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Restaurants: Spago, Beverly Hills

This being Los Angeles, the story must be enthralling in a grand, cinematic mystique sort of way, full of glamour, plot twists, and complete re-models externally and internally.

No, it’s not a Raymond Chandler era, Los Angeles story. For that, head up north to Hollywood Boulevard for a definitive martini at Musso and Frank’s, complete with a chilled martini-filled sidecar and an atmospheric, Philip Marlowe sidecar too. For the more modern L.A. Story, catch the Steve Martin film, or even 2009’s “I Love You, Man,” full of today’s classic L.A. scenery and clichés.

No, this Hollywood story really takes place in Beverly Hills, at the luxurious intersection of Canon and Wilshire, where presently Santa and his reindeer are flying over the passing-by traffic of Range Rovers with tinted windows, Mercedes sedans, and Lotus convertibles.

There may be no more recognizable name in Los Angeles’ dining history than Wolfgang Puck, and the same can be said for his flagship restaurant Spago being the most recognizable restaurant name. You could even present a very convincing case that the two might be the most recognizable in the country.

Like Hollywood itself, Spago is mythical. Visit Hollywood for the first time, and you expect to see Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks chatting over coffee at Sunset and Vine. Trust me, Hollywood itself is not the glamour location the name is synonymous with. Just walk a few blocks east of Highland on either Hollywood Boulevard or Sunset Boulevard, and you’ll know what I mean.

Spago’s myth is that it is a gastronomic destination à la The French Laundry, Le Bernardin, or the recently closed Charlie Trotter’s. No, it’s not. Not even close. Spago isn’t trying to be at that ambitious caliber. Nobody will be fooled into calling Spago a “bargain” for most of the dining population, but you would need to focus your meal on the “Hong Kong” style, steamed, whole two-pound Maine lobster or either the home-made agnolotti or tagliatelle with Italian white truffles to compete price-wise with those gastronomic destinations. Spago is not and does not try to be as cutting-edge or refined as them either.

Going into a meal at the “new,” more correctly termed re-modeled and re-evaluated, Spago Beverly Hills, it is correct to expect brilliance. In reality, after this past summer’s renovation of the dining room and the menu to be more relevant and modern, Spago is not brilliant. To use the old Ronald Reagan Presidential debate question, is Spago better off now than it was a year ago?

Yes and no. The dining room is absolutely more chic and handsome; the patio may be even more ravishing today. The cuisine now is never below good, usually great, and occasionally stellar. Sherry Yard’s bread basket and desserts continue to be gold standards that the industry should follow.

Yet, something is still missing at the restaurant, and we’ll soon get into the slapdash service that badly needs tweaking, which is largely responsible for the current Spago’s struggles to capture the old glory. That missing something, however, is not the maestro himself. Since re-opening in September, Mr. Puck has been at the restaurant as if it’s 1982 all over again. With 101 restaurants spread worldwide, Mr. Puck still is a chef at heart, and THE Spago is what he still treasures most.

How the now 63-year-old Wolfgang Puck grew to become such a powerful culinary industry figure and major television personality will certainly be a major motion picture soon. Chances are his fellow countryman Arnold Schwarzenegger won’t be serving as the leading man, however. Not exactly look-alikes. Born in Austria, Puck moved to the U.S. as a 24 year old, and soon after, arrived in Los Angeles in 1975 to be the chef for Ma Maison, a forerunner of Spago where Puck started to contemporize and California-ize the previously heavy, classic formal French cuisine.

Puck founded the original Spago, which opened on the Sunset Strip in 1982 and closed in 2001. During those nearly two decades, Spago became the country’s symbol for the peculiar combination of power dining and rustic California meets Mediterranean cuisine. Wood-fired pizzas started to be accepted as destination-worthy cuisine after Spago’s emergence, and soon nobody had a problem with smoked salmon on their pizza for dinner instead of on their bagel and cream cheese at breakfast.

In a recent review of the new Nobu Malibu, Besha Rodell, the critic for LA Weekly, raised the question of Nobu Matsuhisa being the most influential chef today in this country, what with the tuna tartare with yuzu and miso black cod dishes sprouting up everywhere from La Jolla to Burlington. Heck, Nobu even opened his own hotel in Las Vegas.

Rodell also mentions that Puck could certainly compete with Nobu for the honor. I could throw Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Alice Waters (if you count her as a “chef”), and several others into the debate. Debate is healthy and important, but for this matter, we’ll leave it to the pundits elsewhere.

What is necessary is to understand how and why Mr. Puck became such a force between 1982 and today. From owning one restaurant with one cookbook thirty years ago, the term “empire” is the only way to describe the businesses and prestige that Puck has accumulated.

Long before René Redzepi, the chef/owner of Noma in Copenhagen, pioneered the concept of time and place for a restaurant, Puck delivered the two together at Spago. You were in California at Spago. Even more specifically, you were in the center of the entertainment capital of the world and the center of the city with the best weather and most beautiful people of the world. You made it if you went to Spago.

Then again, you had made it if you dined at Dan Tana’s, Valentino, or numerous other white tablecloth establishments in Los Angeles. The difference is that Puck created a thoroughbred of a restaurant where the focus was on the cuisine, along with the important figures in the room. Not just one or the other.

Bread Basket and Veal Filet Mignon Tartare with Smoked Mascarpone

Los Angeles today is very different than the Los Angeles of yesterday and the Los Angeles of tomorrow, and it is worth a standing ovation for Mr. Puck for the long run of the original Spago and the continued, only briefly interrupted run of the current flagship Spago.

Even my peers, who would never recognize James Beard or even Julia Child, have heard of Wolfgang Puck. Perhaps it’s from his many cooking shows and television appearances, demonstrating his grasp of today’s media, much like the aforementioned Bobby Flay and Emeril (no need for the last name these days).

Perhaps it’s from one of Puck’s many fast, casual cafés in airports, museums, and even universities. Puck found this niche long before every other celebrity chef decided to overhaul how fast food is operated. I still plan for at least an hour between flights every time I connect in Denver or Chicago O’Hare, so I can visit a Wolfgang Puck Express. O.K., so the pizzas may not quite be Spago-caliber, and the signature item is an often bland, Chinois chicken salad, but it’s all you can ask for after a four-hour flight. Besides, at an airport, you might be able to dine with the elite, like at Spago. Once I shared a Red Carpet Lounge with Stevie Wonder. Just like Spago, right?

The frozen foods and soup cans were Puck’s big foray into the American population that would never set foot in Spago. I must admit I’ve never sampled one of the soups, but my grandmother always felt that Campbell’s was just as good (but she also maintains that Stusrt Anderson’s Black Angus is her favorite restaurant).

Puck’s heyday really followed the arc of the American economic boom during the Clinton years. Puck expanded nationally and internationally, again leading the way for fellow celebrity chefs to open in multiples cities, or even create empires.

Chino Farm’s Vegetable Salad, Pine Nuts, Roquefort, Dates, Asian Pear, Apples

Puck and Spago are particularly important for me, because I wouldn’t be writing this article if it weren’t for them. Puck opened a Spago in my hometown of Palo Alto, California, in the late 1990’s when the city was thriving off dot com money. Kids, this was long before Facebook was invented, and Google was still well behind Yahoo! The venue Puck chose previously housed an outpost of Stars, Jeremiah Tower’s San Francisco gold standard that can fairly be called the “Spago of San Francisco.” Expansion to Palo Alto didn’t work.

Palo Alto was, and still is, far behind its San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Napa, and Sonoma neighbors when it comes to a wealth of impressive restaurants. Spago was the  place. My family treated my brother and me twice a year to dinner there. I looked forward to the end of the school year, not for the end of homework, but for the return to Spago. It’s where I first tried the smoked salmon pizza. It’s where I first learned about a heated outdoor patio and an open kitchen with a roaring, wood-fired oven, all exposed to diners. It’s where I first realized how beautiful a hostess could be.

My most vivid memory still is the epic bread basket, complete with blistered flat bread triangles, cheese sticks, olive bread, and sourdough.  With that bread basket, the glamorous cuisine, people, and the dining room itself, I fell in love with food and restaurants. Of course wallets and bank accounts may regret this discovery, but in the end, it’s certainly been a very rewarding discovery.

The economy didn’t do Spago Palo Alto any favors. My admiration for the restaurant never wavered, but the dining scene was moving on. For years, you could reserve prime time, 1,000 point reservations for Spago on Opentable.com, a usual white flag for a struggling restaurant. The restaurant closed in 2007, and now the beautiful building has been re-modeled and houses…a law firm. Upon news of its closing, The San Francisco Chronicle described Spago as “once California’s “It” restaurant,” and noted that the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group was focusing on a new company strategy of partnering with luxury hotel brands, seen back then with Spago in the Ritz-Carlton Beaver Creek, Colorado, or just last year with the Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel-Air.

Cavatelli Pasta with Braised Veal, Porcini Mushrooms, and Parsley

This was in 2007, when Puck chose to join luxury hotel brands and also continue his pursuit of the fast, casual dining sector. It was also five years ago when the article mentioned that Spago “once” was California’s destination restaurant.

At the same time, Mr. Puck continues to be the “It” chef of choice for Hollywood’s glamorous Academy Awards Governor Ball, feeding the nominees and their studios after the past 18 ceremonies.

I first visited Spago Beverly Hills in 2009, enjoying a most wonderful (I must admit it was a birthday celebration) dinner on the gorgeous, straight out of a Tuscan vacation photo shoot, ivy-covered patio. Everything still was glorious here, from the full house of beautiful families and couples to the cuisine itself. Spago’s unheralded mastery of pastas and raw fish preparations was clearly on display with the peekytoe crab raviolini and the marinated hamachi and tuna sashimi with a soy-yuzu sauce and pumpkin seed oil. The famed Cantonese-style roasted duck, a show-stopping veal chop with escarole and a celery-apple puree, and a riveting variation of pad thai with Maine diver scallops all showed why Spago was also known for its formidable kitchen skill. Creativity met rustic California with a hint of the Mediterranean and a dash of Asian accents flourishing on nearly every dish.

“Rock, Pebble, Chocolate”: Almond Cream, Warm Truffles, Cool Truffles, Bon Bons

Don’t get me started on Yard’s desserts that night, because now you’ll make me yearn for the return of the infinity chocolate gratin and soufflétart, the incomparable apfelstrudel, and my “birthday cake” kaiserschmarren, fluffy clouds of crème fraîche soufflé pancake with sautéed strawberries. The latter certainly were references to Puck’s youth in Austria, and the following year after this dinner at Spago, I searched far and wide for equivalent renditions in Vienna and found nothing even close to Yard’s caliber. No, not even at the famed Demel.

Demel’s Kaiserschmarrn

So, why stop now with the old Spago? Because Puck is one intelligent man who has that knack for being one step ahead of the rest of us. Spago closed in July and overhauled the dining room, the patio, and the menu for its early October re-opening. The attention previously given to Spago had all but disappeared before this move. In the brave new world of social media, bloggers, and foodies who worship Roy Choi’s street tacos, Ludo Lefebrvre’s pop-ups and Michael Voltaggio’s every molecular creation, here is the old warhorse Spago trying to be young again.

Guess what, Spago is the talk of the town again. Those diners who would have never thought of setting foot in the old, Reagan-era looking Spago are here with their cameras. Diners are at Spago once again not because of the name, but because it is a restaurant again.

Spago never was irrelevant. It’s just that now, it is relevant. But after a visit to Spago 2.0 at Beverly Hills, it’s hard to say that modern and looser has made Spago better.

The menu may be different, but the talent still remains. Puck runs the show. Lee Hefter actually runs the show daily as executive chef, along with returning chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi, who in no time will be running his own restaurant, I am certain.

Chirashi Sushi, Blue Fin Tuna, Hamachi, Salmon Pearls, Santa Barbara Sea Urchin

As I mentioned before, Spago has a particular skill in pastas and raw fish dishes, and much of that credit goes to Hefter and Yahagi. Yahagi is originally from Fukuoka, Japan, graduated from Tokyo’s famed French culinary school, Tsuji, and served as the opening sous chef of Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill in Tokyo, before joining Hefter at Spago. Hefter travels extensively to Tokyo for research and pleasure. I even used a Los Angeles Times article by Leslie Brenner and Michalene Busico on Hefter’s trips to Tokyo as a guide for my Tokyo dining strategies when I visited the city. One day I will have the chance to thank Hefter for his advice to visit the tempura bar Kondo in Ginza, a startling revelation for anyone who thought they knew what tempura batter is supposed to be like.

A delightful hamachi and soy amuse-bouche begins the show presently at Spago. There is no tempura presently at Spago, but it would be wise to open with a raw fish starter, be it an octopus ceviche with espelette and quinoa crisp, or some terrific chirashi sushi with radiant red blue-fin tuna, salmon pearls, velvety hamachi, and a sparkling lobe of Santa Barbara sea urchin. The array comes inside an ice-filled clay bowl; the fish nestled inside a wooden boat, atop seductively seasoned, fluffy rice, with a few dashes of sudachi over the fish. Get an order for every two diners…don’t even try splitting sea urchin multiple ways, as your author’s table did. The rice itself is a lesson demonstrating how at Tokyo’s renowned sushi bars, even the rice preparation is an art, not an afterthought to immaculate fish. Just watch last year’s film Jiro Dreams of Sushi and note how the apprentices fan the rice with the care that a valet might use to fan the Queen.

A nod to the modern-day affection for whole animal butchery and offal cooking is the leading contender to become Spago’s new signature dish. Bone marrow bones are hollowed out, then filled with veal, not beef, tartare, covered in a layer of mascarpone. It’s a bone marrow-style dish with the tartare then spread on toasted bread crisps. The veal meat is fresher tasting and earthier than its elder counterpart; think a Pinot Noir compared to a Cabernet Franc.

Nearly every table has a round of the Chino Farm’s vegetable salad, prepared classically at a tableside cart and then individually dished, both terrific touches by the service. The salad itself isn’t particularly special with pine nuts, Roquefort cubes, too few dates, and julienned matchsticks of Asian pear and apples. Ultimately the dish is more Chez Panisse than Spago, lacking any flair. On the other hand, sautéed Fanny Bay oysters presently receive a jolt from curry, and a Nannets carrot soup with Nantucket Bay scallops have the added flair of coconut to the soup’s broth and crispy ginger.

Over two months since re-opening, Spago already has morphed through two menu styles. Thankfully. The original menu format tried too hard to be different, divided into five categories: “Raw, Wild & Organic,” “Decadent & Indulgent,” “From the Sea,” “From the Pasture,” and “From the Garden.” One can argue at length whether this whimsical format is preferable to the standard appetizers and main courses format, or if they should just do away altogether with courses and just listing dishes and prices on the menu. But, really, there was no reason for pastas and soups to be considered “decadent & indulgent.”

Now, the menu is the complete opposite of the original poetry and more in line with the minimalist dining room: “One,” “Two,” “Three,” and “From the Garden.” Since the re-opening, desserts have been divided between “From the Market” and “Chocolate,” and remain so.

Pumpkin Agnolotti, Amoretti, Sage, Parmigiano Reggiano

Move to “Two” and sample Hefter’s gift with pastas. After all, “Spago” is an Italian term for spaghetti. A plate full of pumpkin agnolotti with amoretti, sage, and a sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano is aesthetically dull to the eyes with white sauce on yellow pasta on a tan plate. Fortunately, the pasta itself melts almost in the spoon, textbook precision to the pasta’s filling and a filling clearly of spiced pumpkin. Less successful was somewhat gummy cavatelli, little armadillo shells of pasta a little too al denté, with flakes of braised veal and a few porcini mushrooms lending no sense of umami. There actually were as much connective tissue and bone fragments from the veal as veal itself in the ragù, not a pleasant sensation. The dish is no longer on the menu, a rare pasta misfire and misfire in general by the Spago kitchen.

For “Two,” you can also sample Hefter’s interpretation of the classic “Carbonara” with a single egg-filled raviolo or a surf-and-turf strozzapreti “nero” with both slow-braised oxtail and Maine lobster. Or veer towards the adventuresome, non-pasta side of “Two” with barbeque sting ray and a spicy Indonesian sambal or another surf-and-turf pairing, this time with suckling pig and Santa Barbara spot prawn, joined by Kaffir lime and the never-eat-raw-until-they-are-truly-ripe Hachiya persimmons.

None of these seems all that decadent & indulgent.

Be indulgent and enjoy that bread basket from Yard, though, throughout the meal. Right now paper-thin, charred crackers studded with pumpkin seeds steal the basket’s spotlight, but you’ll also enjoy the rye-based sourdough and Chinese buns too, complete with regular Wisconsin dairy butter and an Oregon butter studded with seaweed. Consider this a course unto itself.

(L to R) Brussels Sprouts with Shiro Miso-Maple Mustard and Bacon Wrapped “Fugu” Blowfish with Black Garlic, Hearts of Palm, Black Pepper, and Lemon

“Three” shows where the menu truly has evolved and is trying to reflect the slant towards minimalist descriptions and presentations. I noticed two main differences between the 2009 menu and today’s: shorter descriptions of each dish and a subtle shift away from Mediterranean accents. The Asian accents are more pronounced now but have always been there at Spago, just in a subtler manner.

Back in 2009, you could have lengthy dishes, such as “slow-braised beef short ribs with caramelized shallots, mustard, creamed winter greens, gratin of celery root, and natural braising juice” or “sautéed French loup de mer with caramelized cauliflower, toasted almonds, capers, golden raisins, garlic, puree of cauliflower, and meyer lemon meunière butter.” It was the classic list format.

Now, no description has more than ten words. You can have “Jidori chicken breast & leg “pastrami,” rye crisp, celery-mustard puree” (what restaurant in 2012 Los Angeles doesn’t serve Jidori chicken?) or “Marcho Farm’s braised veal “Osso Bucco,” creamed cavalo nero, saffron.”

Clockwise from Top Left: Fugu, Short Rib with Grain Mustard and Horseradish, Cauliflower with Garam Masala and Toasted Almonds, Maine Black Bass

The most impressive large dish might be the daring, bacon-wrapped fugu (blowfish), a nod to today’s love of both life-threatening, deep-end cuisine and anything with bacon. The bacon’s smokiness is alluring in every taste of the fugu, not far in taste and texture from monkfish. Four of the wrapped fugu stand like fishy snowmen around the plate; another fugu lies like a tumbled Redwood over hearts of palm. The dish’s highlight is a mesmerizing, black garlic-based sauce that the dish needs more of.

The fish hits continue with a superb Maine black bass, covered with a crispy scale of the fish’s skin and sunflower seeds that make the fish skin look even more like fish skin. A swatch of Littleneck clams, a mysterious foam, a mysterious “snow,” and a pair of sauces, a few swirls of garlic puree and a thin line of parsley coulis, round out the dish. This is the closest Spago gets to El Bulli.

Maine Black Bass, Littleneck Clams, Crispy Scale, Garlic Purée, Parsley Coulis

I wanted more from the Wagyu short rib, a strip of meat topped by mustard and horseradish accoutrements, vague echoes of a classic prime rib preparation. While tender, the meat wasn’t of that fall-off-the-bone, tender texture that the most winning short rib dishes possess. With the various components separately scattered atop the beef, some bites were heavily of mustard, others of horseradish, and others of nothing but the soy-based sauce you pour on from a separate carafe. There was no harmony going on.

“Three” presents several more classic dishes, too. Right now Puck is on an elegant Chinese kick with the two-year-old WP-24 specializing in the cuisine in Downtown Los Angeles. Here, the table can have a whole roasted Chinese duck with house hoisin and steamed bao buns. Or, go for the French classic Dover sole “Grenobloise,” except Escoffier probably never added kohlrabi to the dish.

At lunch, you can go for the Puck classics of smoked salmon pizza and wienerschnitzel. I learned that if you’re in the know or a regular, you can order them off-menu at dinner too, as tables around me did.

Puck’s high-end steakhouse concept “Cut” might be making an impact on the new Spago with many of the large plates lacking sides. Fortunately, the vegetables might be the highlight of the menu’s savory portion. How very Gjelina and Bäco Mercat! The vegetables are served on pedestals around the table, a position of exultance for humble roasted pee-wee potatoes and escarole with golden raisins and garlic. Brussels sprouts are a great way to gauge a restaurant today. Spago’s soar with a shiro miso-maple mustard. Fights almost broke out for the caramelized cauliflower, toasted almonds, and dates, with a hefty dose of garam masala. It’s a dish that has recently been removed from the menu but must return at once.

One problem with the menu format is how are you supposed to share or not share? Should everyone have three courses? No, unless you’re quite the ravenous eater. Should you share the mains? Should you share starters? Our table elected the sharing option, leading to a table filled to maximum capacity at Course Three. I almost had to put the cauliflower in my lap.

“Black Bowl”: Chocolate Crumble Parfait, Cardamom Glace, Espresso Air, Chocolate Brulée Cookie

Whatever path you choose, desserts are required. Hurry though, as it was just announced this week that pastry chef extraordinaire for Spago and all of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Sherry Yard, will be opening a bakery in Culver City’s Helms Bakery Complex with Father’s Office and Lukshon’s Chef-Owner Sang Yoon in January.

Most reflective of Yard’s baking prowess was a caramel and bourbon soaked pain perdu, with a bottom layer of Bartlett pears and Black Mission figs, and vanilla and maple roasted pear segments and raspberries decorating outside the pain perdu. How autumnal, how comforting, and yet, how new feeling the dessert was. Luckily, Yard’s 50 bean Tahitian vanilla ice cream is back for the pain perdu and sure isn’t your run of the mill vanilla scoop.

The “Black Bowl” in, yes, a black bowl was fascinating. A layer of chocolate crumble parfait mingled with alluring cardamom glace, then espresso air (like foam), and a chocolate brulée cookie for a delightful clash of bitter, sweet, and spice. “Rock, Pebble, Chocolate” is essentially various truffles and bonbons, some stuffed with fruit fillings and others nothing but dense, hearty chocolate. How can you not enjoy the dish!  However, the dish is really just an assortment of very fine truffles, a bit on the unimaginative side. It’s a plate of chocolates where you sort of know ahead of time what you’re going to get.

“Bartlett Pear, Black Mission Figs”: Caramel Bourbon Pain Perdu, Vanilla and Maple Roasted Pear, 50 Bean Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream

So, the eating portion of the evening is very much Spago caliber. It’s the service that needs help and needs it fast.

I won’t call it a “comedy of errors,” like one fellow diner moaned to me, but there is no excuse for the disorganized, lethargic orchestrations of service currently at Spago. All of this while Mr. Puck was perusing the room chatting with customers all evening. Something was off from the get-go. No hostess asked if we’d like coats checked. We were initially led to the wrong table, paraded in, then out, and then back into the dining room for everyone to see our dashing fashion sense.

The lead waiter was incredibly helpful with suggestions on what to order, but he always was hesitant when addressing the table, even though we were easily the least powerful people in the room. The waiter was never around during the meal. When we needed help, we had to summon bus boys, only to have our messages not relayed on. Our initial bread basket was almost brought to the table, until the bus boy dropped some pieces of bread. Often, water glasses went empty. Bus boys never smiled, never folded napkins when you went to the restroom, never described dishes upon arrival, and seldom brought serving utensils at all or at least until long after the dishes were dished by our own forks and knives.

One table nearby almost broke out in a fight, causing the room to stir, and yet no service staff tried to diffuse the situation. I’m told even the women’s restroom became a sloppy situation with an overflowing trash can. At Spago? The meal itself clocked in at four hours for four courses, demonstrating the glacial pace at which everything operated. And, remember the aforementioned saturated table with too many plates. It could have been five hours if the courses were split so that the table was never overflowing.

You would also expect at a place of Spago’s ambition to at least get some mignardises at the meal’s conclusions, since you get an amuse-bouche. Not this time.

This isn’t an attempt to be a honey-do list of errors Yelp-style. Spago is human. New restaurants need to gain their footing. But, this is Spago, not a tiny new bistro with rookie servers. Wine bottles cooling away from the table should not be forgotten by the service staff, leading many at the table to have no wine for close to a half hour, even though the bottle was still half full. That is inexcusable from a staff that dotes to every whim of many of the room’s diners.

All of this can be corrected, and I’m confident it will be. Mr. Puck won’t allow Spago to run like this.

The one bright spot of the service staff was the sommelier, in charge of the extensive, eye-popping, 7,000 bottle strong cellar. The wine list isn’t quite phone book sized, but good luck choosing a wine on your own if you haven’t already done research. With such an emphasis on the wine program, it was surprising that my first choice of wine was actually not even in stock.

The list itself is well priced with a surprisingly high number of impressive, yet affordable bottles under $50. In fact, the menu itself isn’t outrageously expensive, and portions are far from dainty for a restaurant of this caliber. Course “Three” boasts only one item under $30, but the majority of the others hover around the $35 mark, slightly less in fact on average than two years ago. And that’s not counting inflation. Yes, the food is less exciting and pricier than competitors, such as Ink or Animal, but remember that this is Spago and this is Beverly Hills.

Puck told The New York Times Magazine in February that the goal of the dining room’s re-design was to recreate “a quintessential-looking L.A. restaurant. Modern and clean, with good art.”

Well, the new design from Puck’s friend, the architect Waldo Fernandez, is indeed very modern and clean, with lots of natural elements from the wood-beamed floor to the cream white walls and ceiling over the central dining room. Good art? That’s up for debate. Since I would prefer to spend time admiring impressionism at the Norton Simon rather than visiting the MOCA, several of the modern elements distracted me, from the smashed iPhone picture to a sculpture stenciling the word “ONE.” Excuse the expression, but the main dining room is anchored on one side by a misty, ominous, seafaring painting of an anchor by Robert Rauschenberg, the glassed-in kitchen in the rear, and the glassed-in wine cellar on the other side.

White tablecloths help enhance the elegance factor, while the black leather chairs hint at a sleek Century City conference room, and black velvet booths give off a bit of a sleek steakhouse feel, maybe an effect of Puck’s successful other Beverly Hills steakhouse, Cut. Even the new logo at the door and the exterior at the entrance feel more sleek and clubby. Gone are the elaborate, colorful logo and ivy-colored façade. Now, subtle black and white walls are in vogue.

The prime seats continue to be on the renovated patio, now with less ivy-colored walls, a central fireplace, and either in a nod to baseball stadiums or the convertibles owned by so many of Spago’s clientele, a retractable roof for the ten nights a year when it rains in Beverly Hills. Fortunately, for the nearly every night of the year when it’s slightly chilly, there are heat lamps. The new bar at the entrance gives off a Victorian parlor vibe, very different than the alternative rock meets luxury vibe in the dining room.

Whether or not it’s a spectacular dining room, it certainly is fresher and more comfortable than the dated, original design by Puck’s ex-wife and Spago co-founder Barbara Lazaroff. Sometimes though, the room feels like it’s trying too hard to be something it isn’t. It’s a festive, formal restaurant that wants to be a brash adolescent. Fortunately, the patio continues to remain one of the most optimal settings for a meal in Los Angeles, if not the country.

Spago isn’t perfect. The service errors can easily be remedied and need to be for the crowds to not be deterred. We need Spago to achieve lofty heights, because it is a restaurant that matters. It is a legend. Even legends need to change with the times. Spago is back, not necessarily better than ever, but still the icon that the name has become synonymous with.

Spago

***

176 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA

(310) 385-0880

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