After three years, the San Gabriel Valley’s most elegant wine bar, Vertical, has changed things up. Gone are chef Sara Levine and her small-plates tasting menu; now settled in are new chef Doug Weston and a more traditionally structured menu of modern American bistro food. Also new is operations manager David Haskell, a self-described “wine dude” who’s expanded the by-the-glass selection and added personal favorites to the cellar. Finally, owner (and movie producer) Gale Anne Hurd lightened the interior while retaining the overall feeling of urban elegance and warmth it’s had from the beginning — you could just as easily be in New York as Pasadena.
Haskell’s list is full of excellent and interesting wines, but down on the lower end where we frugal folks live, there aren’t a whole lot of bargains; still, there are a couple of tasty options for $10 a glass or less (try the Tobin James “Ballistic” Zinfandel, just the thing for these cold nights).
As for Weston’s menu, it is smart, balanced and reasonably priced, with entrees in the $19 to $26 range (in the bar you can get smaller, less expensive dishes). We were quite impressed with the rich asparagus risotto with parmesan and basil and the flawlessly cooked blue nose sea bass on a bed of white beans; a little less accomplished was the tender but too intensely sauced short ribs with braised red cabbage and just the barest hint of parsnip puree.
Overall, the new direction is a welcome one, injecting new life into this smart bistro. Is it as good as crosstown rival A.O.C.? No, but it’s one of the best destination restaurants in Pasadena, and certainly our most impressive wine bar. You won’t find a better place for an after-work glass of wine and happy-hour snack or a romantic dinner by the fireplace.
Also note the new Wednesday-night wine class, a great deal that combines a wine-tasting lesson with three wines and three small dishes, all for just $33.
Vertical Wine Bistro, 70 N. Raymond Ave., Old Pasadena, 626.795.3999, verticalwinebistro.com. Modern American/wine bar. Happy hour & D Tues.-Sun. Full bar. AE, MC, V. $$$ – $$$$