Tuesday, August 16, 2011

She's Got Champagne Eyes.....

"There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of Champagne." - Bette Davis

Ain’t that the truth!  There is just something about the whole Champagne experience that is invigorating, whether after a long day at work, participating in the pre-dawn sales at Neiman Marcus, or celebrating that long-awaited promotion, engagement or wedding.  Maybe it is the bubbles caressing one’s nose, or the ritual that attends the opening of a bottle and the pouring of the wine.  Or maybe it is the naughty inference one can draw from a Champagne coupe that allegedly was modeled on the breast of Marie Antoinette. 

For centuries, Champagne has been associated with luxury, festivities and rites of passage.  But at POP Champagne & Dessert Bar, this effervescent sensory sensation is showcased for what it is:  an exceptional aperitif or accompaniment to most any food or dessert.

My companion and I were walking the streets of Old Town Pasadena recently, killing time before our dinner reservation at a local bistro, when we spotted POP’s unique sign.  The evening was warm and sunny, our reservation was not for another hour, and so with nary a spoken word we weaved our way through passing traffic to the entrance of POP.  Stepping into POP evokes images of a Roaring Twenties speakeasy, and you expect to see Ernest Hemingway holding court at a back table with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  Art deco lighting softly illuminates exposed brick walls festooned with empty gold frames, plush, royal purple booths that provide an intimate environment for their occupants, and a large, beautiful bar.  The rest of the space contains tables covered in black linens and decorated with elegant orchids.  Modern day speakeasy music adds to the ambiance of POP. 

It was Happy Hour and the bar was jammed with young, lively patrons partaking of the generous Happy Hour specials and many tables and booths were already occupied by a generational cross section of people obviously enjoying themselves.  When we said we merely wanted a glass of Champagne, we were told a table was available for an hour and we readily accepted.  Kudos to the front desk staff for accommodating us rather than turning us away.  We only intended to have one glass and be on our way, so a time constraint was perfectly appropriate and acceptable.

There are more than one hundred Champagne houses and untold sparkling wine producers, and a fair number of them are represented on POP’s uncommon wine list.  My companion and I like to think we know something about wine, but POP’s wine list made us pause and try to conjure information from past issues of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.  Sure, there are the old standbys like Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon, and these are sold by the bottle.  But for the most part, POP’s wine list offers an intriguing representation of smaller producers, so some professional guidance is needed.  Fortunately, POP’s smartly dressed staff is as knowledgeable as it is personable and is there to guide your journey through the mysteries of the wine list.  Caryn was our designated Champagne Guide for the evening and her bubbly personality was well suited to the occasion.  We wanted to compare Champagne styles, so she paired a Bollinger Special Cuvee with a Paul Bara Brut Reserve Bouzy.  With a clink of our Champagne flutes, our journey began.

Champagne functions wells as an aperitif.  But like most French wines, it functions best with food.  Mindful of our impending dinner reservation, we resisted the temptation of appetizers.  For a brief while, that is, until we succumbed to the sight and smell of plates on nearby tables.  Caryn recommended a couple of her favorite items, we selected one, and before long Brie Toast with Chardonnay Soaked Raisins was served. This dish was a complete and utterly wonderful surprise.  Deconstructed, raisins, brie and chardonnay have a readily discernible taste.  But combined in this dish they assumed a harmonious blend of taste and texture that would make a blind identification of the ingredients quite challenging.  The depth of flavor was scintillating:  first, the chardonnay soaked golden raisins were soft, juicy and gave off a hint of seductive vanilla and lavender, followed by the silky texture of the brie, all the while supported by the crunch and slight char of the toast.  And each of the Champagnes admirably complimented this dish. 

I don’t know if caused by this dish or the Champagne, or both, but by now I had lost my willpower and sense of time.  Boldly we asked Caryn to select two sparkling wines from regions outside the United States and she brought a German Rosé and Spanish Cava.   The Latitude 50 Sekt Troken Rosé (Sekt is a German Sparkling Wine) is a dry sparkling rosé from Germany made from portugeiser (a grape variety, not a reference to an old Portuguese wine grower), dornfelder, and pinot noir.  Though it is pale salmon in color, this sparkling wine is surprisingly complex with a good dose of minerality that I like.  My first time trying a German sparkling wine, and I’m hooked!  (You can order online at www.klwines.com. )  Next up was a playful Spanish Cava:  the Raventos Cava Reserva Rosedo ’07 Penedes.  This is a fresh, concentrated, deliciously dynamic bubbly whose scent is slightly reminiscent of a grass field in the Mediterranean on a warm, summer day.  Another winner and a wine I will order again. 

Yash Youseffi, the general manager, suggested that with these two sparkling wines we try the Cherry Heirloom & Roma Tomato & Basil Bruschetta on Parmesan Crostini.  This was a match made in Heaven as both of the sparkling wines stood up well against the acidity of the bruschetta.  What surprised me about this bruschetta was the use of heirloom cherry tomatoes.  Pure bliss.  The bruschetta was light, had the right balance of acidity and fruit and tasted as if the tomatoes had just been picked.  Clearly the chef at POP cares about the ingredients used, and each dish reflects a level of sophistication that was not expected at a champagne and dessert bar.

POP has quite an extensive dinner and dessert menu to match the large Champagne inventory (all of which can be seen online).  POP offers Champagne flights, Happy Hour, brunch on the second Sunday of every month, music on Thursday and Sunday, and private events.  Also, there are still wines and glamorous specialty wine cocktails.  For those men who think Champagne (or wine in general) is only for women or to be consumed when forced at special occasions, read about Jay McInerney's wine adventure in Bacchus & Me, particularly the chapter on Champagne.  Otherwise, POP has an interesting selection of domestic and imported beers, most of which appear to be from boutique breweries. 

Visit POP the next time you are in Old Town Pasadena.  The atmosphere is warm and inviting--a throw back in time--with staff that will make the experience memorable.  Reservations are important, so plan ahead.  Or just whisper at the door:  “Christy sent me.” 

á votre santé!

POP Champagne & Dessert Bar
33 E. Union Street
Pasadena, CA 91103
Phone 626-795-1295

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