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By Edwin Goei
Photo by Jack GouldThere are several standup things about Laguna Beach's Vertical Wine Bar. The stylish, distressed-brick-meets-postmodern-metal restaurant offers playfully original dishes that are like a Fellini film, albeit a short one, for your tongue, while the ceiling-scraping wine rack yields some 147 choices ranging from modest $25-a-pop vintages to your $425 '79 Chateau Haut-Brion. I say "your" because you wouldn't find me drinking wine at that price unless it cured cancer and I was sick. Still, it's nice to know the option is there.
Something else that stands up is the blue lump crab salad. It arrives as a little tower on your—and, in this case, my—plate, the aggressively spiced crab salad perched atop green beans prepared in sherry and cream, all of this coaxed into standing upright, surrounded by a little moat of vine-ripened tomato vinaigrette. It is too pretty to eat, but eat it you must, and you will pronounce it good, which is so much more satisfying than pronouncing it well.
There are items on the menu I can't pronounce, such as malpeque oysters with champagne mignonette, while the Ligurean olive tapenade-encrusted Colorado lamb chop is served with something called gremolata. The term doesn't even appear in the Larousse Gastronomique, while the closest word in my dictionary is "gremlins," which I know aren't in season. The Vertical menu changes daily, and you can count on chef/owner Jonathan Pfleuger lobbing a few surprises your way.
The servers reputedly excel at matching wines to your food orders, if you lack that ability. Similar to the variety packs many brewpubs offer, you can also order "flights" of wine—three two-ounce servings of wines combined to make a statement.
Here's a statement right from the wine list about the Jordan Vertical cabernet flight: "Nuances of mellow wet cedar and damp leather tie together a subtle framework of vanilla-infused oak and soft tannins with multilayered flavors of ripe black cherry and cassis." Having, personally, about as much wine discernment as a German shepherd, my statement was, "Jesus Christ, I just paid $24 for six ounces of wine!" It was awfully good wine, though, particularly the butter-smooth '94 Alexander Valley. Their other wine flights, incidentally, are a mere $12 to $16, a more agreeable infusion of wallet leather and plastic.
The food items are referred to as "tasting plates" rather than entrées, and there's a reason. Remember Belisle's, the much-missed Anaheim eatery in which folks would often remark on the high prices on the menu, but then gasp and laugh at the Bunyanesque portions heaped on their plates? The Vertical veers in the other direction. The prices—$8 to $18—would be quite reasonable for entrées of this quality, but the tasting plate portions are comically small, scarcely larger than what your daughter might serve at a tea party for her Star Wars action figures.
Choose wisely, young Skywalker. The aforementioned lamb, all one chop of it, was overwhelmed by its pungent, salty tepanade coating. At $16, it was in no way superior to the two chops you get at Newport's Bayside restaurant happy hour for $4.95.
Meanwhile, the Vertical spice-dusted jumbo sea scallops were excellent but left us with the awkward math problem of dividing three scallops among four persons. At $17, figuring $2 of that was for the dollop of polenta, that worked out to $5 per scallop. They weren't thatdamned jumbo.
The five-spiced Muscovy duck breast salad with baby bok choy, shaved cabbage, mandarin oranges, won ton skins and spicy sesame vinaigrette occupies nearly as much space on the menu as it does on a plate, but, again, it was some fine eatin', as was the ahi tuna tartare (sort of a decimated sashimi) and the watercress and frisee salad, which featured wondrous slices of pear poached with vanilla.
Somewhere around the time I was hungrily trying to spear the last morsel of young arugula, it occurred to me that the trick to Vertical Wine Bar is to not go there for a meal. Use the place, as the name suggests, for downing wine, with a little patch of food on the side as a treat. Or go before a meal to build up an appetite or after a meal (the desserts are splendid), or to listen to the classy entertainment, or when you're hoping for a romantic evening unmarred by post-meal bloat. That, or bring your Star Warsaction figures. They'll love climbing the little crabmeat towers.Vertical Wine Bar, located at 234 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, is open daily, 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. (949) 494-0990. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $26-$80, food only. All major cards except Diner's Club accepted.