Pasadena goes POP!
POP Champagne & Dessert Bar makes a glum holiday bright
By Erica Wayne 12/26/2013
Here we are at the end of another year many of us would be happy to see gone, if only 2014 didn’t promise to be almost as bleak. But, amidst the frustration, angst, fear, desperation and (Dickens’ favorites) want and ignorance, a few bright spots stand out. One of these is the continued success of the establishment featured in the Weekly’s 2009 “Best Of” issue as the Best New Restaurant of the year: POP Champagne & Dessert Bar.
As the old year nears its finale, it seemed only proper to toast its end at a restaurant whose claim to fame is its nearly endless offerings of champagne and other bubblies by both glass and bottle. So my mate and I put away our undone tasks, unpaid bills, undecorated tree, unwrapped gifts, unfed cats, etc., etc., and headed over to Union Street on the rainy Thursday before Christmas for a festive holiday repast.
We parked on Holly Street and strolled around the block, noting how many neighborhood restaurants were nearly empty. We figured a place specializing in high-end vintages might be experiencing a lull as well. But the dimly lit, high-ceilinged, crystal chandeliered, brick-sided, wood-floored, burgundy-upholstered dining room was almost at capacity, merrymakers enjoying flutes of fizzies to a soft backdrop of holiday music.
It’s not just the sparklies attracting the clientele. We’ll vouch for the food! Paraphrasing Gertie Stein, some of us who flunked Champagne 101 think a wine is a wine is a wine. (Hey, a $10 Domaine Ste. Michelle brut (our fave) beat out a $150 Dom Perignon in a blind tasting by 500 knowledgeable oenophiles.) Although we occasionally try one of the wine triad flights ($14-$19), last week we took advantage of Happy Hour (5 to 7 p.m.) and ordered two Epic Imperial IPAs for $5 apiece.
Choosing a meal at POP is as difficult as picking a beverage. Everything looks tempting, from the cheese and/or charcuterie plates ($18-$29) to “Beginning Bites” like wild mushroom and goat cheese bruschetta ($10). “Comfort Food” includes a trio of “Kobe” beef sliders: gorgonzola mayo/ pancetta, cheddar/bacon/quail egg and truffle cheese/mushroom with fries, fruit or salad ($18). There’s also truffle mac ‘n’ cheese with crispy oyster mushrooms ($15), “entrees” such as seared salmon with corn and fennel relish ($17) and Korean barbecue-style braised short ribs with cauliflower mash and pickled veggies ($24).
We’ve tried and loved most of these when we’ve had time to linger; but holiday chores beckoned and the lure of “cheap eats” on the Happy Hour menu was too much to resist. We ordered the tri-colored beet salad ($6), a deviled egg quartet ($6), brie toast with chardonnay soaked raisins ($6), prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with garlic aioli ($8), crispy POPcorn chicken with a truly addictive jalapeno ranch dip ($6) and moules champagne ($7) for a net savings of $18 compared to regular menu prices.
Everything we had was excellent, but there were a couple of real standouts. The beet salad, with red, rose and golden chunks, feta cheese cubes, crunchy candied walnuts, a white balsamic glaze and a generous sprinkling of tangy micro mint was fabulous. The eggs, each with a different filling (truffle-chive, bacon-onion, bleu cheese, black forest ham-cheddar) were delicious. And the mussels in their shallot, wine, parmesan and butter-rich bath were the best we’ve had in years! Having polished off the 15 plump mollusks in record time, we crumpled the accompanying crostini into the remaining broth and succumbed to the sublime indulgence of sopping up every sinful drop.
And, speaking of indulgence, POP’s sweets are even more tantalizing than their savories. Soufflés ($15, alas, no Happy Hour discount) are a specialty with their own online monthly calendar charting the ever-changing evening special. Included in the December holiday list have been chocolate/peppermint, eggnog, orange-cranberry, cookie butter and gingerbread (among others). The night we were there, a superb coconut macaroon soufflé with vanilla crème anglaise was featured, and we polished one off before leaving.
Cinnamon-coated churros ($10) with cajeta sauce are equally tempting to the sweet-besotted, and so are strawberry-nutella and maple-bacon crepes ($12), English toffee pudding cake with toffee sauce and ice cream ($9), chocolate-peanut butter crème brulee ($12), the politically incorrect Irish Car Bomb (chocolate Guinness cake, Bailey’s Irish ice cream and whiskey caramel sauce, $12) and seasonal pavlovas ($12) — talk about visions of sugarplums! Decisions, decisions, decisions …
But I have to mention our particular fondness for POP’s house-made sorbets and ice creams. For only $7 you can pick three flavors from the current list: chocolate, brown sugar pineapple, Arnold Palmer, strawberry moscato and raspberry prosecco (sorbets) and vanilla bean, basil, caramel fleur de sel, birthday cake, peanut butter, chocolate peppermint, POPcorn, the aforementioned Bailey’s, gingerbread and chocolate hazelnut.
Had the soufflé not been impossible to resist, we’d probably have opted for our usual three-scoop finale. Our hands-down favorite has always been POP’s chocolate, a tar-pit dark, bittersweet sludge of decadence that makes us want to hold up the kitchen and demand the entire cache to take home. Imagine TJ’s Double Rainbow with even less sugar and more cocoa. Even better, just head over to POP and sample a scoop or two, or three.
Restaurants come and go, of course. Many of our “Best New Restaurants” of the past 25 years are as dead as doornails. But, somehow, I don’t think POP will be among them. And, while I wonder what new eateries 2014 will bring, I have a feeling that POP won’t be in any danger of losing its “Best” designation no matter how old it gets. Like great champagne, POP only gets better with age.