Union Kitchen Makes its Mark on West Hartford

Vish & Tim (Credit: Winter Caplanson - New England Food & Farm)


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West Hartford is in a state of flux. Staples like the bistro fare at Max Oyster Bar remain neighborhood institutions, but the steady hum of fresh talent is hard to miss. Displaced by pandemic, lured by family support, an exodus of top-tier talent from New York City and fine dining elsewhere is breathing new life into the downtown.

Union Kitchen is one of many such breaths popping up in Connecticut. 

For general manager and wine director, Vish Badami and chef Tim East, making Union Kitchen into what it is today has been a journey of teamwork and shared vision.

“There are a lot of places in West Hartford that do American comfort food, but it’s not particularly what I am most excited by, neither is Chef Tim,” says Vish. “We wanted to do something different while keeping it seasonal, highlighting different techniques and cultures.”

Vish came to West Hartford by way of notable restaurants which include Rasika in Washington, D.C. under James-Beard-Award-winning chef, Vikram Sunderam. He caught the wine bug in New York City at Indian Accent, known for an impressive wine list of over 450 selections, including a rare collection of Madeira.

I ask Vish how he ended up at Union.

“I thought this place had potential, and I believe in West Hartford. I thought if we could bring a great wine list here, and pair it with an amazing tasting menu, that it might be the first of its kind in this area.”

No small achievement, the list Vish has curated has received two consecutive Awards of Excellence from Wine Spectator. Rumor has it, he’s gunning for a third. 

We leaned into what most excites Tim, opting for the tasting menu, and Vish brings our first course, a coconut curry pumpkin soup.

I spoon comforting bites of spiced soup and listen to a round-the-world odyssey of how 16th-century sailors transporting Madeira wine washed up on shores of the far east. The wine in my glass smells like gingerbread and orange zest, liquid honey on the palate.

“It’s as if two Portuguese explorers ended up on the same shore of India, this is the soup they would eat, and this is the wine they would drink,” he says. A perfect dish for the dreary doldrums of winter, and even better, a perfect pairing. 

As the bar starts to fill up and it’s hard not to notice the attention to detail in the space – a richly colored coffered ceiling, bright storefront windows, touches of art nouveau style, an impressive wall of craft spirits and amaro that spans the length of the bar.

“We have the largest selection of amaro in the state,” says Vish. There are bar classics, like Fernet Branca, but also truly rare gems — I won’t name them here, but do yourself a favor and discover them for yourself. You’ll thank me later. 

We hop into the chef’s tasting menu. Next is East’s Chawanmushi, a savory Japanese egg custard. Meaning “steamed in a tea bowl,” Chawanmushi is unlike egg custards that you may see in western cultures, like crème brûlée. Served on a striking piece of Imari pottery, instead it is silky, smoky and umami all in one bite, garnished with fresh oyster mushrooms and a briny fresh oyster with a dash of whiskey barrel aged shoyu. Not one to say no to bubbles, Vish offers a stunning Champagne from Lelarge-Pugeot, an unusual selection aged for six years on its lees. My first sip is toasty and textured. An out-of-the-box pairing and again a bullseye for me. 

Badami chats about the beginnings of his partnership with Chef Tim.

“He is a really quiet chef, but he has worked in a lot of legendary restaurants.”

In my short time sitting in the leather banquette, I can tell that East’s technique is pristine.

“He’s a food nerd”

— a trait they seem to share, and it is exciting to watch someone so passionate light up when talking about what they love the most. 

As I meander my way through the menu, other stand-outs include the aptly-named “pleasure course,” a savory risotto with black winter truffles, pecorino romano and cracked black pepper. It arrives and my mouth waters as the smell of black truffle wafts through the air. It is paired with a cool-kid cult favorite wine from Italian producer, Iulli, made from Nebbiolo grapes. I swirl the wine and am rewarded with tell tale aromas of tobacco and roses. Another perfect pairing, Mr. Badami. 

But Chef Tim has the last laugh when my date notices a favorite cheese offered as a dessert course. I opt for pot de crème.

Epoisses — a French wash rind — is not for the faint of heart, and not my personal favorite, but I laugh as I watch my partner joyfully stick his face in what he describes as “a stinky ass cheese from Burgundy.” Mild on the palate, however it may smell, Tim tempers the cheese with honeycomb and balsamic. The pot de crème is a delight. And both desserts are elevated by Vish’s pairings.

Union Kitchen champions excellence in West Hartford, and it is a cherished spot for locals and a gathering place for the people of West Hartford. Great restaurants only get that way when they operate as team sports, culinary teams and hospitality working together in lock-step. And it’s clear there is a heaping dose of collaboration between Badami and East. It’s a pleasure to watch two talents work towards a common goal of excellence. I will stay tuned to see what their future holds.