I was recently invited to try Vertical Wine Bistro, the wine focused restaurant and lounge in Pasadena that recently brought on Laurent Quenioux of Bistro LQ to revamp the menu. Arianna of GrapeSmart and I shared a variety of items on the menu. Vertical is owned by Gale Anne Hurd, the former Mrs. Jim Cameron, and has had a tumultuous year in which David Haskell who was brought on last October to update the restaurant, left in March after eight months. [updated to reflect Haskell's length of tenure]
Quenoiux is known for adventurous flavors and unusual combinations, so I was curious as to how his cuisine would play in Pasadena, an area known for its culinary conservatism. I never found out, as the avante garde cuisine of Quenioux which he showcases in dishes like Venison Tartare with Green Chartruese Gelee on his dinner menu at Bistro LQ is nowhere to be found on the Vertical menu. The Pasadena menu is significantly more tame, which is probably a smart move to appeal to the local clientele. Overall, the meal was enjoyable but not destination-worthy.
The best way to use Vertical is to treat it as a wine bar that has better food than you'd expect rather than as a restaurant to plan dinner around. The wine list has among the most wines by the glass available in the Los Angeles area, with approximately 90 selections. The bottle selection is also huge with over 700 selections. The by the glass list includes seven different wine flights, which include an unusual option to sample three wines from Greece as well as the option for a customized flight. The wine program is where Vertical excels and their now sommellier/wine director has a strong base in European wines, of which Vertical has a deep cellar.
The happy hour menu, which is available in the bar/lounge is offered from 5 pm - 7 pm from Tuesday through Sunday and 10 pm - midnight on Tuesday through Thursday, the cheese selection and the charcuterie are excellent options to nosh on while you work your way through the dozens of wines you can try.
We began with corn fritters ($12) which are fried corn fritters topped with smoked salmon and crème fraiche. These were different than I expected in that the corn fritters acted the part of the rice in a piece of nigiri sushi, except they were crunchy. They are available both on the Lounge/Happy Hour menu as well as on the Taste & Share section of the dinner menu.
A highlight of the menu is the cheese selection. Nine were on offer, although only five of those were available. The Valdeon, a blue cheese from Spain made from cow and goat milk was my favorite of those we tried. The flavor was assertive and the texture was creamy. The Brillat Savarin, an old favorite, was excellent as usual.
The Creamy Polenta (above) with poblano chiles and queso fresco had a texture that was not what I was expecting. It was extremely thick, almost like gooey cheese.
Truffled macaroni & cheese was enjoyable. It was served in a large crock and was piping hot. What's not to like?
The Duck Two Ways was a confit leg and seared breast with pomegranate glaze, yuzu curd, shishito puree and miso jus. The confit was the best part of the dish as it was full of flavor, having been cooked in its own fat. The Asian flavors in the sauce imparted a robust flavor to the duck breast.
If the goal was to provide a comfortable place in the Pasadena area to enjoy wine by the glass or bottle, while having the option to have a bite to eat while sipping the vino, then Vertical has succeeded. If the plan was to have the cuisine be a draw to attract customers from beyond the region, then they have missed the mark. If I am in the neighborhood at the Norton Simon, Huntington or Cal Tech, I'd be happy to return to Vertical, but for me the lounge option would likely be what I'd opt for as it provides the most flexibility. However I don't see driving from the Westside solely to dine there. For locals, Vertical is a glass half full, with its extensive wine program, small plates, and relaxed atmosphere in the lounge. To that, I raise my glass.
Vertical Wine Bistro: Upstairs at 70 North Raymond Avenue, Pasadena. Phone: (626) 795-3999. Website: http://verticalwinebistro.com/