When my friend Evan told me he was going to take me dinner for my birthday – and I got to pick the place – my brain nearly imploded from all of the possible choices. Dragging my heels for weeks, I remained indecisive as I scoured through posts upon posts of my favorite local food bloggers, trying to hone in on a couple of choices. It finally boiled down to two heavy contenders: Maxamiliano in Highland Park, and Vol. 94 in Pasadena. I put the choice to Evan, who was still very insistent on me having the final say, but did say he felt a bit of a slant toward Vol. 94 as it touted itself as a small plates/tapas restaurant. Vol. 94 it was!
Located just across from the Paseo Mall on Colorado, Vol. 94 isn’t terribly noticeable from the street, but when I stepped inside I was somehow transported to a spacious, bright and stately room that looked as if it belonged in a palace by the sea.
If you can’t tell from that picture above, they’re a bit big on the wine. I’m not really one for ordering wine when I dine out, though, but Evan and I more than made up for it with our rampage on their menu. Now, some might think it tacky of me to post the prices here as this was a birthday meal, but I realize others find it helpful to know. I forgot to take home the menu they gave me so some prices are unavailable unless they are on the website.
Melon Prosciutto Gazpacho
Toasted Pine Nuts | Sprouts | Balsamic Vinegar | Chilled Melon Broth
I love the combination of melon/prosciutto, and going with this was a refreshing dish to start our meal off with, especially since the day we chose for our outing was exceptionally hot. A little bit sweet, a little bit salty, crunchy, smooth and chilled. Great way to wake up our palates.
Watermelon Aguas Fresca ($2 add-on to dish above)
Evan first ordered this, and after he permitted me to have a sip I ordered one for myself. Aguas Fresca have a habit of running on the sugary side, but this was as thirst-quenching natural as if it had been freshly pressed at our table. Watermelon is the perfect flavor to compliment the hot summer day while not so overbearing as to compromise the rest of our dishes.
Pirate’s Gold ($12)
Squid Inked Gnocchi Parisienne | Pistachio-Leek Puree | Mint | Bottarga | Rainbow Chard
Ever since my experience at Wood & Vine, I’ve been a little gnocchi obsessed, especially since I can’t order it from just anywhere. Gnocchi has to come from a restaurant of high caliber and I felt comfortable enough with vol. 94 to let them handle it. The upped the ante by adding squid ink into the mix, which I never tasted before. Though it’s not pleasant to stare at food that resembles burnt mini marshmallows, the gnocchi had a great texture and all of the components harmonized well. Living well up to my expectation, I was wishing for more as soon as it had gone.
The 60′s ['Shrooms & Weed] ($7)
Hen of the Wood Mushrooms | Dandelion Greens | Popcorn Grits | Tonburi | Sliced Porcini Mushrooms
It’s not as if Evan and I would enter into a suicide pact should we be medically bound to a vegetarian diet, but suffice to say this was our only non-meat selection (dessert doesn’t count) and we were both happy with our selection. I’m not a big fan of culinary foam as I think it’s another useless trend, but aside from that, this was the ideal dish for mushroom-loving fiends such as we.
Amberjack Crudo ($14)
Kanpachi | Avocado | Mango Kaffir Lime Relish | Tamarind Caramel Popcorn
I glanced right over this gem, but am so pleased Evan went for it. Amberjack is new on my radar, and Kanpachi is its most mature state, meaning fish measuring over 4′ in length. It has a firm meat, but a delicate flavor. The tamarind popcorn threw me off for a moment, but was good just the same, adding to the tropical Southeast Asia flavors of mango and Kaffir Lime.
Drunkin’ Softshell Crab ($10)
Soju Marinated Softshell Crab | Spiced Korean Jam | Korean Pear | Oro Blanco Gastrique
This is the dish that first caught my attention when I scoped their menu online. Let me tell you; it was worth the wait and the hype I built up in myself. Spicy and crunchy, this dish set the bar very high for all of my future encounters with softshell crab. The fried pear (looks like lotus root) was a nicely sweet touch and the shredded jicama was just the bit of freshness required to make this plate the perfect balancing act of flavor and texture. If you can’t handle the heat, do not order this from the kitchen!
Pan Seared Diver Scallops (approx. $16)
Unfortunately they have changed their menu so the current scallop selection is not what we ordered and I was apparently a bit lazy with my notes so I’ve no clue what anything on that plate is other than the scallops. The greens may or may not be baby bok choy, the white a finely shaved mushroom of some sort, and the caper looking spheres are not capers. It doesn’t matter anyway because Good Lord look at the sear on those scallops! I do not believe I have come across its equal, and if its Chef Phil Lee or someone else in that kitchen who made these scallops, well, I want them at my home searing scallops for me day and night. That was not a euphemism.
SGV Duck (price unlisted on site)
Royal Anise-Chili Sauce | Japanese Eggplant | Chinese Long Beans | Yu Choy
I’m picky with duck, but there was something completely unique about the SGV (San Gabriel Valley) duck that called out to me. It definitely had a firm kick to it, but the heat was not unbearable. The creamy cinnamon left a lingering sweetness on my tongue and while the meat itself was a wee chewy (the nature of being rare), it was still one of the best duck choices I’ve ever made.
Pat Bingsoo ($7)
Condensed Milk Custard | Strawberry Shaved Ice | Azuki Beans | Kiwi Pate de Fruit
I imagine this is the kind of food a child in South Korea would make him or herself when mom and dad are out and the babysitter is too busy talking to her boyfriend to notice. Raid the fridge, grab ALL THE SWEETS and go bananas. They live with no regrets and neither did we after digging in to our first bite (after the awkward pause of, “OMGWhatisthis?”)
- The service at Vol. 94 cannot be rivaled; everyone is impeccably professional in terms of friendliness, knowledge, and efficiency. They were sure to refresh our plates + cutlery every other new dish so that our palates could experience each dish on its own. I even briefly exchanged niceties with owner Joon Kim, who set upon to create his culinary vision with Executive Chef Phil Lee.
- My biggest criticism lies within their online presence, specifically the website which has crashed my computer more times than I’d like to admit due to its auto-play embedded music that cannot be switched off. I strongly advise vol. 94 to do away with it. Also, they have a locked Twitter account which defeats the purpose of a business operating a Twitter. Minor and easily fixed quibbles when compared to the stellar service and food, though.
- vol. 94 is perfect for a special evening out begging for a unique bite or a spot of a wine and a shared plate before heading out to live entertainment. 15% off specials are offered when you sign their guestbook and use a print-out.
There was not a single dish that fell short and I am aching to save my pennies and return to vol. 94 so I can ravage their extensive menu once more.
Vol. 94 Wine Bistro
239 East Colorado Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91101
Sunday, Tues-Thurs: 5:30p-11:00p