I had been to Spago once before during Dine LA but wanted to try it the "right way" with their signature tasting menu.
As our waiter handed us menus, I said "Oh, we were going to do the tasting menu..." and he snatched away our menus and said "Well, then you won't be needing these". And then he abruptly left without confirming anything about the tasting menu or asking us any further questions.
Now, I had been studying up the tasting menu situation here on CH and read that there was a 5 course and 10 course. I was a little bit undecided going into the restaurant and thought discussing with the server would answer the question, but he didn't give the chance. Amuses just started coming. First a tuna tartar in a cone. Crazy delicious. Then a spoon of burrata with a jam of rhubarb. Also crazy delicious. Then a salmon blini with caviar-wow wow wow wow- so incredibly delectable. Probably the tastiest amuses I've ever had. Not super creative, but just close-your-eyes yummy. The only problem was they were coming too fast , overlapping even, and our first cocktail hadn't even arrived from the bar. We were a little rushed.
I finally see our waiter and say "Excuse me, has our tasting started?" And he said "Yes". I said "Oh, so there are no choices?" And he spoke in a pretty patronizing tone about "well, that's what a chef's tasting is, it's letting the chef decide what you eat". I didn't really let on that I was annoyed with this, or let him know that I've been to the French Laundry and done dozens of tastings all over the country. I just asked him "So it's a set number of courses?" and he said "Yes, it's five. The ones you got already were not courses" (here he condescended again and preceded to explain to me what an amuse bouche was, awesome!) We also missed any chance to get a supplement, etc, that I had read about.
So I guess there was no decision to be made about how many courses we were doing. Then I said "Do you know if the chef is cooking rabbit or veal tonight? I don't eat those" and he seemed pretty annoyed and said "You prefer not to eat rabbit or veal? I can find out" and then he left. He did not return to "answer" this question. He did not follow up either on whether we wanted to do the wine pairing (we ordered a cocktail to start but told him we were considering the wine pairing with the tasting). Food just kept coming out.
Another amazing amuse, a little pastry puff ball filled with a thick chunk of bacon. Heavenly. Seriously, those amuses I would be thrilled to have as the hour d'ourves at my wedding. I told my boyfriend I wanted to go to an event that had them going around on trays and gobble up as many as I could collect.
Our first course was an octopus 'ceviche' (looked like carpaccio) with mandarin oranges and radishes. Crisp, great flavors, a light but flavorful start to the meal.
At some point there was an intermezzo rhubarb sorbet with daikon radish in a broth. It was quite interesting and did in fact do its palate cleansing job, nothing I would crave to try again.
2nd course was a john dory encrusted in sesame seeds with a sweet pea emulsion on the plate and a purple sauce that I'm afraid I can't remember what it was. (The descriptions were blurted out in rapid fire by runners, and there was never a menu that we could reference the way you usually get at a fine dining tasting.) My first thought was that the sesame was overpowering, but the fish was cooked so nicely and the accompanying sauces really created a great balance of flavor. It was a dish that grew on us as we ate it.
We were also greatly enjoying the bread, the bread server recommended the "country" bread as his favorite, and we agreed.
3rd course was pea ravioli in a thin marscapone parmeggiano sauce with peas. I kind fell into a personal food reverie, this dish really brought me back to eating my mom's tortellini alla panna with peas as a kid. The flavors of pasta, peas, cream, and cheese bring me there, and this was an intense version of that flavor profile.
4th course was a braised short rib with a shallot puree (very small smear of it on plate) and a bone marrow with foam and fancy mushrooms. It was rich, hearty, decadent. The bone marrow with mushrooms was a delightful combination. I usually don't like to see short rib (easy to do, cheap protein) on an expensive tasting, but it was so delicious I can't complain.
5th course was dessert- a Neapolitan style (chocolate/strawberry/vanilla rather than the pastry) mouse/cake/ice cream dish with brandied cherries and some raspberry sorbet on top of crunchy chocolate bits. When it arrived, I felt disappointed, but when I tasted it I was happy again. But, why did it have to be so small? It was just a few bites and I wanted more.
The plain brewed coffee was delicious, but was not included in the price of the tasting, which I always find silly. When someone orders a gourmet tasting and spends a lot of money, let them have coffee for free which costs almost nothing. Call me crazy.
There was no take home menu or take home treat (like wrapped homemade cookies, etc) the way fine restaurants usually provide. This is another touch that is just missing and makes Spago feel a little cold or . When you do the tasting menu, they automatically charge you 20% for service. That may have something to do with our server's lackadaisical attitude towards us, but of course does not forgive it in the least.
Now, the back server (I believe he is called), the one that fills our water, brings us bread, clears our plates, etc, was great. He was very attentive, polite, and chatted with us about this or that, took our picture, etc
Luckily, I care much more about food than service, I didn't let the waiter's attitude effect my enjoyment of the meal, but Spago certainly missed the opportunity to enhance our experience by having a better dialogue about what we are eating, perhaps order some supplements, bring a copy of the menu home with us to reflect upon, etc.
The bill was $322 for two tastings, 2 cocktails, 2 glasses of wine, and 2 coffees. Service included at 20% and as you can imagine, I did not give any extra gratuity. We arrived at 6:45 and left at 8:30
The food was five stars, the waiter was one star, the back waiter was five stars, the value was three stars. I averaged all that to 4 star overall.
176 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210