Vertical Wine Bistro’s New Direction

Let's get Vertical

Let's get Vertical

From the time Vertical Wine Bistro opened in the fall of 2006, they have been recognized as a refreshing infusion into Pasadena’s somewhat staid restaurant culture. Founder Gale Anne Hurd stocked her bar with an extensive wine collection, and the food began winning awards and acclaim by January 2007.

But the only constant is change (and death and taxes), and Vertical soon found itself in a sort of musical chairs game of gastronomy, as one chef left the bistro and was replaced by another. Now, post-Sara Levine and Doug Weston, lauded chef Laurent Quenioux (of Bistro K and Bistro LQ fame), is manning the stoves and doing his part to push Pasadena’s culinary envelope just a little, while striving to turn Vertical into a destination worthy of that long and punishing drive to…you know…out there, up the 110 or whatever.

And just as the chefs were in and out, so it went, as well, for Vertical’s wine specialists. Although the bistro opened without a sommelier, Hurd brought in David Haskell – self-professed “wine pimp” – in the fall of 2009, to revamp and re-invigorate their wine list and seasonal California menu. But the “pimp” lacked stamina, and was out on the street in nine* months’ time.

Manuel Mesta took over the beverage menu in March of 2010, overseeing not only the near-biblical wine list, but also the beer and cocktail selections, as well as general operations at the bistro.

I was invited to try the wine bar’s latest incarnation. I felt, all-in-all, that things seem to be looking up at Vertical.

My companion for the evening, Aaron Tell of The Savory Hunter, and I were treated to an assortment of small and large dishes, incorporating some of the bistro’s historically beloved bites, as well as chef Quenioux’s new fare. But before we ordered, we were welcomed to our meal with sexy flutes of NV Gruet Brut Rose.

Everything goes better with bubbly.

Say cheese, photo courtesy The Savory Hunter

Say cheese, photo courtesy The Savory Hunter

We started with an impeccable cheese plate which included Brillat Savarin, Sao Jorge and Valdeon (perfect temperature, perfect pungent creaminess). After the cheese plate, we were treated to Vertical’s famous comte grilled cheese with zucchini flowers and tortilla soup (was ok); and the wild baby argula salad (note that there were no actual wild babies mixed into the greens, but there was some blue cheese, Asian pear and a riesling vinaigrette). The corn fritters with smoked salmon and creme fraiche came next (a nice blend of textures, in a package that looked like some sort of nigiri sushi-cum-Viennese pastry and tasted pretty good); and then mussels with chorizo (lovely balance between the spiced earthiness of the chorizo, against the delicate sweet/umami mussels). There was creamy polenta with poblano chiles and queso fresco (which I loved, due to a homesickness for Southern-style cheese grits, but did not win Aaron over); and truffled macaroni and cheese (which was delicious, because truffled mac and cheese must be delicious according to natural law – but was not outstanding). And then came the hollow leg and the duck two ways: confit leg and seared breast with pomegranate glaze, yuzu curd, shishito puree and miso jus (excellent – I could’ve eaten the confit for days; deserted island food). We ended with profiteroles with vanilla and hazelnut gelato, and Vertical’s celebrated molten chocolate cake (there is absolutely nothing not to love about both of these desserts).

Vertical's duck two ways, photo courtesy The Savory Hunter

Vertical's duck two ways, photo courtesy The Savory Hunter

With nearly every course, Manuel dutifully set down another glass of wine. 2004 Sagrantino di Montefalco Ugolino, Terre de’Trinci, and Sagrantino di Montefalc, from Umbria. There was a 2008 Les Chailloux sancerre at the very end, which – in my overstuffedness – I forgot to write down the name of the producer, but was somehow able to make a valiant effort toward polishing off the glass (because I suffer for my art).

For me, there was nothing more enjoyable than simply taking in the space and the experience. Vertical is a lovely restaurant, all dark wood, warm lighting, and – on this night – a raging fire burning in the hearth on the far wall of the dining room. The ceiling light fixtures undulate like ripply pads of butter, the booths are chocolate brown, high-backed and luxuriously deep. Vertical feels decadent – and that’s before mentioning the gleaming, glass-enclosed wall of wines, separating the bar from the dining room.

Sagrantino di Montefalco Ugolino

Sagrantino di Montefalco Ugolino

There are over 400 wines in all – with many new European additions, courtesy of Mr. Mesta – and a monumental menu of 100 by the glass. Vertical offers seven flights, with three selections each: Sparkling ($35), Spain ($30), Italy ($22), USA ($40), Greece ($18), Beer ($12), and the “Wine Dude Flight” – one of the holdovers from the Haskell days – where a flight is custom crafted to the diner’s taste ($45). By the bottle, prices range from high $20’s to almost $1500 for a 2001 Petrus (if you got it like that).

Would I drive all the way from LA, just to dine again at Vertical? To be honest, probably not. But I would make the drive for the pairing of ambiance and comfort foods and that incredible wine list. And I’d order the duck all over again; I just hope it hasn’t been replaced by the time I go back.

*updated at Haskell’s request 1/11/11

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes

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