Every year my associate critic and I choose our best restaurant meal of the year. This is based solely on food and wine and avoids details like price and ambience. Past winners included Chinois (1986), Seventh Street Bistro (1987),Bernards (1988), The Tower (Axel Dikkers)(1989), Checkers (Thomas Keller)(1992), Patina (1996 and 1997), Water Grill (2002), but many years have no winner.
I never thought that Spago would be a contender based on not very satisfying experiences ordering from their menu, but I was compelled to try the tasting menu based on posts on this board. The food, wine, and even the service are completely different with this prix fixe menu. It was the best food and wine experience I have had in LA in many years. We were so impressed that we declared this the meal of the year, even before the year is over.
The waiter started out unimpressively, but when we ordered the tasting menu, he transformed into a different person more efficient, helpful, and friendly. There were supposed to be 8 courses, but it turned out that 18 different dishes were presented in addition to an unlimited selection from the cheese tray.
The wine steward (Kevin OConner) became a fixture at the table he consulted with the chef before each course, asked out preferences, and matched the food exquisitely with wines I never would have picked to drink on their own. There were supposed to be 8 wines, but it turned out there were 10 (some, I am embarrassed to admit, with more than one pour), including an impressive 1993 late harvest Valpolicella with an unusual production technique. OConner is a wine technician with a fascinating knowledge of winemaking techniques. He served a wine from a vineyard in Santa Maria where he is the winemaker (OConnor Winery). I wish I could remember more details about the wines, but after all that alcohol, I am happy to just remember general descriptions.
The food had some misses, but many presentations were spectacular the tomato dishes were especially creative and successful.
Billecart Salmon Champagne
Tuna tartare in an ice-cream type cone
Pate with mousseline
Bacon toast (perhaps a little to much fat)
Foie gras pastrami
OConnor Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Maria)
Smoked salmon blini
Tomato filet in tomato water Im not sure how this was produced but it is one of the most impressive things Ive ever seen done with a tomato
Parabuco Chardonnay (California)
Tomato tarte tatin
Mouvedre Rose the least successful wine of the meal almost metallic
Heirloom tomato with ricotta
Green tomato mousse
Soft shell crab tempura
Unlimited cheese tray (though severely limited by the sheer amount of food)
Sauvigny les Beaunes 2000 (Cote dOr)
Roasted skate (difficult fish to work with came our with a slight crust, creamy interior)
roasted lamb loin chop
1993 Late Harvest Valpolicella
passion fruit sorbet
Chocolate wafer with vanilla bean ice cream
We felt like billionaires for a mere $385 (for two) - a true bargain. Although I am generally pretty frugal, I was so impressed to find that LA actually has a world class dining experience again that I actually gave the waiter and the wine steward cash in addition to the 20% tip automatically added to the bill.
It took four hours, and despite the extremely annoying music and loud room, we never felt bored or ignored. Go hungry, pace yourself, and consider a designated driver.