Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Spago, Beverly Hills

As much as I try to believe my adopted hometown is burgeoning with sophistication, Los Angeles sometimes just fails me. Or perhaps the whole process of burgeoning has failed to take root west of Doheny.

There is no other way to justify the continued existence and popularity of the self-caricature known as Spago. Wolfgang Puck was once lauded (along with Alice Waters) as a being a “seminal influence” in an “entire cuisine . . . a still-evolving culinary style that can sampled from one of [California] to the other.” (I’m skeptical that an entire cuisine can be founded on a menu whose principle innovations include smoked salmon on baked, flattened dough and the intermixture of Shun Lee-style “Chinese” food and French technique, but I’ll indulge the fantasy for a few minutes. Of course, the logical conclusion of such madness is CPK, the smooth jazz of cuisine.)

Despite Puck's contributions and skill, he is now content to meander around the large dining room and prattle on with patrons for hours on end. Accordingly, the Puck evolution has come to a halt. With its staid and virtually unchanging menu, Spago has morphed into a Cheesecake Factory in a suburb that is inexorably morphing into an ersatz Caruso lifestyle center. Bizarrely, it is the original Cheesecake Factory, established in 1978, that appears to be the anachronistic holdout in the Beverly Hills retail corridor. To exacerbate matters, Puck’s sole recent contribution to the culinary world, or perhaps it was Barbara Lazaroff’s investors’, is the $160 steak.

Teeming on a recent Monday night with businessmen , tourists and cougars, Spago is much more of a banquet hall than a quality restaurant. For a wedding or, better yet, a rehearsal dinner, the food would have been solid. Other than that, I saw an expensive menu littered with “fusion” items and a few Austrian standards, e.g., wiener schnitzel, that while tasty and fun, were of middling quality and would not be served by a Kurt Gutenbrunner kitchen.

My veal sweetbreads had that off-putting texture of soft chewiness that originally soured me on this offal. (I have been craving sweetbreads ever since savoring the rustic brilliance of Ali El-Sayed's version at his Kabab Café in Astoria.) The pan-roasted duck breast, served in slices, simply lacked flavor. I can’t point to anything that was objectively wrong with it, but I also can’t cite any quality that distinguished it, aside from forgettableness.

A dessert of unwieldy fried dough and out-of-season strawberries lacked sweetness and would not have passed muster at the Geauga County Fair.

A few comments from the wife:

First of all, I had to change the stupid title of this entry, which was in no way reflective of my otherwise adorable husband's brilliance and wit. When Steve writes about Beverly Hills, he immediately gets his panties in a bunch -- which is absolutely hilarious because we'll probably end up living there someday. (Ha, ha! Suck it, Steve! You know it's true!) Anyway. Steve's perspective on things is skewed by an existing bias against anything west of Doheny, which makes him a total fraud because he's fancier than H-bomb in Marc Jacobs at Blue Hill. While I am happy with a big salad or a burger or a spicy tuna handroll at the local sushi bar, Steve actually has to fly to San Francisco to eat at Gary Danko on his birthday or he whines like a little girl. Clearly, his vitriol is completely misplaced. Don't we seem to despise most in others what we unconsciously recognize in ourselves?

But I digress. Enough about Steve's hypocrisy and back to Spago, which is, admittedly, as The Trusted Arbiter of Style once decreed, over. The decor is straight out of Cleveland, the menu never changes, and the crowd is just a shade younger and hipper than the pre-dead patrons of the Hillcrest Country Club Grill Room. But I will give Spago this: It is consistent. You can count on a number of things at Spago: It will take hours. A nip-tucked Wolfgang Puck will work the room like a pro, shaking hands, kissing babies, acting like he knows who you are, and pretending that he cares. And the food will be good. It won't change your life or even challenge your assumptions about cuisine (that was 25 years ago), but it will be totally serviceable and often terrific.

For my appetizer, I ordered lemon-herb blini topped with creme fraiche, red onion, and, alternately, smoked sturgeon with black caviar or smoked salmon with red caviar. The pillowy blini were light and delicious, while the smoked fish and caviar combo delighted me to no end. Was it innovative? Not a lick. But it was exactly what I wanted, and the dish was absolutely delicious. For my main course, I ordered the striped bass with lobster and roasted root vegetables. It was great; just really well-cooked with balanced flavors. Moreover, in deference to my irrational and paralyzing fear of fish skin/scales, the kitchen removed any trace of the dreaded stuff -- how awesome is that?

I will concede that the desserts were uncharacteristically lame on our recent visit. My mother, whose birthday we were celebrating, was psyched to throw dietary caution to the wind and get down on her birthday -- especially since she'd just run into Sherry Yard at the Beverly Hills Sunday Farmers' Market stocking up for the week. The fact that Ms. Yard was purchasing grapes should have been a serious red flag as none of the selections really floated the birthday girl's boat. So we opted for two desserts to share as a table: a mediocre strudel and the doughy thing to which Steve referred. The doughy thing -- not fried, more of a pancake-souffle hybrid -- was actually somewhat addictive, reminding me a bit of a poor man's Bistro Jeanty clafoutis. Sprinkled with powdered sugar and studded with sweet strawberries and grapes, it was kind of awesome in an inelegant, dude-have-you-got-the-munchies-too? sort of way.

Overall, we did have fun at the dreaded Spago, which seemed to please everyone at the table --except for the grumpy, implacable Wolverines, who groused after dinner that they needed to go to In-n-Out, even though they both cleaned their plates.

176 North Canon Dr.
Beverly Hills
(310) 385-0880


Anonymous said...


You killed your husband. Brilliance.

Heinous of Brooklyn

Anonymous said...

lololol. you two kill me.

you get a high five for 'The decor is straight out of Cleveland'

ps - i havent tried red mango. any good?