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Restaurants & Bars 13

an excessively long Spago - BH review (as if we need another)

ks | Mar 20, 200410:43 PM

So, I promised myself I would not waste LA Chowhounds bandwidth with yet another Spago - BH rave review. After all there have been so many good ones already posted. And I don’t tend to submit reviews anyway – although I love the ones of other folks. But I just can't help myself. So, I beg everyone’s indulgence in advance! If you can’t stand the thought of another paean to Wolfgang Puck and Lee Hefter – stop now!

And please note – I apologize in advance for obvious misspellings and incorrect identifications. After we sat down I realized I had forgotten any paper to write on. I sacrificed the white space on the “puzzle” and “findings” pages of the latest Harper’s magazine (thank you LL for such generous margins). Never has paper dedicated to progressive politics served so well to preserve memories of such culinary decadence – at least in my experience and subscription. But accuracy is just not guaranteed.

The set-up: We (my brother J, friend D, and myself) have 9:00pm reservations on Friday night. Tried to get something earlier, but those 7-8pm reservations go 4-6 weeks in advance according to the woman on the phone. It’s either 6:30 or 9:00. Easy decision – we’re planning to do the tasting menu and I have no desire to even feel subconsciously rushed by the thought of a second seating. Instead we close out the restaurant around midnight – maybe 2 to 3 other parties left.

The arrival: We get there right around 9pm. Greeted by Mr. Puck at the reservation desk along with a woman to take our coats and another to let us know our table isn’t ready. We go sidle up to the bar where I order a lemon drop (very tasty, not too sweet), J orders an Oban with water back and D orders water). After about 15 minutes we’re told the table is almost ready and less than five minutes later we’re escorted out on the far edge of the patio. Bliss! With the heaters and bodies around us, the temp is perfect and we’re laughing that on the East Coast it snowed this week. We are so lucky in so many ways and that’s about to be magnified big time.

It begins: after some glancing at the menu, we confirm among ourselves our intention to do the tasting. Both J & D have eaten at the old Spago, but neither has done the tasting menu – neither have I. D is surprised by the price ($100/person for 8 courses - $150/person with accompanying wines), but is told he has no choice. My brother owes him for some music tickets in any case, so all is good. The waitress comes -

And a quick digression here is required. Never has it resonated with me so much how inadequate our terms are for labeling waitstaff. Calling the woman who shepherded us through this magnificent meal a “waitress” seems diminutive. Calling the thoughtful man who constantly watched the water in our glasses and took away our plates with perfect timing a “bus boy” seems completely inappropriate. I can’t even begin to figure out what to call the tall handsome foreign guy who sometimes presents us with food along with the other runners (again what is that title about?!). With an accent that became clearer as the evening went along, he became this kind of looming presence of stern joy. By the end of the meal, I knew if he was bringing a specific course to pay attention – although in truth I have no idea of the logic for why he was sometimes there and sometimes not. And back to the waitress/waiter/menu manager – this woman was so incredible. I wish we had gotten her name. Completely attentive. The absolute best type of LA waitstaff – not pretentious, very informative, funny and not taking herself, the evening, or us too seriously. End of digression, but I’d love it if someone has other thoughts on this topic….

So the waitress comes to take our order surprised that we seem to have made up our minds so quickly – until we tell her we’re doing the tasting menu. J will do it with the wine pairings; D & I will stick with water – flat, bottled (his request, I’m usually fine with tap). And here is my first sense that she’s going to be awesome. When we say we want water, she leads by asking if we want tap, then a pause before going on to the expensive options. Totally graceful entry for us to not spend more money, even though we do. And this gets me to wondering about the recent thread about Spago on service & alcohol & age. That must have gotten back to them. We’re all in our mid-thirties, not glamorous industry types, and with only one ordering any alcohol with the meal; we could have been perfect fodder for staff disdain – not a bit in our presence.

The food: we begin with the amuses – six of them or eighteen for the table. They begin arriving in a cascading way. At some point between trying to write down the names of everything I fall behind, as do D & J. It seems like as I sigh finishing one with another on my plate, a third arrives. We’re not sure at what point we’re transitioning into the numbered courses. D is especially trying to keep monitor this. Mr. Puck stops by during this part of the meal and D mentions it’s hard to keep track. He says why bother, it’s like a river and the food will just keep flowing through the night. So true as it turns out. We ate:
Sesame cone with tuna (crispy sesame wrapper with succulent little chunks of tuna and small sprouts)
Pastrami foie gras (what you say? Yes, foie cured like pastrami – very tasty and unexpected).
Foie gras mousse on kumquat tart (perfection)
Smoked salmon blini
Sweet & sour sweetbreads with licorice honey (made me a convert to sweetbreads, perfectly light, moist and slightly crispy at the edges, incredibly delicious).
Bacon en croute – the perfect end to this section, nice straightforward salty.

Wow, we realize they were all amuse bouches and we haven’t even begun the numbered courses. Amazing. After a short pause, onto the next stages….

1st course: Oyster gratinee with Osetra caviar (Iran) – A perfect small oyster each with a creamy/crispy topping but still raw underneath. Small dollop of caviar bliss on top.

2nd course: Sashimi – scallop ceviche over uni & toro on heart of palm and microgreens salad. Wow for both and especially for the gorgeous toro.

3rd course: Santa Barbara prawn with a red curry sauce with Thai noodles & deep fried head and body segments. Perfect lovely prawn with incredible seasoning. The tall guy brought this out (he also brought out the oyster 1st course) and made a point of telling us that everything was edible including the fried shell and head. We stepped up to the challenge, but neither D nor I could eat the eyeball front section of the head. J did though. The fried shells were pretty tasty, esp. the back of the head juicy bits. Noodles were fine, but I didn’t eat much, not wanting to waste stomach space.

By this time in the evening the service had been honed to perfection for our table. The waitress noted that we were keen to know what exactly everything was (as I scrawled on my folded up magazine) so she would return with the wine pairing and repeat to us what everything was – sometimes it was tough to understand the runners, although they were excellent servers. The pacing was perfect, just enough time between courses to catch our breath, with no excessive delays.

4th course: Pan roasted sea bass with capers. This was amazing, one of my two favorite courses throughout the meal. Pan roasted in butter they should have emphasized – so rich and tasty. I think there were also some raisins amidst the capers, little juicy texture gems.

5th course: Agnolotti stuffed with ricotta, Parmesan, & celery root with shaved black truffles. As the tall guy told us about this at the table, it struck me that I was really eating grown up food. I mean, black truffles? I know, I know, it’s been a bad year for truffles. It’s late in a mediocre season. Were these European, Oregonian, or Asian – who knows, who cares. Awesome lovely, but not overpowering taste. Very nice.

6th course: Rabbit three ways – loin, liver, and rack with chanterelles & gnocchi in a ragu sauce. That’s right, baby! Rack of rabbit!!! Unreal. Rack of rabbit is seriously about an 1½ inches high and a little tasty bite or two max. I had two ribs on my rack, D had about 5 although they were similar in size. The loin was quite good, and the liver was very strong in flavor. I’ve never had rabbit liver before, but I was surprised. J is the ultimate gnocchi snob – his standard is served at Il Bucco (sp?) and wasn’t thrilled with the version here, but I thought it was fantastic, just toothsome enough.

I have to say by this point, we’re all a little dazed by everything. So grateful for such wonderful food. I think all the waitstaff is pretty amused by us. I mean we’re not standing on the chairs yelling yeah like Usher or anything, but the mood is pretty similar. We’re curious to see how they’re going to wrap this wonderfulness up and becoming very frugal with extra tastes of bread (sourdough, walnut, olive, or cracker bread) to maintain at least some space in our stomachs.

7th course: Squab breast & leg – the leg has been wrapped & roasted in prosciutto, served on a rutabaga puree with another sauce and tiny wedges of new potatoes and brussels sprout leaves. My co-favorite along with the sea bass. So rich and perfectly done and the small veggies were also very welcome.

8th course: The cheese course. Waitress returns with a dish of bread and suggests this is a hint of some wonderfulness to come. Tall guy brings out a large tray with three rows of cheeses, cow in front, then sheep, then goat – perhaps four selections of each type. At this point I am incapable of independent thought, so I ask him to choose three pieces for me that are all different and unusual. He looks surprised by my request, and after a short pause and inquiring about my tolerance for stinky cheese (which is high!), he starts in. I get an Epoise (cow) from Burgundy, Petit Basque (sheep) and Le Chevreaux (goat). The Epoise is runny & strong smelling, but fairly mild. The others are just wonderful. J & D are a little more choosy with what they want and get some different, some similar. I think outstanding among their choices was the Capricious goat cheese from NoCal. A fairly hard cheese, but such great flavor. We’re so full at this point we can’t quite finish the slices. Don’t tell, but they get wrapped up (sacrificing a microsoft ad in my Harpers – Bill Gates has never served me so well) and snuck into my purse for D to take home. But ha! At the end of the evening when we parted he forgot! They’re now in my fridge….

9th course: Huckleberry merlot granita with orange sorbet. Perfect palate cleanser, perfect.

10th course: Dark chocolate bread pudding with butterscotch ice-cream. And to my surprise, with a long red candle in mine, since it’s my b-day. I frown at J & D – don’t know who ratted me out, but I’m impressed someone could drizzle happy birthday in such lovely thin writing on my plate. The bread in the bread pudding seems to be a chocolate brioche, but I’m not sure. I’m still pondering whether this will usurp my previous favorite bread pudding which is served at Angelli Caffe. Hard to say. This is consumed with a rather nice espresso.

The wines: While I didn’t order the wine flight, brother J did and let me taste all of the selections – when I wasn’t too dazzled by the food to forget. He started and ended with full glasses of sparkling wines – both quite lovely. The others were half servings – a new one with each course. There was a sake early – I think served with the oyster. I’m no wine expert, but man they were good. Lots of CA wines, I think out weighing the European selections, but I could be wrong.

Final reflections: So, like yeah, we had a good time.

In truth however, this was an exceptional experience. The only thing that I can compare it to is a formal kaiseki meal I had in Kyoto in a traditional inn a couple years ago. The combination of pacing, deliciousness of food, talent of all the waitstaff, and sheer variety are mind boggling. You’ll note the discrepancy between the number of courses on the menu vs what we were served. Who knows how we ended up with more. Were they responding to our voraciousness, trying to clean out the kitchen, filming a reality show in secret trying to test whether we could endure, celebrating a gorgeous spring night, who knows?

And whatever the reasons behind this incredible feast, one thing was clear. They’re doing this for the joy of it. There is NO WAY they made any money off of us last night. I mean the caviar, black truffles, foie, wines to match each course, on and on. And considering the investment in staff time – with just the three of us we kept at least five people hopping over the course of three hours. Our waitress had other tables, but we were the only ones doing a tasting menu in her area.

Anyway, if you’re still reading this, thank you for your patience – I look forward to hearing about YOUR food experiences in detail if I haven’t already. Chow on….

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