Fried chicken and other American staples go French at Vertical Wine Bistro
By Dan O'Heron 09/20/2012
Anticipating a fancy meal at a high-end restaurant, would my date think of me as a dumb cluck if I ordered fried chicken?
As prepared at Vertical Wine Bistro by James Beard Foundation Award nominee Chef Laurent Quenioux, definitely not. As an all-you-can-eat fried chicken dinner first served a year ago as an uncommon, nonrecurring event, fried chicken has become a regular Sunday service.
Prepared family style, the dish serves to remind us of how great it was to eat at grandma’s house — and pass the mashed potatoes. Although loaded with “smashed” potatoes and ham hocks, the chicken coated in a special collection of dried herbs, it’s what you like about the South. In this case, the same goes for southern France.
But why? Chef Quenioux says fried chicken is a natural extension of Vertical Wine Bistro’s cookery, or “bistrology,” as he calls it. This, he says, brings to the table popular American dishes with French cooking techniques and overlays of California refinements. He might add that there is an active mind in the kitchen always at work improving things.
“While our chicken dinner is elevated to satisfy foodies,” says Quenioux, “it’s affordable to almost everyone.” (A three-course meal is $29 per person.)
For founding partner, Hollywood producer and Pasadena resident Gale Anne Hurd, American food staples — and attitudes — add excitement to a regular customer’s expectations while courting a wider new patronage.
I like the idea that it changes the way very fussy people eat, and it reminds me that classic American dishes are still really something to chew on. Even boeuf bourguignon, featured during the month of August, had strong, local American ties: It was the main dish in a three-course culinary event that commemorated the life of Pasadena-born Julia Child. Perhaps more than her play on TV kitchen sets, Child is remembered as the author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” a cookbook for Americans who don’t have servants.
The Burgundy-style beef, braised in red wine and garnished with pearl onions and small mushrooms — with an astute wine pairing — likely would have aroused a famous chortle from Child: It was one of her favorite meals, and one, so to speak, that agreed with what she often told reporters was the secret of her longevity — “red meat and gin.”
In honoring Child, boeuf bourguignon became so popular with guests that it now encores as a fixture on the regular daily menu, as does another Child favorite, salade nicoise.
For French-born Quenioux, the dishes serve to remind guests that French cuisine is the standard by which all other cuisines are measured.
In a more pedestrian event, hitting the streets of Pasadena’s “Best Cheeseburger Fest,” Quenioux’s bison burger, with burrata cheese, caramelized onions and arugula and herb dressing, came away with the blue ribbon for “best alternative.”
It was the inspiration for an ongoing “Burger Night Thursday” at the restaurant, which, in building an adult burger experience, also features Kobe and veggie burgers. But the “bison” is so popular, it’s about to be included on the regular nightly menu.
In another sojourn from elegance to rusticity, a “Rib Night” provided guests with barbecued baby backs so tender that the meat slid off the bone like butter off an ear of corn. In unmannered abandonment, guests really enjoyed picking them apart with hands and teeth.
And there were side trips to “Grilled Cheese Night,” which highlighted the familiar gooey goodness of eight sandwiches. These were not grilled cheese sandwiches for starving students, masochists who like to melt Limburger, or Raider fans who are dejected if Cheez Wiz is not the main squeeze.
Chef Quenioux’ preparations, on rustic breads or semolina loaves, had lofty alliances like cheddar with crispy sage and apple-smoked bacon, plus nutty Fontina with shiitake mushrooms and Mexican onions, anointed with truffle oil.
I’d imagine the chef could whip up a great potato salad for picnics, but there are only a few days left to pick up the kind of special summer provisions that will turn a brown basket into a royal blue: Cheese platters include slices of Valdeón, the classic blue-veined Spanish cheese, with spills of orange/cranberry crush plus roasted walnuts.
I’ve got a blanket and an Igloo ice chest, but fried chicken Sundays and barbecued ribs — plus fancy drinks at a snazzy bar — are what truly inspire the southern “country boy” in me.
70 N. Raymond Ave.,