Friday, October 5, 2012

Spago - 10/04/2012

176 North Canon Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(310) 385-0880

Can a restaurant have a mid-life crisis? Apparently so because Wolfgang Puck's flagship Spago just got a revamped... well everything. Certainly the restaurant has evolved over its 30 year life, but the decision to shutter entirely certainly merits special attention. Some of the changes are cosmetic like the more contemporary dining room with a built in wine cellar and new uniforms for the staff. More importantly, the restaurant is adding a serious cocktail program and going with a casual small plates menu. Wolfgang Puck made a name for himself as a pioneer of fusion cuisine and Spago's menu has long featured Asian flourishes but that influence is even more baldly apparent in the rebooted restaurant with several dishes that hardly qualify as fusion.

SAMURAI SWORD - Yamazaki 12 Year Single Malt, Honey Syrup, Ginger, Lemon Juice
I was expecting a balanced spicy acidity but this was actually the stiffest of our initial libations. The combination of sugar, spice, and acid sound promising but the three conflicting flavors attenuate one another which left the whiskey as the strongest element of the cocktail.

ADIOS NONINO - Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Luxardo Amaretto, Aperol, Nonino Amaro
Boozy cherry cola, the Luxardo definitely dominates this cocktail. Still the bourbon is not to be overlooked, with its woody attack and medicinal finish; think 'Tussin.

ALEETO’S WAY - Patron Anejo Tequila, Aperol, Lemon Juice
With a bright herb-tinged citrus, this was the most approachable of the first three cocktails with the tequila barely noticeable against the fresh sweetness of the lemon and Aperol.

DUKE OF EARL - Earl Grey Tea Infused Gin, Lemon Juice
Without a doubt this was my favorite cocktail. The purity of the tea infused gin had me doing a double take; if you love Earl grey this is the drink for you. My friends likened this to an adult Lipton's Iced Tea.

HELP! SAVE THE BEES - Ketel One Citroen Vodka, Luxardo Limoncello, Thyme & Lavender Honey, Lemon Juice
The Bees was a remarkably easy drinking cocktail thanks to the floral sweetness of thyme and lavender tempering the sharp citrus tang of the alcohol.

TAINTED LOVE - Tanqueray No. 10 Gin, Campari, St-Germain, Lemon Juice
This was a recommendation from our server. The Campari dominates this drink lending it both a reddish hue and a bitter citrus flavor akin to grapefruit juice.

PEPINO’S REVENGE - Patron Silver Tequila, Japanese Cucumber, Basil, Lime Juice
This was one of the more intriguing cucumber cocktails that I've had recently. Though there is the crisp brightness of a cucumber cocktail there is also the sensation of ripe melon and an intriguing hint of savor on the finish.

Brandade - Tomato Coulis
When we arrived the hostess warned us that the restaurant was a touch backed up. After our first round of cocktails the manager came by to buy us a drink and give us some apps to pass the time. The first was an amuse of a spoonful of salt cod with tomato. The brandade is fairly mild, slightly salty but not fishy especially when coupled with the sweetness of the tomato.

Veal Filet Mignon Tartare - Smoked Marscarpone
This was a really slick tartare presentation. The hollowed out bones are filled with raw veal topped with a smoky Marscarpone. The meat is supple and snappy but markedly lighter than regular beef though the Marscarponeenhances the veal's mild savor. The side salad provided a refreshing change of pace from the weight of the raw meat.

White Burgundy | B. Moreau, 1er Cru Les Chenevottes, Chassagne-Montrachet, France 2008
For our first wine we went with a sommelier suggestion. The wine has intense flavors of lemongrass and mineral on the attack mixed with a growing oaky lushness on the finish.

Kampachi Ceviche - Esplette, Purslane
Not at all the traditional ceviche, there is certainly an intense spice but also a potent ginger essence. The fish itself was perhaps a touch soft with a nice lingering oiliness on the finish.

French Langoustine - Matsutake, Petite Green Salad
Fans of Matsutake will adore this dish as the woody essence of the fungi plays beautifully with the sweet salinity of the langoustine.

Sautéed Hama Hama Oysters - Curry, Cucumber Relish
I scoffed when my friend described this as an "Indian oyster" but after tasting it I have to admit that he got the description spot on. The cooked oyster has a savory shell and muted salinity that lets the curry shine while the vegetable topping adds a piquant verve that helps temper the exotic spice of the curry seasoning.

Coastal Organic Farm’s Heirloom Tomato Salad - Olive Oil Sorbet
This was actually a mistake/gift from the kitchen. The tomatoes are delightfully sweet but it is the savory sweet nuance of the sorbet that stands out.

Chirashi Sushi - Blue Fin Tuna, Hamachi, Salmon Pearls, Uni
Though I'm a bit of a sushi snob I have to say I enjoyed this course. Though the uni could have been a bit fresher, the rest of the fish was superb, and the soy gelée added the perfect touch of savor to the raw seafood.

Skate Wing
After watching us order, the kitchen decided to experiment and send us out a few extra courses. One of which was a skate wing wrapped in banana leaf. The skate is so tender that it almost breaks apart on contact while the flavor was a blend of piquant lemongrass, herbs, and spice reminiscent of a Tom Yum soup.

Shima Aji
Another gift from the kitchen, the raw fish has a beautiful textural complexity; at once snappy and oily while the seasoning was simple but effective and very reminiscent of the Halibut Carpaccio at Abe which was my favorite dish about a decade ago.

Chicken "Noodle" Soup - Chili, Basil, Shaved Young Onions
Though its billed as a soup this was really more akin to a xiao long bao. The filling was a savory chicken soup gel that is especially tasty with the fresh herbs. A bath of chicken stock heightens the clean savor of the dumpling while the slice of chili adds a slow growing burn.

Santa Barbara Spot Prawns - Hong Kong Style
I was grateful to the kitchen for sending this as a gift since I was wondered about the "Hong Kong Style" but didn't feel like buying a lobster for 2 just to sate my curiosity. The prawn was a touch overdone, but the sauce was immediately familiar with strong notes of soy and garlic.

Fujian Fried Rice - Egg, Crab, Lobster
Most of the time I eat fried rice it is the Yangchow variety, but Fujianese fried rice is another well known preparation. Rice here was much richer and moister thanks to the inclusion of a thick sauce.

Sweet White Summer Corn Agnolotti - Parmigiano Reggiano
Seasonal agnolotti has been a mainstay of the Spago menu since I can remember. The sweet corn lives up to its name with a profound saccharine character that is only slightly cooled by the nutty astringency of the cheese.

Aonori Soba Pasta - Dungeness Crab, Matsutake
Far and away the most impressive of the pastas. The noodles exhibit a supple starchiness and the thin slices of mushroom interject a moderating woodiness to the sweet flavor of the crab while the vegetables provide a contrasting levity.

Uova da Raviolo "Carbonara" - Smoked Bacon
With creamy egg and the smoky smack of bacon I thought this was delicious if a bit straightforward. Surprisingly that simplicity turned of half of my table who found the dish a bit boring. Still if you like Carbonara this is well worth a try.

Red Burgundy | Méo-Camuzet - 2005
I've been on a Pinot kick lately and this was just what I was craving. Medium bodied with fresh herbs and sour cherry cola, this isn't going to win any awards for complexity but it was an easy wine to enjoy.

Bacon Wrapped Monkfish "Yabba-Dabba-Doo"
I liked the idea of this course but the execution felt a bit off. Certainly the bacon is an apt companion for the weighty Monkfish, but the fish itself left something to be desired. The firm springy texture unique to Monkfish was replaced by a dense slightly mealy feel perhaps the result of the vegetable "bone" running through the center.

Black Sea Bass - Crisp Scale, Littleneck Clams, Olympia oysters
This reminded me of a one of Guy Savoy's signature dishes. The scales have a delightful glassy crunch akin to eating a mouthful of crushed potato chips. By itself, the meat is flaky but a touch mild, but when taken with the shellfish, has enough salinity to stand up to the savor of the fried scales.

Wild King Salmon - Romesco Vinaigrette, Grilled Romaine Hearts, Anchovies
At first glance, the King Salmon should be the star of this dish, but the overdone fish was actually a bit disappointing. Instead it is the charred savor laden lettuce that stands out particularly with the smoky bite of the vinaigrette.

Santa Barbara Spot Prawn - Matsutake, Nori Butter
I was surprised to see this on the menu as it is fairly similar to langoustine, but I'm not complaining as these were two of the stronger courses of the meal. Though I typically enjoy Spot Prawns with minimal adornment, I was enchanted by the combination of nori and matsutake. The former brings out the more savory aspects of the shellfish while the mushroom's earthy flavor provides a sense of gravitas but also restraint that worked beautifully with the inherent sweetness of the prawn.

Rhone | E. Guigal Hermitage - 1987
I was surprised to see this offered by the half-bottle. This wine doesn't display the fiesty spice of younger Rhones, instead there is ripe red fruit blended with smoke and earthy brush with an acidity to give the wine some lift.

Jidori Chicken Breast & Leg Pastrami - Rye Crisp
I would have skipped on this course, but the leg pastrami piqued my interest. The bird proved to be well done all around, the moist savory breast is enjoyable enough, but the pastrami is something else entirely. The leg meat is coated in a sheen of oil and abounds with the briney spiced savor of a classic pastrami. Though I normally eschew chicken, the profundity of the pastrami made this my favorite of the entree courses.

Colorado Lamb Chops - Moroccan Spices, Charred Eggplant, Labneh
With its high fat content, this is one of the gamier lamb chops that I've had in a while. Thankfully the verdant tang of the mint and nutty char of the toasted eggplant both fit beautifully with the ovine rusticity.

Creek Stone Farm’s 28 Days Dry Aged New York Steak - "Matsutake Gohan" Black Garlic
Compared to the meat at CUT, this beef left me a bit wanting. Though tasty enough, it lacked the profound beefy sapor that I look for in dry aged beef. My favorite part of the dish turned out to be the Matsutake Gohan which came laced with some pickled vegetables adding a kimchi-like savor to the earthy heft of the mushrooms.

Pee-wee Potatoes - Spicy Tomato Sauce "Brava"
Here we have Spago's take on patatas bravas. Though the potatoes aren't fried, they have a taut snap on the skin while the heady tomato sauce add an exclamation of spice.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts - Shiro Miso-Maple Mustard
Though I'm not a fan of Brussels sprouts, the sweetness of the miso-maple went a long way towards balancing out the vegetable's inherent bitterness.

Alois Kracher Cuvée Beerenauslese - 2008
We opted to let the sommelier pick a dessert wine and she didn't let us down. The wine had plenty of dried apricot, tropical fruits, and honey but with a streak of acidity that deftly lightened the sugary elements.

Blackberries, Mango, Currants - Cassis Sorbet, Earl Grey Tea Essence, Arlette Wafer Cookies
For our first dessert we enjoyed bowl of fresh fruits. This would have been a bit simplistic but for the concentrated ripeness of the cassis sorbet and the herbal fragrance of the Earl Grey.

Passion, Pineapple, Mango - Rum Baba Boules, Passion Fruit Frozen Kumo, Oven Roasted Pineapples
This was the best of the three fruit desserts, the passion fruit and mango make for a tropical savory sweet duo. The fruit itself is a bit light, but the tiny rum cakes provide a counterleaving weightiness.

Bartlett Pear, Black Mission Figs - Caramel Bourbon Pain Perdu, Vanilla and Maple Roasted Pear, 50 Bean Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream
I'm always a sucker for French toast and this caramel infused preparation didn't disappoint. The spongy airy bread is shot through with richness heightened by the cooked fruit leaving the vanilla ice cream to impose some restraint on the dish.

Rock, Pebble, Chocolate - Almond Cream, Warm Truffles, Cool Truffles, Bon Bons
The name brings to mind Cocoa Pebbles, but the dish is so much more than that. What looks like a bunch of "pebbles" is actually a mix of bonbons and chocolate covered fruits with the chocolate serving as a bitter foil to the multifaceted fillings.

Black Bowl - Chocolate Crumble Parfait, Cardamom Glace, Espresso Air, Chocolate Brulee Cookie
The sweet equivalent of Seven-layer dip, this has a bit of everything. The flavor definitely leans towards the rich side, but with a blend of textures: crunchy, creamy, ethereal, and watery.

Though the decision was probably motivated by business realities, part of me is sad to see Spago to forgo a formal tasting menu and shift to a more casual model. Despite my misgivings the new Spago is off to a good start. Contrary to reports about the old Spago, service was attentive to the point that the manager bought us a round of drinks and appetizers when they couldn't seat us promptly. Speaking of said cocktails, there was definitely a greater level of effort and creativity, certainly a step up from the tired offerings they served previously. Lastly we come to the food, where I am happy to report all my fears of slippage proved unfounded. Though the menu has changed, the attention to detail and quality remain just as I remembered and if you come with the right people its easy to build your own impromptu tasting menu.


sygyzy said...

I'm glad you posted this. I was wondering how they would do with the new changes. I have only been to Spago once and that was a few years ago. I thought everything was on point. I even was able to take a picture with Wolfgang. I put Spago pretty high on my list and it gets special credit for being in the game for so long (20+ years?) yet somehow finding a way to still be relevant. It's easy to be the hot new kid on the block but after the lustre has worn away, it's difficult to keep the seats filled unless you have something special - which Spago clearly does.

Their new cocktail program looks great. I was surprised they would use a 12 year single malt Scotch (sorry, Japanese whisky) in a mixed drink. I also thought it was kind of tasteless they called the honey drink "Help! Save the bees" yet provided no sort of education or relief to the dying strains. That's like making a drink called "Help! End Child Abuse!" and not at least giving part of the proceeds to a non-profit.

The dishes look amazing and I am digging the clear Asian influence.

Sam C. said...

The new menu definitely looks alot better than the one I've tried last time, with a bit more of a contemporary spin perhaps? Thanks for the post man.

So how long is the dinner this time around?

Rodzilla said...

I don't like Puck, but I like the looks of that menu. I wonder if he created it himself. I'll attribute it the success to Lee Hefter instead.

The naming of the "Yabba Dabba Doo" however; I'll say was Wolgang..because that sounds stupid.

Epicuryan said...

Yeah Spago has been around as long as I have so they must be doing something right. I was surprised at the heavier Asian influences too especially cuz Puck has WP24 downtown.

I liked the old menu, but this one is definitely more contemporary. I think Eric actually preferred his previous meal but that was in 2007 so its hard to compare given how much our palates have changed.

I don't mind Puck, but I'm sure you are right about Lee since he does most of the day to day work at Spago

Charlie Fu said...

This seems a notch higher in quality and preparation than WP24. I wonder what this does to the restaurant comparison if both are so heavily asian based in flavors.

Thanks for the update

Epicuryan said...

I agree the food is probably a little more elaborate at Spago. Looking back at the meal, a number of the appetizers feel very Asian, but that influence diminishes in the latter courses.