Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Foodventure #96: Spago (Beverly Hills)

Ok, I finally did my '08 splurge meal at Spago -- and that's likely to the delight and relief of anyone who hung out with me for the latter half of the year, where I kept bringing up "I finally saved up for Spago, I just have to take the time to actually reserve and eat there!" Hey, at least I didn't wait till New Year's Eve.

After last year's splurge at Providence, I figure this year I should do something more classic but still with a modern touch. Spago, Wolfgang Puck's signature brand which existed in its first incarnation in '82 in Hollywood with the flagship transferred to the opened-in-'97 Beverly Hills when the original location closed in 2001, fits that bill nicely. And though I have a special curiosity for CUT, I am not particularly fond of the dog-and-pony show of displaying the various cuts of raw beef in a cart, and I don't want to risk being nauseated by gianormous portraits of faux-lebrities. Guess I can live vivaciously through others on that one for now.
Being a rather brisk and cold evening and wanting to capture better photos and get a better view of the operations, I opted out of courtyard seating and took a side table inside. For a space that large and a restaurant this upscale, I am surprised by how welcoming and homely the Spago dining area, like the large communal dining hall of a family-run farm or winery. Could be the beige earthy tones of the walls, the sordid mix of art -- ranging from giant rustic hand-painted plants of edibles, to large portraits of harvest and farm-life -- or the pleasantly soft ambient lighting with points of bright spotlights on the table so diners can appreciate the visuals of what they ate (and so folks like me can take half-decent photos.)

Christian, the waitress, greeted me with the menu and the immense 60+ page binder of a winelist but I really took thirty seconds looking over at each; I am doing the tasting menu and opting out of wine pairings in favor of the curiously-crafted cocktails I've eyed on their bar menu when I was waiting for my table.
Svenalicious Cocktail
My first cocktail was the "Svenalicious"; I know, I mentally rolled my eyes too at the hokey-sounding name but the ingredients were more sophisticated than the label: diplomatico reserva rum, sherry de jerez, cointreau noir, huckleberry, cloves and peppercorn with a pepper-salt rim. And it turned out to be a wonderful spicy little number, complex with sweet and fiery spices, dark molasses and dried red fruit aromas and a surprisingly light mouthfeel, it was like drinking a fluffy homemade gingerbread loaf studded with crystallized fruits made by someone with a love for all things hot. Great way to open up the nostrils and palate!
After a few sips came first of amuses, spicy tuna roll in a sesame-miso cone, a nice take on the familiar Americanized temaki. Even though the tuna wasn't really spicy (especially compared to my drink) I love how the edges are softened by the nuttiness of the sesame cone and the mellow savory flavors of the miso dressing, letting more of the raw tuna fattiness shine through.
Then the bite-sized variant of toad in a hole with a poached quail egg embedded in a brioche with a black truffle flake. Now this is a great amuse in the truest sense! I loved how the warm, rich yolk bursts my mouth with the very first bite and is immediately soaked up by the bread while still on my tongue, with the truffle contributing that bonus flavor of earthiness.
Finishing the amuses was a freshly-baked bacon en croute, taken apart here to display the interior. Crispy exterior, steaming fattiness within -- hard to go wrong there. If these savory small bites were a sneak peek of what exec. chef Lee Hefter and chef de cuisine Thomas Boyce have to offer, I'm certainly in for a treat.

While waiting up for my first non-amuse dish, I struck up a conversation with Michael and Pam, a real foodie couple from the O.C. (been to Per Se, Michael Mina and other places I can only dream of now); they sat about 10-15 minutes after me and are also doing the tasting menu, but they're in the same section in me so their tasting soon caught up on speed and pace with mine, and I felt a little bad since I'm eating at a pretty brisk solo diner tempo and didn't mind the lack of lagtime, but I am sure they'd want a little more of a break so they can talk between dishes, bites and sips (to showcase the velocity at which the staff serve and bus versus their rate of consumption, one time Pam had three courses' worth of wine pairings on her table!)
But back to the food, my first actual course was the japanese cucumber sorbet over a relish of ume boshe and daikon -- if it was bite-size this would truly feel like an extension of the amuse, it was very refreshing and palate-cleansing. I loved the brightness of flavors that ran throughout the relish-sorbet combo. And being a lover of unusual-flavored ice creams already, I certainly didn't object to the comparatively innocuous cuke sorbet.
Next up was the fricasee of maine lobster, veal sweetbreads and black truffle with crispy rye bread and apple-celery root puree. With so much going on in there I wasn't sure if this would work, but it turned out well. The sweetbreads was more meaty than fatty, so it blended well with the lobster meat and the meaty-earthy truffles. I love the extra contrast added by the crunchy greens and bread and the creamy-smooth puree, with the ever-so-slight celery root zing. In hindsight I wished I followed Michael and Pam's cue and used bread to mop up the remaining juices and puree (sidenote: great bread service, almost every 15 minutes someone is passing by with a tray full of assorted carbs ranging from a standard sourdough to a crispy-thin lavash to rustic walnut and olive breads; I had four slices, frankly three-and-a-half slices too many considering all that I am going to eat tonight.)
Then came the seared maine diver scallop with pea shoot salad, pad thai noodles and red curry sauce (I took a slight objection and a note that the menu indicated the plural 'scallops' but only a single one is served, maybe I am more offended than most since I could never get too many of my favorite bivalves.) The pad thai in the red curry is prepared and plated tableside, which was a nice touch. While the sauce had the wonderful nuances of ginger and lemongrass that went great with the perfectly-seared scallop (crispy-caramelized outside, creamy-rich inside) and the peanutty-sticky noodles, it was also restrained on the spiciness especially compared to an actual Thai curry. The sticky noodles, with a tendency to clump, were also tricky to eat with a fork and I think there was too much of it. The first few bites were amazing, but towards the end it lost some luster and felt actually a bit too sweet and overbearing on the palate and nostrils.
Lily White Pear Cocktail
Since we're midway through the tasting menu, I took the moment order another drink: the Lily White Pear with Hangar One spiced pear vodka, St. Germaine elderflower liqueur, asian pear puree and a caol ila rinse. While it didn't have the flavor slam-bang of the svenalicious, it was equally complex with its fruit and floral notes and the occasional tinge of fresh herbs and warm spices. Again, it'd make for a great starter drinks but was delightfully refreshing and palate-cleansing between courses as well.
Soon arrived the dish I was anticipating the most since I saw it on the menu (and Christian readily admitted to being her favorite): roasted Italian chestnuts-mascarpone agnolotti with italian white truffle shavings. Having only enjoyed black truffles and white truffle oil (but at least it's the real deal and not synthetic) so far, it was certainly a treat to taste actual shavings of the Italian white variety on these pasta. And it's definitely in a class of its own, worlds apart from the others I've had. Its complex, hard-to-describe but easily distinctive and heavenly aroma works so well against the backdrop of the tender, slightyly-sweet pillows of pasta and the light cream sauce. I was surprised such a few thin flakes could change the flavor profile so much, and can easily see why these hard-to-forage fungi are still worth hunting for and fetch the prices that they do.
The last of the savories was a duo of grilled snake river ranch "kobe" new york steak with black trumpet mushrooms, sauteed brussel sprouts, rutabaga puree and an armagnac-peppercorn sauce poured tableside (in hindsight I really should've asked the waiter to hold off and do it myself later so I can better capture the rare steak on camera). Again, pretty good stuff -- the perfectly-cooked, nicely-marbled steak requires minimal chewing and really just melts in your mouth. Like everything else I've had yet, the sauce was complex, rich and flavorful. The rutubaga puree and mushrooms were also nice on their own but both were easily overwhelmed by the sauce when eaten in combination. I also would've like a few (ok, a lot) more mini-leaves of the wonderful brussel sprout.
Finally, the sweets and where stuff really wound up going a bit south. The main dessert was Sherry's pannettone with tangerine sauce and butterscotch gelato. The sauce and the gelato are great, but the actual dessert itself is a fruity Christmas bread that was lacking in finesse and flavor, basically a lighter fruitcake that's also pretty dry and needed the sauce or gelato to be palatable. Michael and Pam also commented on the disappointment of this dessert too, noting that this not up to snuff compared to the desserts of their previous Spago visits. But at least the espresso I ordered was well-pulled, even after being made more of a coffee snob from reading this.
The mignardises consisted of a thumbprint raspberry-spice cookie, pistachio and rose macarons, chocolate cookie and mini opera cake. It ranged from OK to good and none are particularly memorable, though I was saddened by the macarons, which had wonderful flavors but were way too chewy and almost gummy.
Thankfully, not all hope was lost with sweets here since Michael and Pam were in the know and ordered a Kaiserschmarffen, an Austrian dessert (literally "Emperor's mishmash") that consisted of a haphazardously stacked pancake, a custard cream and berry sauce. Don't let the humble mishmash looks fool you, they let me try a spoonful and this was way more on-par than the other stuff on the menu. The combo of the airy, soft cake, the luscious custard and the fresh sauce yielded a combo between a light bread pudding and a souffle and definitely unique and delicious. Thanks to them, my final impression of Spago was not on a sour note.

Last tidbit worth mentioning: Spago automatically tacked on a 20% "service charge" even for my party of one. That auto-tip slightly threw me off, though I am giving them the benefit of the doubt since Beverly Hills is a tourist-attracting neighborhood, and other global diners may not have the same tipping customs (read: they don't tip) so I can see, even appreciate, Spago's stance to avoid their very professional and pleasant waitstaff from being stiffed. But 20% still felt a bit high for me.

Nonetheless, despite the dessert courses, this was certainly a meal to remember and treasure (and certainly one of my most memorable of '08) and a restaurant that certainly worth re-visiting if and when I can afford it. So a thanks to Wolfgang for starting this up (he was actually making the rounds and greeting diners by the time I was leaving), to Lee and Thomas for running the kitchen and creating such wonderful dishes, and Michael and Pam who became instant foodie-friends and hopefully look forward to meals in the future!

Tasting menu - $105
Cocktails - $32 ($16 each)
Espresso - $3.50
"Service Charge" - $28.10
Pre-tax total - $168.60

Ambience: 4/5 (comforting, rustic and artsy without being distracting, I also loved the acoustics too, even as the room was being packed with diners it never felt too noisy)
Value: 4/5 (overall not bad even in light of the auto-tipping; $105 felt right for the menu; cocktails, though well-crafted, were on the pricier end)
Service: 9.5/10 (the staff all-around was great from the hostess who carried my glass of water as I was moved to the dining area, to Christian the waitress and Eddie the lead busser who were a professional team and Mike the front-end manager who was checking up just enough to make us feel "taken care of" without being overbearingly interruptive; my next table foodie friends may give a considerably lower score due to the synchronized single-diner pacing, though.)
Food: 17.5/20 (despite the desserts, the meal was pleasant with plenty of high-notes that make it especially memorable; the taste of the Kaiserschmarffen also redeemed the sweets department somewhat)
Bonus/Demerit: N/A (was tempted to do a -.5 for the auto-gratuity, but giving the benefit of the doubt -- so just fair caution/warning)
Total: 35/40 (easy to see why it's a michelin two-star restaurant)

The Delicious Life had reservations given Wolfgang's empire (read: selling-out), but quickly gave into the fabulosity of the place
The husband-and-wife duo of Infinite Fress had more divergent opinion of the place
KevinEats also checked out this iconically L.A. restaurant; hilarious final photo after 10 glasses of wine from the pairing
ExileKiss had a good time here, and actually inspired me to try Spago sooner rather than later
And of course, the Yelperocracy, which gave it a four-star.

176 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(310) 385-0880

Spago Beverly Hills on Urbanspoon


Frequent Traveler said...

Happy New Year 2009 to you.

I love the thoroughness of your reviews, including the pictures of everything.

Spago indeed is a wonderful place to dine, and by your review, it sounds like they will be keeping their 2 michelin stars :)

My guess is more and more high-end restaurants will be doing the mandatory 20% gratuity in this recession.
I just had it happen in Carmel at L'auberge Carmel, and was very surprised, thinking that was only prevalent in Europe...

Loving Annie

kevinEats said...

Good to hear that your yearly splurge turned out well (late this year though!). Interestingly, it looks like they've toned down the tasting menu from when I went.

H. C. said...

@Annie, thanks for your comment -- and yes, I thought about the recession as a possible motive for auto-gratuity, but anyone who is going to Spago anyways wouldn't (or shouldn't) be pinching pennies like that.

@Kevin, yep, I saw your Spago post and looked a bit scale back (less amuses, more "basic" courses) but they could've been trying to even out the menu (since there were high-costing truffles here), or affected by recession or rising food courses.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi H.C.,

Great review! :) I'm glad you finally made it out to Spago and enjoyed it overall.

Loved the detail in your review, and I'm also happy to see that your Tasting Menu was totally different from the one I had (good to know that Spago doesn't rest on its laurels and recycle certain dishes from month-to-month).

Happy New Year! :)

H. C. said...

@Exile, yep I'm glad too that it differed a little from what you and Kevin had.


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