Vertical Wine Bistro
70 North Raymond Ave., Pasadena CA 91103 (map); 626-795-3999; verticalwinebistro.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: One night a week this slick bistro turns into a tasty burger spot
Want Fries with That? Yes! Delicious fast food style spuds are worth your attention, but order the onion rings too
Prices: Vertical Bison Burger w/side, $14; Classic Kobe Burger w/side, $14
Vertical Wine Bistro is, on most nights, exactly what its name implies: a wine bistro. It's the brainchild of legendary Hollywood producer Gale Anne Hurd, who's more famous for pondering science fiction scenarios than wine pairings, but her talents seem to reach beyond turning emotionless cyborgs sent from the future into American icons. She cast the talented French chef Laurent Quenioux to head up her Pasadena restaurant, and it seems to have been the right choice.
The menu is a well curated cross-section of small plates and familiar entrées that get your mind thinking about wine. Whether its a Spanish Granacha or a California Pinot, the sommelier and general manager, Manuel Mesta, has a wine at the ready for whatever the selection on the French-inspired menu. But things get a little tricky for him on Thursday nights when, in a decidedly American direction, burgers take the menu's starring role. Come with me if you want a tasty, high-end burger.
A sandwich board announces the night's main attraction as you walk through the courtyard that makes for Vertical's appealing entrance. The upstairs restaurant (hence the name) is a surprisingly hip and pleasing space. The clientele this past Thursday looked to be a cross-section of young professionals who can afford a pricey wine with their burger dinner, along with burger eaters of all stripes.
I tried three of the four Thursday night burger menu selections, but let's start with Quenioux's take on the American classic: the Classic Kobe Burger topped with Wisconsin cheddar, tomato, grilled onion, Russian dressing, and lettuce. The patty was made of perfectly coarse-ground, loosely-packed Wagyu beef that got a nice char from the grill. It was beautifully seasoned and full of juice from the fat, but I'm still not sold on this variety of beef for a burger. That said, most everything else with the burger was in proper order. The cheddar was rich and flavorful and the onions were cooked with wine to create a mellow jam. The bun was nicely toasted, and though it was the predictable brioche-style, it didn't suffer that dry, crumbly texture you so often get from them.
The Vertical Bison Burger gets a Parmesan crisp, arugula, tomato, and roasted garlic aioli. If you're like me, you struggle with a Bison prejudice. The meat is often too lean to make for a good burger. I've never had one that made me think the chef made a good choice swapping out my beloved beef.
That was, until I had Vertical's version. The patty got a finer grind than the beef, but it still managed to maintain a nice texture despite its fat handicap. Better than the patty itself though was Quenioux's deft handling of the toppings. The Parmesan crisp's salty bite played against the sweetness of the tomatoes beautifully, and the garlic aioli added the fat that the patty lacked. I also loved the peppery kick of arugula. I was genuinely shocked by how much I found myself enjoying this burger. I would never have thought that I'd write these words, but I recommend the bison burger.
The pork "burger" wasn't a burger at all, but a pulled pork sandwich. That doesn't mean it isn't tasty though; it is. The pork is topped with red cabbage, goat cheese, red onion jam, and frisée. The most notable (and for me quite pleasing) element of this sandwich was its lack of sweetness.
The fries that come with the burgers are fantastic fast food-style spuds that are expertly handled and properly salted (and parsley-ed).
I thought I'd end with what has to be the standout preparation on a night of very good food: the onion rings. I'm not sure why Quenioux is such a talented onion ring fabricator, but these were beyond reproach: crispy exterior, flavorful batter, and not at all oily. These were, without question, the best version of I've tasted in recent memory.
The burger menu at Vertical is a welcome addition to the burger scene in the Los Angeles area. I was particularly pleased to have my horizons broadened with their bison burger. With a few tweaks they could become a bona fide burger destination.
About the author: Damon is one of our roving burger reporters and food writers. When he's not eating more than is warranted or healthful (and then writing about it) he can be found writing and producing for television and film. You can contact him at email@example.com.