Monday, August 3, 2015

A Sunday Supper I Did Not Make

On Friday, I got email from my friend Janis Ian telling me she was flying into Los Angeles on Sunday to do a guest appearance on an HBO series. She was very excited about playing an actual role (she studied with Stella Adler for 10 years) plus the series was going to use several of her songs, which she would either sing or lip-synch. I called her up and told her Len and I could come to her hotel and we would take her out to dinner. And we did.

My first thought was to go to a lovely Italian restaurant Len and I had found the last time Janis played here. She did an appearance at Cal Tech, and the restaurant we stumbled on was on Lake (Street, Avenue, or Boulevard.) I tried to find out the name and the address, but the place that seemed to fit my memory closed in January. Darn.

Well, the nice thing about Pasadena is that I figured we could always go to Il Fornaio, if nothing else seemed to work out. It's a chain Italian I like, and I've eaten at them in Pasadena, Beverly Hills, and Carmel. Food and service are always good and they do monthly focuses on regional cooking of Italy. It's a good, safe bet.

But I didn't stop there, and in my research I found great reviews of Union, at 37 East Union, in the Old Towne area of Pasadena. It was convenient to Janis' hotel, and if the menu didn't appeal, Il Fornaio was less than two blocks away. Win-win.

The restaurant is small--50 seats said the reviews, but I wouldn't necessarily believe that number. It opened at 4 and we arrived before 5 on a Sunday and it was already jumping. I would have preferred a place with less ambient noise to preserve Janis' voice, but they were able to seat us at a four-up just inside the door (every thing else was reserved, apparently) and we decided to give it a try.

The reviews did not lie. The food was simply amazing, beautifully cooked and presented. The waitress recommended sharing dishes. The appetizers were on the small side, she said, but the main courses were quite substantial. So we started with a caprese (the colors look less like the Italian flag than traditional, but the tomatoes were so much better than most of the red ones we see) and Janis added an order of some small, grilled Japanese peppers that were usually mild, but every once in a while, there would be a real kick. (She's spent a lot of time in Japan and said that only recently has she noticed the peppers on menus in the U.S.)
Caprese Salad
 The caprese was made with heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, and a few bits of garnish appeared to have been fried. We each took one of the slices of tomato and a slice of the mozzarella, and then divided the rest of the tomato piece and cherry tomatoes among us. Perfect.
Mushroom Risotto
 Len decided to order the risotto with mushrooms (might have been wild mushrooms, I don't remember.) He dug in to serve before I could get the camera out. It may be the best risotto I've eaten outside of Italy.
Sea Bass
Janis ordered the sea bass, which the waitress and the restaurant manager told us was fresh to the restaurant either that morning or the day before. It was incredible. Again, we split it up, but Janis said she would have been happy to order it over and over again. It was served with a fennel and baby lettuce/herb salad and a nutty grain of some sort (perhaps wheat berries or faro) and a green sauce.
Duck Breast
I ordered the duck breast, which came on a bed of polenta, corn, and grilled fennel. Lovely to look at, and even better to eat. Janis and I enjoyed it, and were very happy that Len just won't eat duck. His loss.

Len ordered the Milanese-style pork chop. There is no photograph because I could not get to the camera fast enough. It had a lovely, crispy crust of bread crumbs, cheese, and herbs, and was topped with a baby greens salad dressed in a tangy vinegarette. I was the one who grabbed the bone to gnaw after everyone had cut away as much of the meat as they could. Janis told me the Yiddish word for doing that, but I can't remember it.

There are also no photographs of the chocolate-hazelnut budino or the panna cotta we shared, because eating them seemed to be the priority. I'm not big on desserts these days, but they were definitely worth it.

I am sure the people waiting outside were thrilled when we left. I'd go back again, but I would be sure to make a reservation next time.

We gave Janis a brief tour of Pasadena and stopped at the monstrous Whole Foods so she could pick up a few things to have in the refrigerator. As we were driving, her song "Play Like a Girl" came on my iPod, and a few bars into it she had a cute recognition moment. "That's me!" Yes, indeed.

Chef & owner of Union, Bruce Kalman, recently opened another restaurant at Grand Central Market in Los Angeles.

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