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Chowhound Tasting Menu Lunch at Spago (long)

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Chowhound Tasting Menu Lunch at Spago (long)

Dave Tanner | May 18, 2004 05:06 PM

Chowhound Tasting Menu Lunch at Spago: May 15th,
2004

Introduction
------------

So a bunch of chowhounds got together for a
Spago Tasting Menu lunch. We had one "BYOB
high-end wine" table and one "ordinary mortals"
table. Lunch began at 12:00 noon and ended at
4:30 or so. I'm not exactly sure when because I
had to leave early! Before the dessert, dammit!
It appears from some of the dishes that Spago is
offering their springtime tasting menu.

Amuse-Bouches
-------------

Tuna tartare in sweet black and brown sesame
cone

This is the signature Spago appetizer. I was
struck by the texture of the cone: it didn't
seem to contain any flour, so it had a very
delicate soft crunch. I would guess it's made
out of caramelized sugar, miso and sesame paste
with sesame seeds -- maybe a little rice flour
as well.

Foie gras mousse on kumquat tart

I thought the sweet and sour kick from the
kumquat almost overpowered the foie gras mousse,
but others at the table really loved it.

Smoked salmon on lemon-scented blini with creme
fraiche

The blini batter was made with lemon zest,
yielding nice light lemon overtones.

Fava bean bruschetta wrapped in lardon

This dish was visually very cool. The pureed
fava beans contributed a really saturated green
veiled by the translucent lardon wrapper.

"Pastrami-cured" foie gras terrine on toast,
sandwich style

The pastrami-style spices work amazingly well
with the rich foie gras. There's a tang from the
peppercorns that's met by the deep savory rush
of the liver.

Bacon confit en croute

Oh, man. Bacon in rich crumbly pastry.

Wine: Billecarte-Salmon Brut Rose Champagne

Dishes
------

Crumbless crab cake with basil aioli and salsa
Wine: Costa del Vento (Timorasso grape)

The aioli was dolloped along the side of the
plate in a row of little dots. The crab cake
itself was intense. There was pretty much just
lightly-sauteed crab meat and nothing else. The
salsa, aioli and microgreens scattered atop it
provided seasoning.

Austrian white asparagus with fava beans and
tomatoes Lobster-asparagus soup with caramelized
shallots
Wine: Lorimer Gruener Veltliner (Austria) 2002

A very thoughtful two-parter: a mini-"Iron Chef"
white asparagus battle. The soup was ultratasty
asparagus essence tinged with seafood flavor and
the sweet chewiness of the shallots. The whole
asparagus was really a salad -- "redolent of
springtime," as I might say if I felt especially
pompous. The fava beans were whole, lightly
cooked. There were small wedges of heirloom
tomato. There were also very sugary wedges of
beet.

Hudson Valley foie gras with black cherries and
morels in balsamic vinegar reduction
Wine: Chateau Raymond Sauterne 2001
Wine (BYOB table): Suduiraut Sauterne 1997

A superb, superb piece of foie gras succulently
betrothed to the cherries and mushrooms. The
cherries were such a great foil to the foie gras
they almost rendered the Sauterne superfluous.
Almost.

Pan-seared skate with Fruits de Mer and tomato
broth
Wine: Alsace Riesling 2001

A nice, understated, refreshingly ocean-y fish
course.

Sweet pea agnolotti stuffed with mascarpone
Wine: Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru 2002

Tiny, delicate pasta shells bursting with pea
essence (the mascarpone must have been mixed
with pea puree to make the filling) served
alongside fresh baby peas.

Squab breast and bacon-wrapped leg with carrots
and ramps
Wine: Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel 2001

I thought these butter-pat-sized slices of
pigeon breast -- rich, gamy, and thoroughly
umami-drenched by their reduction sauce -- were
amazing. Until I tried the leg. The crispy
Applewood-smoked bacon wrapped around the tender
leg meat just took the back of my head off. The
carrots and zingy ramps brought me back down to
earth. *woo!* said, "what a dish! Our favorite
of the lunch!"

Rib-eye steak with Armagnac peppercorn sauce and
fontina-laced pureed potatoes
Wine: Arbios Cabernet 1999

This was an add-on course requested by the BYOB
table. *woo!* again: "Had to have SOME beef
with all the GIGANTIC reds that we brought ...
what else is new?" A perfectly-cooked piece of
beef. The potatoes were amazingly thick, rich,
and sticky. The waiters served them in a special
mixing vessel and stirred them before serving.
You could have cemented bricks with it, but it
was sublime! The cheese permeated every cell of
those potatoes.

Dessert
-------

Assorted Cheeses including one Epoisse

Wine: Graham's 20-year-old Tawny Port

Stone fruit (peach, nectarine, et al) cobbler
served with buttermilk ice cream and blueberries

Coffee

Unfortunately I couldn't stay for the cheese or
dessert! So I can't report on it. I will say
that they wrapped up some petits fours for me
and they were delicious.

The BYOB Wines (an excerpt)
---------------------------

2001 (?) Pillar Rock
Rayas white
D2
2001 Colgin
1995 Chateau Lafite Rothschild
1990 Lynch Bages

Cost
----

I have to admit, we blew out the normal cost
structure for this lunch what with our extra
courses and our corkage fees and all. However, I
have been to a Spago Tasting Menu dinner where
we stuck with the original plan and the bill
came out in the realm of the sane. So I'm going
to list the sane prices here.

Tasting Menu
$85 + $15 (18% tip) + $7 tax = $107

Tasting Menu with Wines
$135 + $24 (18% tip) + $11 tax = $170

Tasting Menu with and without Wines,
averaged for two people (each couple splits
each glass of wine)
$110 + $20 (18% tip) + $9 tax = $137

Final Words
-----------

Here's what I personally like about Spago. No
matter how rarefied or high-flying the dishes
get, they are always grounded by some earthy
(or oceany) element. It might be a truffle or
other mushroom, a root vegetable, a gamy meat or
a briny fish -- somehow they keep you connected
to the source. I'm not sure if this is Wolfgang
Puck's contribution or Lee Hefter's or some
combination thereof, but it's what makes this
place a true Chowhound destination. Why?
Because the earthiness, the pungent quality, is
the base of the craving that forms in your
memory. I like to think that this is the
Austrian influence working at a deep level in
this cuisine, and in my opinion it's what makes
Spago unique.

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