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Refined Flavor With a Flourish

Vertical Wine Bar Offers Delicious Continental Cuisine, but Be Prepared to Order Two or Three Dishes Per Person

February 01, 2001|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Vertical Wine Bar, which opened in Laguna Beach six weeks ago on trendy Forest Avenue, has sophisticated roots. Chef-owner Jonathan Pflueger is a recent alumnus of Manhattan's beloved Russian Tea Room.

Pflueger's baseline is continental cuisine with more than occasional flourishes of Asian influence, but I'd be loath to tarnish it with the tired name "fusion." This is highly refined food--across the board, the flavors are whispered, more than announced; everything is balanced, nothing knocks you upside the head. The kitchen is impressively consistent for a restaurant so recently opened.

Here's the hitch: You might want to stop off for a Whopper on your way home because the portions hark back to the days of nouvelle cuisine minimalism.

Vertical also harks back to the days of grazing; it's one of those places without an appetizer/main course distinction. Most dishes hover around the $15 mark--fairly moderate, I thought. But in terms of sticker shock, I have to say I was jolted into something of a New York state of mind when our waitress informed us that two or three dishes per person would be about right.

We ordered three items per guest, then had dessert, and nobody went away complaining about being over-stuffed. I certainly don't hail from the Big Gulp school of culinary value, but for a smallish meal at a new and unknown restaurant, a likely tab of $50 seems excessive when you consider, say, the more generous six-course prix-fixe tasting menu at Napa's famous La Toque, which runs $70.

But perhaps it's not hideously out of line when measured against the quality alone. If you bailed out of the Nasdaq at the right moment, Vertical offers much to savor.

The space has an airy, bistro-like feel, with walls of exposed brick, a burnished concrete floor and comfortably spaced tables. It's cool without being cold and has a nice loose feel that encourages conversation. There's a pleasant patio in front that's adequately warmed by space heaters when need be.

The menu changes daily, but two stellar fixtures, prepared in one form or another, are the scallops and the petite filet mignon. The former, on my first visit, were presented as porcini-dusted scallops. They (all two of them) were plump and succulent and played well against the shavings of meaty-tasting mushrooms. They were no less delectable on another visit, when they were served on a bed of chewy orzo pasta in a subtle curry sauce that enhanced the flavor of the seafood.

Morsel that it is, the filet is hard to forget. Mine came rare, as requested, as tender as youth and redolent of garlic and butter, but what made it a home run was the tangy braised short-rib sauce with an added high note of black truffle. The seared Hudson Valley foie gras was also superb, delicately enhanced by a smattering of pomegranate, which can easily overpower anything it nestles up against (but doesn't here), and aged balsamic vinegar.

There was also a wonderful "lightly curried celeriac soup" given complex dimensions of flavor by small chunks of duck confit and rounded out by pear, chervil and apple. Unfortunately, it would take at least four of these servings (at $9 a pop) to make up a full bowl of soup.

Ever indulge in a wild pintade? That may sound like something that could get you 60 hours of community service, but it's the French name for a bird known as guinea fowl. Beneath its crisp, duck-like skin is a remarkably moist, flavorful breast of fowl. And the light rosemary jus that came with it really knocked it out of the park.

Desserts for the most part live up to the standards of the other offerings. There's a lovely selection of refreshing sorbets, among which the apricot is a stand-out. The creme bru^lee is a fine example of its species, and the fat Chilean blackberries sauteed in Chambord and served with a chocolate and hazelnut-swirled ice cream are more than satisfying.

The wine list seems moderately priced, though somewhat unfocused.

Here, I should mention that while the name "Vertical" may suggest to wine connoisseurs a vertical wine tasting, that's not the ostensible concept. Instead, we were told, "Vertical" refers to an effort to graduate food and wine according to intensity and heaviness as you work your way down either list. At any rate, there is a fair range of moderately priced wines by the bottle, somewhat biased toward California varietals. Most range between $25 and $60, peaking with an eye-popping $700 '96 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. There's also a smallish selection of wines by the glass or 2-ounce pours.

It's in the realm of food-and-wine pairings that Vertical has yet to hit its stride, but I was told after my second visit that plans are underway to suggest appropriate pairings. (Winemakers dinners are also scheduled for the future.)

Prices and portions aside, Vertical promises to become one of Orange County's notable dining destinations.

Vertical Wine Bar is expensive. Wine and beer. Selections run from $9 to $18.

* Vertical Wine Bar, 234 Forest Ave, Laguna Beach. (949) 494-0990. Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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