Monday, August 4, 2008

Wonderful Food Amidst The Stars - Spago Beverly Hills

Spago is perhaps one of the most well-known L.A. restaurants, particularly to those living outside of L.A. It's been home to so many Oscar Parties and Hollywood movie star sightings that when one mentions "Spago" you almost expect it to be about a star sighting or big Hollywood party of some type. For 26 years, the name "Spago" has been the center of so much hype and buzz that, similar to my feelings about Wolfgang Zweiner's Steakhouse, but much more so, I wondered if any restaurant could live up to the expectations.

This past year, Spago Beverly Hills was one of only three restaurants in L.A. to receive a Michelin 2 Star Rating, which only added to the expectations. This past week was one of my Tasting Menu Hound's birthday, which offered up the perfect excuse for all of us to try this L.A. institution. We arrived 5 minutes early, and the maitre d' brought us to our table immediately.

Our table had a wonderful view of their beautiful patio, and the first thing I noticed was how relaxed and "upscale casual" Spago felt. We also had a nice view of their open kitchen behind the glass separators. Executive Chef Lee Hefter was over at Cut that night, with Chef de Cuisine Thomas Boyce overseeing our Tasting Menu. Wolfgang Puck was also present, and the captain asked if he should have Wolfgang stop by our table or not, but we declined, feeling a little ridiculous summoning Chef Puck for the sake of just seeing him in person. (^_^;

I started off with a Ginger-Peach Bellini made of Prosecco, Fresh White Peaches, and Ginger. It was a wonderful starter, nice and light, with the sparkling Prosecco blending nicely with the sweet White Peaches and the spiciness of the ground Ginger.

We began with a Spicy Tuna Tartar, Sesame Cone. This was a creative play off of a traditional Japanese Handroll, filled with fresh Tuna, lightly spiced, topped with some Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Flakes). The Sesame Cone was a little sticky and sweet, but the fragrant nuttiness of the Sesame and the caramelized sugar worked with the Spicy Tuna. A few of us felt it was a little strong (in taste) as a starter for the Tasting Menu, but still a nice, creative dish.

The next course was House Smoked Salmon, Dill Creme Fraiche, on a Corn Blini. Topped with some Ikura (Salmon Roe), Chives and an edible Flower, it was just the right amount of saltiness from the House Smoked Salmon and Ikura, which paired well with the light tang from the Dill Creme Fraiche and the light sweetness of the Corn Blini.

The next course was a Tartlet of Heirloom Tomato Tartar, Garlic Pesto Aioli, 50 Year Old Balsamic Vinegar. This was simply outstanding! The fresh sweetness of the chunks of Heirloom Tomato, paired with just the right amount of the Balsamic Vinegar and Aioli, all coming together with the buttery crust from the Tartlet! Words couldn't describe the satisfaction we all felt with this dish. Outstanding!

Next we had a Bacon Confit Puff Pastry. Bacon. Confit. Buttery Puff Pastry. Need I say more? (^_^) This was *so* good I could've eaten an entire dinner of these wonderful, flaky pastry balls of goodness! :) The Bacon Confit was cooked wonderfully... soft, tender, yet still so bacon-y! :) And the Puff Pastry? They could've stuffed anything in the center and it would've still tasted good.

We had too many designated drivers tonight, so we opted out of the wine pairing. So I decided to try another of their signature cocktails: Mint-Cucumber Caipirinha made of Leblon Cachaca, Cointreau, Mint, Cucumber, Lime. Tasted almost like a Mojito, and while the fresh Mint, Cucumber and Lime were abundant, the alcohol was just a bit too strong for my tastes.

Our next course arrived with a Vine-Ripened Heirloom Tomato Sorbet, Heirloom Tomato Relish, Basil Oil, Topped with Heirloom Tomato Water. A simple presentation that sounded a little underwhelming, but upon tasting it, nothing could be further from the truth: The Heirloom Tomato Sorbet (only slightly chilled), on this hot summer L.A. night was refreshing! The Sorbet with the Heirloom Tomato Relish were perfect with the touch of Basil Oil and the Heirloom Tomato Water. The dish was fragrant and sweet, and it was one of our party's favorite dish of the night.

Continuing on with what's fresh and in season in California was the Heirloom Tomato Salad, Microgreens, Shiso Buds, Garlic Basil Aioli, 50 Year Old Balsamic Vinegar, Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Normally, any tasting menu that featured three dishes with the same centerpiece ingredient would feel like a bit of a letdown, but each preparation with the Heirloom Tomatoes were truly outstanding. This final Heirloom dish was no different: The large, sweet, meaty chunks of the Heirloom Tomato were given a perfect foil in the light bitterness from the Shiso Buds and Microgreens, and the Balsamic Vinegar and Extra Virgin Olive Oil bound it all together. It was another refreshing and satisfying dish.

Next up was Seared Striped Bass, Cauliflower Puree, Seafood Ragout. The Seafood Ragout was the most impressive aspect of this dish, made up of Littleneck Clams, Shrimp, Lobster, Mussels in a Saffron Sauce, it added a wonderful brininess and complexity to an otherwise boring piece of Striped Bass. The Cauliflower Puree also added a nice healthy component and worked well with the Bass and the Ragout. I would've preferred a fattier fish for this dish, but it wasn't bad.

Chef Boyce rebounded quickly with the next dish: Handmade Sweet Corn Agnolotti Pasta. It didn't sound very appetizing, but like the Heirloom Tomato Sorbet, this was another one of the surprises of the evening: The Sweet Corn filling was *so* fresh and inherently, naturally sweet, but blending *perfectly* with the savory Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese and Butter Corn Reduction. Each bite of the pasta was like a taste of Heaven! My favorite dish of the night. (^_^)

Our final savory course arrived next with: Wild Sonoma Rack of Baby Lamb, Summer Shelling Bean Puree, Natural Jus with Black and Green Olives. This was probably one of the best Lamb dishes I've had in years. The Baby Lamb was perfectly cooked Rare-to-Medium-Rare, with the meat being extremely tender. It worked so well with the Natural Jus with Olives and the Fava Beans with the Summer Shelling Bean Puree balanced out the Lamb. Excellent!

We were actually really full at this point, but we had to save room for Dessert (^_~): Nougat Semifreddo topped with Blackberry Sorbet, Fresh Blackberries, Adriatic Fig, Persian Mulberries. The Nougat Semifreddo by itself was nice, but was overwhelmed by the tart berries. However, when eaten with a piece of the caramelized sugar "cracker" beneath the Semifreddo, the whole dessert came together. It's not "amazing" in any way, but a nice finish to a great meal. :)

Lastly, we ended with some nice Petit Fours: Macaroon, Mexican Wedding Cake, Financier, Rainbow Cake, and one other item that I missed out on (both in explanation due to a ridiculous story someone in our party was retelling, and that Petit Four was taken before I could eat it! :) What was nice was that our waiter offered to give us as many Petit Fours as we wanted, but we were beyond stuffed at this point and declined.

With the Michelin 2 Star Rating, I was expecting some good Service, and Spago did not disappoint: Our head waiter was very good, and his two waiters were very good about serving all the food at the same time for everyone in our party, and promptly removing plates when we were finished. There was always someone refilling our water or asking us if we wanted other drinks when we were empty, and it was always professional, crisp service, with no attitude. For L.A., it was good service, but when compared to the service I got at another Michelin 2 Star restaurant, Ryugin, there was no comparison: Ryugin's level of service is currently the best service I've had anywhere from Paris to New York to L.A. (I realize every city is different, but a few of us were comparing notes about service at various Michelin 2 and 3 Star restaurants we'd been to.) Our total came out to be roughly $165 per person (including tax and tip).

In the end, one of L.A.'s most famous restaurants actually lived up to the hype: While we never saw Billy Crystal or Tom Cruise, we did enjoy a great Tasting Menu with fresh, interesting interpretations of classic dishes, and some of the self-billed "California Cuisine" that Wolfgang Puck pioneered at Spago when he first opened it up. The fact that Spago still delivers innovative, creative and delicious dishes after 26 years (11 years at the Beverly Hills location) is nothing short of remarkable. It may not be my favorite Tasting Menu in town, but with its surprisingly relaxed, yet classy ambiance, and excellent execution of their seasonal Tasting Menu, Spago Beverly Hills delivers.

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10.0)

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

Hours: ~Lunch~
Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:15 p.m.
Sat, 12:00 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.

Sun - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.


Charlie Fu said...

I went to Spago about 2 weeks ago, I agree that the Handmade Sweet Corn Agnolotti Pasta is great. Best dish of the night.

They also make a mean chow mein with their canton roast duck =)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Charlie,

That Agnolotti Pasta was amazing! :) Thanks for the heads up on the Chow Mein with Canton Roast Duck... I'd never expect Wolfgang Puck & Co. would excel in something like that, but then again, it shows their prowess. I'll have to see if they include that on their Tasting Menu the next time I visit. Thanks. :)

H. C. said...

Great post and nice to know what I'll be in for (been planning to go to Spago in the near future for nearly 2 months, but kept getting interrupted by other food events and outings; must. go. before. 2009!)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi h.c.,

Thanks! :) I hope you enjoy your visit to Spago and look forward to your report. :)

Kat said...

I have heard so much about you from all the other bloggers, so I thought it was time to say Hello ^_^

After reading yours & H.C.'s review, you guys make me want to make a special trip to BH for Spaggo. I have had their food once before and I thought it was not bad. Of course this was leftovers from my sister. O=9

They seem to have a very impressive and innovative tasting menu. Now the difficult task is to find a friend who'd be willing to go with me... lol

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kat,

Nice to meet you, too! Yoroshiku! (^_^)/

Spago is worth a visit at least once; it's one of the most famous L.A. eateries we have. If you go, you should definitely have their Tasting Menu as opposed to ordering their Entrees (which sound more typical / not as inspired).

And how could anyone turn down a visit to Spago in Beverly Hills? Your friends should be excited to go with you! :) If you end up going soon, please report back on your experience. Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

haha Yoroshiku ^_^

My friends are lame and unadventurous in food... to them a fancy meal is like Cheesecake Factory or something, which I do not eat lol

If you had to choose, Spago or Providence, which would it be? After meeting Chef Crenn she recommended Ortolan and more that have been on my list. Now the tough part is finding friends who are willing to spend the money.

I agree, Tasting Menus are the best way to see the craft and artistry of the chefs. I will be sure to check Spago's tasting menu out ^_^

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kat,

Cheesecake Factory only? /comfort (;_;)/

Spago or Providence? Tough choice depending on what you're looking for. If it's to experience a true L.A. institution (arguably home of "California cuisine" made famous by Wolgang Puck) (with good food), you should try Spago at least once (their Tasting Menu).

Based purely on food and creativity that I experienced over the years, I'd go with Providence. Chef Michael Cimarusti is simply a master at his craft. If you go, I'd recommend the full Chef's Menu, where Chef Cimarusti gets the most creative.

Let me know where you end up going. You've just reminded me about how much I enjoy both places; I can't wait to go back again as well. :)

Kat said...

Yah... my best friend only drags me to Italian food or low end stuff... she almost wanted to default to McD's for dinner again... =***( lol

Maybe if I spread them out, I can do both.... except I am going to Vegas soon and I will be poor after that O=9

Any recommendations? Stuff to see or unique food off the strip?

I think I want to go to Providence first because I haven't had their food yet and I have been wanting to go for a while. It would be great if you'd join me ^_^ Gourmet Pig/Fiona... is my ex-roommate and we have been planning to go together since she has been many times. It could be a fun foodie event. I definitely have to check out Chef Michael Cimarusti craft.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kat,

Vegas? Cirque du Soleil's shows are always entertaining (Mystere at Treasure Island, O at Bellagio, etc.). Very talented people performing feats of strength, agility, balance, etc. :)

Food-wise, I don't go to Vegas often enough recently to make any personal recommendations. I tried Iron Chef Mario Batali's "B & B" at The Venetian which the LA Times gave 3 Stars to. I found it... OK, but it was a crazy party that I went with so I'd like to go a few more times before finalizing an opinion.

If you like Thai food, Lotus of Siam (off of the Strip) is supposed to some of the best Thai food in the U.S. (they used to own a Thai restaurant in L.A. but moved out there).

Thanks for the invite to Providence. :) Oh, you're friends with Gourmet Pigs? Well there you go! You have at least one major foodie friend who'd go w/ you to Spago and Providence, right? :)

BTW, feel free to e-mail me directly (see link in my Profile section, right-hand Nav Bar) if you need more suggestions or had other questions. Thanks!

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