West Hartford’s Union Kitchen has adopted some significant changes since a new executive chef and general manager took over last fall.
By Ronni Newton
Union Kitchen’s description remains “New American Cuisine,” but Vish Badami, who took over as general manager in the fall of 2022, said there have been some significant changes to how that’s being interpreted.
“We’re very seasonally-driven,” said Badami. And while that means some people may be missing the Brussels sprouts appetizer – a crowd favorite through the fall and winter which has been removed from the menu for now – he’s optimistic that the freshness of what is offered will shine through.
Tim East took over as executive chef in July 2022, when former managing partner and chef Zach Shuman departed for a position in Florida. Many know East, whose background is in French and Italian cuisine, from his days as chef at Besito on South Main Street – where he also picked up expertise in Mexican fare.
East’s interpretation of “New American” capitalizes on his background, and includes a menu that’s a fusion of French, Italian, Mexican, and Japanese, as well as classic dishes that are “usual, but not common,” Badami said.
In deciding what’s on the menu, Badami said, they consider: “Is it seasonal?” and “Is it done with intention?”
There’s a filet, but it’s served in the French-inspired Veronique style, with a white wine butter sauce. The free range chicken is an enduring classic, but prepared with sauce vin jaune that adds a bolder sherry flavor.
Some of the most popular dishes on the menu include the gargenelli bolognese – a classic sauce that tops a less-common pasta shape – as well as what the menu tabs “Just a Good Burger.” The name of the burger, Badami said, is a take-off on the cheeseburger from the movie “The Menu.”
“Tim [East] put a lot of effort into it,” Badami said of the burger, which is topped with thick-cut bacon, roasted onion, aged Gouda, and black garlic aioli, and served with hand-cut fries or a green salad. Vegetarian as well as vegan options are available as well.
Some of the items on the Union Kitchen menu are inspired by favorite dishes from his years working in New York City, Badami said, such as the duck prosciutto appetizer – which is served with sourdough from Hartford Baking Company. The chawanmushi on the small plates menu is a mushroom dish prepared with a Japanese technique.
All of the tortillas are house-made, and the octopus al pastor taco is a nod to East’s time at Besito.
Badami said personally his favorite update is the creation of the tasting menu. “I let Tim have his way with the food,” Badami said, but together they have spent a lot of time deciding on the wine pairings.
Badami, whose wife grew up in West Hartford, has worked at Union Kitchen since 2019. He almost went back to New York City after finishing his master’s degree at Cornell, but then the pandemic hit, and he stayed in town. He’s a sommelier by trade, and has been instrumental in Union Kitchen being recognized by Wine Spectator. He’s level 2 certified, and has qualified to take his level 3 certification next winter. Since he took over the beverage program at Union Kitchen, three others have earned level 1 certification.
It’s clear that Badami knows – and loves – wine, and both the regular wines that are paired with the tasting menu selections as well as the special reserve wines that can be requested are not merely harmonious but also artfully augment the flavors of each dish.
Most of the wines have “minimal intervention,” Badami said, without added sulfites, and are boutique wines procured from farmers and producers that are committed to “organic, biodynamic, and sustainable practices.”
The tasting menu changes with the season, and includes five courses, each accompanied by roughly a half glass of specially-paired wine (a total of about 2.5 glasses by the time the meal concludes). The cost is $75 per person – far more reasonable than most tasting menus considering the quality and quantity of food and drink.
“We wanted to disrupt how the tasting menu worked,” Badami said, giving diners a sampling of both food and drink that they might not otherwise try, at an affordable price point.
Non-alcoholic pairings are also available.
The spring tasting menu begins with a spring carrot and cardamom soup, flavored with mint, hazelnut, ginger, and coconut. The wine (Christopher Mittnacht, ‘Gyotaku,’ Alsace 2021) is a white Alsace, with full on flavors of nectarine and stone fruit.
Course No. 2 is a choice of the octopus al pastor on a blue corn tortilla, or artichoke al forno with goat cheese. The octopus is paired with a sparking Catalonian rose wine (AT Roca, Rosa Reserva Cava, Penedes 2020). Badami said he chooses to serve champagne and other sparkling wines in white wine glasses rather than flutes because it allows for a fuller appreciation of the aroma.
The third course is risotto with squash blossoms, prepared with tallegio (an Italian cheese). It’s served with an orange wine – a trendy variety that is just becoming popular in this area. Orange wine, Badami said, is made from white wine grapes fermented with the skin on, which adds texture and tannin as well as a peachy-orange hue. “It’s a great food wine – delicate and powerful,” he said. His chosen orange wine is Denavolo, Vino Bianco, ‘Caravel,’ Emilia Romagna 2020.
There are three options for the fourth course: stuffed eggplant and Swiss chard with cannoli beans and tomato agrodolce; skate wing with white polenta and warm spinach topped with sauce Veronique poured table side from a copper mug; and a black Angus filet with whipped potatoes, green beans, and tamarind bordelaise. Skate (a type of shark) wing is a filet from the pectoral wing, and Badami paired it with a lean yet richly-flavored Bodegas Cota 45, Palomino, UBE Miraflores, Jerez 2020.
The spring tasting menu is capped off with caramel crème brûlée for dessert – served with Forthave Brown coffee liquor. The liquor is “too good to serve in a cocktail,” Badami said.
Badami suggested a wine to complement the burger as well. The Le Clairet “The Perfect Red” (Broc Cellars) was indeed a perfect accompaniment, and is available by the glass.
Another new feature at Union Kitchen is the “mystery wine,” said Dillon Clifford, the assistant general manager. “We adapted it from a wine bar in New York,” he said, and it makes you think about wine in a different way. If you try the mystery wine – which is one of the wines that Union Kitchen serves by the bottle – and correctly identify it, the whole bottle is just $15. A number of diners have been successful, he said.
Union Kitchen (43 LaSalle Road, West Hartford Center) is open for dinner seven days a week, and currently serves lunch Friday through Sunday. They also offer happy hour (bar area only) on Monday through Thursday from 4-6 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from 3-6 p.m. For more information, visit the website or follow @unionkitchenct on social media.
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