Vertical Wine Bistro sits atop Pasadena’s food chain
By Erica Wayne 08/26/2013
Perhaps I’m not the one to be doing this review. After all, the name of the place is Vertical Wine Bistro. Heights don’t bother me, but my expertise in wines is definitely below par. I’ve flunked wine-tasting classes (actually not really my fault; when the instructor queried the students as to what qualities we should look for in a low-priced chardonnay, my husband immediately shot back “high alcohol content” and got us blackballed from the rest of the course). I also get roaring headaches after a single cocktail.
But I do know a little something about cooking. So, if Vertical Wine Bistro is going to offer a gourmet menu designed by a top French chef (Laurent Quenioux) to go with its enormous wine list and signature cocktails, I guess it’s OK for me to comment on the food, atmosphere, décor and service while leaving the liquor critique to more expert palates.
So, let’s start with reservations. I tried to request one for four people on the phone for a Friday evening at 7 p.m. in late July and was immediately rebuffed by the harassed voice at the other end of the line. I can accommodate you at 9:30, he said, or at 5. He reminded me that the date I was requesting was the last evening of summer’s dineLA and told me they were swamped. So I hung up, went to Open Table online and booked (Friday for four at 7) through them.
When we arrived, trekking through the sweet little courtyard and up the charming exterior stairway to the second floor restaurant, the joint was, as they say, indeed jumping. Folks were seated everywhere, on stools fronting the bar and to either side of a central counter running the length of the room. They were lounging on chairs opposite the bar and more formally at tables in separate dining areas to the front and rear. Nevertheless, we were greeted warmly and led to our own table within a minute or two. Despite the crowd, service was stellar throughout the evening.
The noise level in the bar and the front dining room, where we were seated, was high, making it difficult to converse easily. The lighting was low enough that it would have been nearly impossible to read our menus without the help of our iPhone flashlight apps. We managed to make out old brick and midnight-blue walls, wood flooring and some late 19th-century posters as well as some intriguing glass bubble lighting fixtures.
The menu was relatively short, with a single-page addition for the dineLA prix-fixe. The wine list, however, was of phone-book size and heft with an annotated list of some 300-plus vintages. OMG, if only I were a true oenophile, I would have been as happy as a pig in … well, hog heaven. As it was, however, I could only gawk at the length and breadth of the offerings.
Unfortunately, however, eye-strain precluded a detailed perusal of the list and the din any real discussion of the possibilities. Since we were lucky enough to be within the dineLA window, we’d all decided to go with the $35 three-course menu, so two of us took the easy out of opting for a $22 pre-selected wine pairing (three half-pours, one with each course). And we also tried a bottle of Hitachino Nest White Ale (mistakenly described in the VWB annotation as a rice brew), a bargain at $8, only $2 above retail at Bev-Mo.
The menu items included a couple of real winners. Among them was the diver scallop salad appetizer (alas, not on the regular bill of fare). A single plump and tender scallop was sliced and bedded on a luscious Mediterranean couscous salad dressed with citrus oil. The “market vegetable salad” with avocado, Boston lettuce, spring vegetables and a citrus dressing ($13 a la carte) wasn’t nearly as interesting.
Among the entrees, we sampled three: duck leg confit, served with fresh cherries gastrique, young carrots and English peas ($28 on the regular menu), adequate, but nothing special; wild pan-seared salmon with a delightfully refreshing cucumber, watermelon and goat cheese tarragon-spiked salad (again, not to be found on VWB’s everyday menu, which was too bad since it was the clear favorite); and rib-eye steak (usually $37), supposedly marinated in (to us) undetectable Guinness stout, with sides of sautéed kale, chard and potato gratin.
Interestingly, one of the two steaks was quite tender while the other was riddled with gristle and almost inedible. (The veggies, however, were smashing!)
Desserts were pretty standard. A baked apple tart with vanilla gelato (on the daily list at $8) was OK, but the crust was somewhat doughy. A relatively parsimonious slice of delicious Brazil-nut chocolate cake was not on VWB’s menu and was not house-made – it was substituted for the originally dineLA-listed profiteroles with vanilla and hazelnut gelato (menu price — $8). At first bite, I recognized the cake as one of my favorites from the UCLA Faculty Club’s soup and salad buffet, where we’ve been known to pig out on quite a bit more than VWB’s portion.
One of the more interesting dining experiences available at VWB is for the occasionally offered “Foodings” when the chef, according to the Web site, combines “unique culinary offerings inspired by beautiful seasonal ingredients — creating a one-of-a-kind event each time.” I’m looking forward to attending one of these six-course and 40-plus cheese cart dinners, preferably seated in the quieter, better lit back dining room into which we peered longingly as we left.
Vertical Wine Bistro
70 N. Raymond Ave.,
Full bar/Major cards