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Chef Martin Hamann brings 'the wow factor' to the Union League

WHEN IT COMES to dining at one of the best restaurants in Philadelphia, membership really does have its privileges. That's because 1862 by Martin Hamann is only open to 3,200 people and their guests. These lucky diners are members of the elite Union League, the Civil War-era club founded on South Broad Street in 1862 to promote loyalty to the Union and the policies of President Lincoln, who paid at least one visit to the storied club.

WHEN IT COMES to dining at one of the best restaurants in Philadelphia, membership really does have its privileges.

That's because 1862 by Martin Hamann is only open to 3,200 people and their guests. These lucky diners are members of the elite Union League, the Civil War-era club founded on South Broad Street in 1862 to promote loyalty to the Union and the policies of President Lincoln, who paid at least one visit to the storied club.

Once a bastion of wealthy white Republican captains of industry, the Union League now forbids discrimination based on race, gender, color, creed or political affiliation. That said, the most prominent of the remaining Leagues (there are also Leagues in Chicago and New York) is still fiercely traditional and politically conservative. Currently, 21 percent of members, about 700, are women, and about the same number are junior members, age 21 and 34. To become a member, you need the sponsorship of six members and board approval.

A basic active membership requires a $3,600 entrance fee, plus $3,975 a year in dues and the promise to spend at least $500 a year on food and drink, according to membership coordinator Katie McClernand.

That's where chef Marty Hamann comes in.

A down-to-earth Delaware County native and die-hard Phillies fan, Hamann, 52, left the Four Seasons Philadelphia in 2008 after an amazing 25-year run to take over the top toque position at the Union League.

A protege of the legendary Jean Marie Lacroix, Hamann continues that tradition of mentoring with a cadre of young talented chefs at his new eponymous restaurant, which celebrates its first anniversary in October.

Four Season alums include Tim Maurer, 1862's chef de cuisine, saucier Derek Dietz and the restaurant's manager and sommelier, Jean Claude Jacquot. Hamann retained 80 percent of the existing kitchen staff when he came onboard.

The thing is, at first blush, Hamann just doesn't seem like a Union League kind of guy. He hails from a working-class background and had never set foot in the place before he was called in for an interview.

"For years, when I'd be on Broad Street stopped at a light, on the way to a game or whatever, I'd just look at it and think, 'That's a really cool building,' " said the chef, who lives with his wife and daughter in Fairmount.

Cool indeed

The classic French Renaissance-style brownstone takes up a city block, its footprint bounded by Broad Street and 15th to the east and west and Sansom and Moravian streets to the north and south. From its iconic twin circular staircases facing Broad Street to its gabled and turreted roofline, the Union League is one of the city's most impressive 19th century historic landmarks.

Hired to develop a signature restaurant, update the massive downstairs kitchens and generally upgrade the entire dining and banquet operation, Hamann first had to find his way around. "I'd be on my way to a 2 o'clock meeting in the Grant Room and be, like, where the hell is the Grant Room? Or there's a function in the Meade Room? Where's that?"

Distinctive for his straight-shooting style, piercing gaze and close-cropped white hair and goatee, Hamann is a bundle of energy. Still, he admitted it's been a long 18 months. "God bless my wife," he said.

But what he's done, the style and culinary prowess behind the overhaul of the club's tired dining space, is nothing short of amazing.

What's also amazing is that Hamann manages to fit right in. On a recent Friday night tour, the dynamic chef was much in demand by members, delivering plenty of beefy handshakes as he moved through the cozy Cafe Meredith lounge.

Working closely with general manager Jeff McFadden, Hamann's vision (and $6 million) transformed the formerly stodgy North Marble dining area into a contemporary space housing Hamann's 120-seat restaurant, with its modern, glass-enclosed kitchen.

Other additions include Cafe Meredith, a lounge and cafe dining area, and Founders, a smart space used for daily breakfast buffet, lunch weekdays and special dining events, like the popular Thursday lobster feast.

"We'll put out 300 lobsters, no problem at all," said the chef. On a busy Friday or Saturday, and even during the week, the 1862 kitchen plates 140 covers.

"That's strong for a private club," he said. "Used to be that you could shoot a canyon between Broad and 15th streets, right down this center hall, and you wouldn't hit a soul. That's not the case anymore."

Hamann's $1.2 million in restaurant sales is respectable in the first year - especially since he keeps his price point lower than his fine dining competition. "It's a benefit of paying dues," Hamann explained. The steak he sells for $38 would be closer to $50 at Barclay Prime or the Four Seasons.

"If I can give members a great culinary experience for less, that's a good thing."

Banquettes to banquets

Hamann is also making inroads in the bread-and-butter business of banquets, despite the logistical challenges that come with transferring food from the outmoded kitchen down in steerage level to the upstairs event rooms. Banquet business - about 75 weddings a year and countless parties, receptions and business powwows - brings in $8 million to $10 million in sales.

"We'll be giving banquets a bit more push now that the restaurant is up and running," he said. The massive basement-level kitchen, four times the size of the one he oversaw at the Four Seasons, will be redone by 2013.

Hamann was careful not to rock the gastronomic boat too much when he first came on the scene. "There are staple dishes you don't mess with," he said. "The snapper soup, the Union League-style crab cake, the fried oysters and chicken salad. This is a place where food is important, but culture, and tradition is No. 1. I respect that."

But he also wanted to up what he called "the wow factor."

Hamann's late-summer menu is a testimony to the chef's commitment to classic technique - and seasonal ingredients. A lobe of seared foie gras arrives drizzled with aged balsamic, a trio of house-made jams and a flower-garnished tangle of field greens.

An appetizer of Scottish smoked salmon arrives as artfully composed as a master's still life, garnished with slivers of baby radish and a granita of cucumber and mirin. Fava beans pair with black truffle and spaetzle, accompaniments to River & Glen's all-natural white feather European chicken breast. A $65 lobster tasting menu includes a brilliant lobster "carpaccio," a toothsome slice of knuckle garnished with Israeli lychee, Yuzu dressing and a pickled beet terrine.

This is heady stuff, a repast that can compete, not just with Philly's fine dining scene, but with competition from any of the country's top chefs.

"They immediately responded to changes in a positive way," he said of club diners. "When I put a foie gras torchon on my first menu, the members loved it. This is not just a snapper soup and club sandwich kind of crowd. There's a level of sophistication that really encouraged me."

Unlike cooking for a transient hotel crowd, Hamann has to please the same audience night in and night out. "We've already changed the menu five times. You just have to keep it new and exciting."

Does he find the crowd much different from his typical Four Seasons guest? "I didn't have a restaurant full of regulars at the hotel. Here I do get to know people. I know that this guy likes this, that guy likes that. One member likes his initials branded into his steak. There's definitely some quirkiness with the longtime members. But I'm having a lot of fun."

Hamann is jazzed about the club's future renovation plans, which include the opening of a downstairs Heritage Room to house the league's formidable collection of historic artifacts and records.

"Sometimes I think, 'Lincoln was here, he was right here!' And that is just so awesome," Hamann said.

The chef plans to do his part to bring the club's reputation and membership ranks up a notch. Every three years, the nation's elite private clubs are ranked for excellence. The Union League is now in the No. 5 position; Hamann hopes it will become the No. 1 private city club of America under his gastronomic watch.

A handwritten sign hanging in the behemoth basement kitchen explains how he's going to make that happen" "UL Kitchen is 3D - Discipline, Dedication, Drive."

"Private dining has never been given the same regard as a public fine dining restaurant," said Hamann. "We're going to change that."