that add an earthy, smoky essence that triggers grand nostalgia, though it’s doubtful that mom or grandma necessarily churned out anything like this [don’t take it personally]. The squid ink lumache, one of the Union’s signatures, is certainly novel and the lobster much appreciated, though the bucatini may still take the cake.
Carnivores should definitely order the lamb al latte, or milk-braised lamb shoulder. The salt balance is perfected to just about the grain, and the finished product melts in your mouth.
Pair anything with a selection from a deep wine list, where knowledgeable servers are more than happy to help make the perfect selection. And for dessert, they take that addictive polenta, add sugar and turn it into a budino.
Union is located at 37 Union St, Pasadena, CA 91103. Open 5 – 11p Mon – Fri, 4 – 11p Sat, 4 – 10p Sun. Avg. Out-the-door price for starter, entree, split dessert and 1 – 2 drinks is ~$105/person. For more information visit UnionPasadena.com.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.