Union League lightens up

Hamann, a Four Seasons alumnus, finishes pork shank.
Hamann, a Four Seasons alumnus, finishes pork shank. (Tony Fitts)

Fine dining and a brighter vibe have come to the tradition-bound Union League.

Posted: November 04, 2010

It was a fine soiree at the Union League last month, champagne flutes bobbing across what was once the North Marble Dining Room, diver scallops seared and plated one by one, and at the caviar station, three types of caviar, best sampled, guests were instructed, by dabbing a dollop just below the first knuckle of the index finger, "the way they taste it in Tashkent."

It was the first anniversary of the 148-year-old club's brave new plunge into finer dining - evident in a $6 million face-lift of the once dreary space; and in a curtain call for snowy-domed Martin Hamann, the League's Doc Halladay of a new chef.

On the flat screen over the bar, in fact, the Phillies' Halladay was adding a little gloss of his own - pitching a no-hitter that very night.

The overhaul on Broad Street (at Sansom) has been a gamble, and still is: The club's old lions weren't entirely thrilled, initially, that their roux-thick snapper soup was getting nudged off the table.

And the price tag isn't trifling: On top of the dining-room redo - it's been rechristened 1862 by Martin Hamann, and freshened with gingery drapes - $9 million more is earmarked to update the club's vast subterranean kitchens, left to languish since 1952.

There's also a 65,000-bottle wine cellar - as in sixty-five thousand! - on tap. (Throw in, say, $3 million more for that.) And a new sommelier.

But the way the club's overseers saw it, it was eat or be eaten. Membership had yet to fully recover from its low point in 1994 when club dues (now $3,500 a year, not including food) could no longer be written off taxes as a business expense.

And in an upending of historic trends, Center City's finer, or certainly stunningly improved, dining scene - once stunted by Philadelphia's club tradition - was now bleeding off serious, and seriously disgruntled, foodies.

"The joke," said Hamann, former top chef at the Four Seasons, "was that on a Friday night you could shoot a cannonball [down the League's main hall] from 15th to Broad, and not hit a soul."

Desperate times called for desperate measures: "We wanted to make a real 'Wow!' dining room," said general manager Jeffrey McFadden. "Something that would make you think you were in Manhattan - or San Francisco."

To placate members who wondered why the League couldn't match the dining experience at the consistently top-rated Four Seasons, well, here was the hotel's esteemed chef, now starring in the League's upstairs open kitchen: Martin Hamann, reporting for duty.

The proof of the gamble's payoff was in the pudding. A cannonball would have done grievous damage one recent Friday. By 6:30 p.m., both 1862 and the clubbier old Founders room across the hall were already packing them in.

What a difference a year had made. After a decade-long stall, dinner business was suddenly tripling. Lunch is up 18 percent.

The club is now the city's leading purchaser - not that competition is all that stiff - of antelope (roasted rare with fig and salsify gratin).

More than 100 lapsed members have come back to the fold, most of them following Hamann's trail of crumbs.

The globe-trotting epicure (and one of the formerly disgruntled foodies) Norman Cohn is proudly among them: "I'm a fan," he said.

Total local membership has doggedly climbed, too, from its low of 1,500 more than 16 years ago to 2,400 now - 600 shy of a goal of 3,000.

"In the 32 years I've been here," allowed Jim Mundy, who presides over the League's historical collections, "this is the first time I've felt such a real buzz."

Overall, food costs are up (see: antelope). But so are food sales, expected to top $1 million for October alone in what was shaping up to be one of the club's better months on record.

And if Hamann has had to tread a fine line in upgrading the menus, he has had a safety valve: The club's old-school pub, and other traditional venues, still offer tomato bisque and grilled cheese, and fried oysters and chicken salad (a Union League staple since its inception as a pro-Lincoln, pro-Union counterweight to the city's considerable store of Confederate sympathizers).

Two years into his tenure, Hamann's fan club continues to grow: "Martin has been a godsend," said general manager McFadden. Dan Reilly, the previous chef, "was very good. But Marty has taken us to the next level, and put his own stamp on things."

That stamp wasn't hard to spot at a recent lunch at 1862. Members talked business - "I sold my company for the first time in 1967" - and dined from a menu stripped of the chicken a la king that once ruled the roost here.

It offered, instead, a starter of Long Island duck confit with celery root and Honeycrisp apple salad ($13); wild Columbia River sturgeon medallion with late-harvest tomato and fennel stew (part of a $32 three-course tasting menu), and an exquisite piece of "sustainable Scottish halibut" with gingered butternut squash compote ($24).

It is telling that "sustainable" now counts as a positive at a club long known for its deep-seated, pro-business Republican sympathies.

And it is just as telling, perhaps, that Hamann lists the pork shank as "braised" even though its main preparation is in a low-heat sous-vide bath: "I'm afraid," he said, "to put that word on the menu."

You are struck, leafing through the club's old menus, by how things change - and how they remain the same.

Here's one from 1898, featuring saddle of Canadian mutton, fresh green peas, and Bermuda potatoes, Parisienne. And of course, a standard, "Terrapin a la Union League." The meal concluded with "cigars and cigarettes."

In 1935, members could grab a lunch of sauerkraut juice, Chicken Hash a la King, and corn fritters (85 cents); baked tomato filled with old-fashioned frizzled beef, and sweet acidophilus milk, or for the stouter-hearted, buttermilk.

In 1965, lunch menus were touting the club's perennial oysters. "First of the season, Oyster Bay Chincoteague oysters, fat, tasty, and salty," offers one for Dec. 8 that year. There were cups of Philadelphia pepper pot soup, prime rib, roast pork loin, lobster Newburg, and broiled sirloin steak.

It is a tricky business, all the same, to mess with a member's meal. Especially at a place as steeped in history and tradition as the Union League, where prospective recruits must be sponsored by six members, and where jackets are still required and ties rather strongly recommended. (The facilities are reserved exclusively for members and guests.)

But Hamann appears to have pulled a rabbit out of the hat. To the why-can't-we-be-as-good-as-the-Four Seasons question, he has answered with not only finer ingredients, but a staff overhaul as well: Close to half of the 35 cooks and sous chefs have been hired way from Hamann's old alma mater.

And the club, like the city itself, has changed its stripes. Somewhat. Across from rooms still thick with leather and dark wood, Hamann's 1862 has a lighter, airier, Indochine quality - the chef's open kitchen visible behind glass panels; shimmering ginger curtains gauzily dividing the interior space.

There's almost - at the Union League, no less! - the hint of a softer, feminine aspect.

Which shouldn't, perhaps, be all that startling: The League's nominee to be its next president is a woman, Joan Carter, one of the first females aboard in 1986 after the club bowed to modernity, scuttling its all-male restrictions - and improving its taste across the board.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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