Amid the dark, sexy space of the newly revamped Vertical Wine Bistro, you’ll see a thin, long maple bar that’s perfect for holding a flight of sparkling wine. You’ll also notice the high-quality Riedel stemware, most of it matched appropriately with the type of wine you’re drinking, whether it’s a Burgundy glass with a wide body and tapered mouth, or a slender champagne flute for your Crement de Bourgogne. Then you notice the professional tableside service or the cordial mannerisms of the wait staff, and you’ll realize that someone like wine guru David Haskell wouldn’t step into a restaurant without making a significant difference to the diner’s experience. Throw in the seasoned chops of Chef Doug Weston, who’s honed his skills at The Raymond in Pasadena and Joe’s Restaurant in Venice, and you have a recipe for a compelling wine bar in the heart of Old Pasadena.
A flight of stairs (or a short elevator trip) takes you to the cavernous space, lit by low incandescent and the glow of mood lights. Music bumps just loud enough to let you know that you’re at a fun, casual spot, but also away from the clubs of Colorado Boulevard just a few blocks down.
I was invited to this meal by Kelsey of Wagstaff Worldwide, who handles the PR for Vertical. Principal owner Gale Anne Hurd, who helped produce Hollywood blockbusters, was in the house to enjoy the meal along with a number of local media personnel.
We started the meal with a trio of three sparkling beverages. The first was a red ale from Hitachino, a Japanese brewer. Haskell noted that this “ale” is actually more like a wine, as it is made completely from fermented rice. The red tint comes from the longer fermenting of the rice. Others at our table enjoyed the Hitachino white ale, which is also made from rice, but without the longer fermentation. The other two beverages were a Crement de Bourgogne, a crisp but bigger-bodied champagne that’s made in the style of Bollinger. To finish the flight we had a Gruet rose, a sparkling wine made in New Mexico. Gruet has been a popular celebration wine for me and it was nice to have this rose, which paired well with all three bar bites.
The first bite was a corn fritter topped with a sliver of cured salmon and laced with crème fraiche. The Hitachino red ale was a perfect pairing, with the fried bits of the fritter producing a notable effervescence on the palate. The margherita pizza, topped with thin chorizo slices, also went well with the Hitachino and Gruet.
The Crement de Bourgogne went well with our charcuterie plate, a roundup of chorizos, mortadella, Serrano ham, and a saussicon sec from Niman Ranch.
Afterwards we were shifted over to the main dining room, a square room with about 40 seats, high ceilings, and dark brown accents. There was a flurry of appetizers such as seared ahi tuna, pappardelle with pork ragout, and rib eye carpaccio.
Paired with these courses was a Northern Italian red, a fruit-forward but still relatively balanced wine that was perfect with the carpaccio. We also had a slightly sweet Auslese Riesling which had a nice medium body, bright apricot notes, and a smooth, creamy finish. I thought this went well with the ahi tuna, which was sauced in a sweet carrot puree. Last among appetizers was the rich, meaty house-made pappardelle, with wide noodles perfectly al dente, and a chunky pork ragout. Diced wild mushrooms added another earthy element, so I found the last wine, a Portuguese white wine (which I believe was the Quinta Alqueve, a Fernao Pires) a nice complement. The wine brought out the light spice and wood notes of the ragout.
For the main course, we were able to choose from the regular menu. Although the celebrated escolar had been taken off because of a shortage of the ingredient, I opted for the John Dory, a classic white fish that’s usually a bit hefty and meaty. This preparation came seared and atop black eyed peas, spinach pesto, and a fin herbes veloute. I liked how the dish had a nice bit of acidity to balance out the rich flesh of the John Dory. I also thought it was cheeky and almost a bit humorous to pair a classic French fish with a humble soul-food ingredient like black eyed peas. I’m looking forward to trying the escolar when they get that back in stock. For the wine pairing, I had a glass of Infinity, a 50% Grenache, 50% Syrah blend from the California Central Coast, a heavier-bodied red that stood up to the fish. I loved that Haskell paired a red wine with the fish, as too often white wine is the default pairing with fish.
I also tried a few pieces of the ribeye, which was well-cooked and very flavorful. I would’ve ordered it more on the rare side to suit my tastes, but I pilfered a few pieces from my dining companion, Gary, so I didn’t have a say in that. I also eyed the other end of the table getting a tableside preparation of the Cote de Boeuf, a generous slab of rib roast that’s fit for two people. I also got a taste of the short rib, braised with red cabbage and sided by a smooth parsnip puree. Haskell paired a 42 Don Julio tequila (denoted for their anniversary, not for the vintage of the tequila…that would certainly be an odd designation for agave tequila) with the short rib, and it worked like a charm. The focused, aromatic spirit cut through the unctuous flesh and complemented the sweet glaze and the crunchy red cabbage.
The cheese course at Vertical is simply monumental, as Haskell has been keen on supplying cheeses that only he (and perhaps a small handful of other chefs) could source. Among the cheese course were pecorinos, cheddars, and blue cheeses, but the highlight for me was the smoky, creamy, complex Epoisses.
Dessert courses were simple but effective, with ice cream sandwiches, strawberry-chocolate ganache-chantilly cream cups, and classic crèmes brulee spreading the table. We also had an intriguing test of our palate, as Haskell asked us to try our wines with various candies such as Whoppers, M&Ms and Milk Duds.
Vertical Wine Bistro is poised to make a splash in the culinary scene in Old Pasadena, where previously the milieu was comprised of blasé chain restaurants and directionless fusion joints. Haskell has coordinated the service staff into a four-star level of refinement, taking a page from his previous stints at Le Cirque in New York and Guy Savoy in Paris. Doug Weston is creating well-executed dishes with a flair of New American and the urbanity of a modern wine bar. I’m hoping that they’ll continue to push the culinary envelope in the coming months as they develop the concept. That way they can make strides in separating themselves from the other fare in Pasadena. Much like how Michael Voltaggio is redefining avant garde cuisine at the nearby Langham Hotel, here’s to hoping that Haskell and Weston will place a beacon of creativity and refinement in Old Town Pasadena. To many culinarians living east of Downtown, it’ll be a breath of fresh air.