Reinvention. It's a concept that has eluded many of our temples of fine dining in recent years. Call it tradition, obstinance or even a lack of resources, but the plan of action for many in the old guard of upscale dining has been to resist action, to hold tightly to the past. In some cases this has worked — plenty of restaurants thrive in part because they've refused to change. But in many cases, the inability to adapt has spelled decline and failure.
Which brings us to Spago.
Wolfgang Puck's restaurant has reinvented itself a number of times over its 30-year history. The current Beverly Hills location, which opened in 1997, was a younger sibling to the original Spago in West Hollywood. Then, honoring newness and letting go of the past, Puck shuttered the original location, giving precedence to the reinvented, newer space. The most recent reinvention took place this summer, when the restaurant shut down for a total overhaul of both menu and decor.
Gone is the Tuscany-meets–California wine country–meets–1992 decor, its jewel tones and subtle brocades and wood accents replaced with a sleek, white room. In back, meticulous cooks work in the glassed-in kitchen. One wall showcases the restaurant's formidable wine collection, also behind glass. Large, modern pieces of art punctuate the otherwise minimalist feel — one particularly amusing piece is a glowing, man-sized iPhone with a shattered and fragmented façade, an installation so of-the-moment it likely will have to be replaced before the 20-year mark but also fantastically fun for right now.
Gone, too, are the menu staples that have been synonymous with the Spago experience for much of the past 30 years — the smoked-salmon pizza, the goulash with spaetzle. Instead, the menu reads like a highbrow tour of the globe, touching on Japan, Italy, China and France before landing firmly in Southern California.
It's not all that different, really. What the remodel and revamped menu have done, rather than change the restaurant drastically, is restore Spago to its former glory. (You can even still order that smoked-salmon pizza, though it's no longer on the menu. One gets the feeling you could order just about anything here and be accommodated.)
The dining room these days feels very much like the descriptions of Spago in its early glory days — a place where beautiful people go to pop corks and have fun; a rediscovery of the idea that fine dining doesn't have to feel so strict.
There's a sense of decadence, yes, but it's almost a throwback to the grand-hotel dining of 100 years ago. Where else could you go to have almost any dining whim fulfilled, be it Hong Kong–style lobster tails, a whole roast duck, côte de boeuf, or tagliatelle showered in fresh white truffles? There's a dry-aged New York steak with potato bacon terrine for the steak-and-potatoes lot, served with a silky, oniony steak sauce. There's a chirashi sushi plate, which presents changing combinations of pristine fish and salmon roe.
It's mind-boggling how many different corners of the globe this kitchen manages to touch on. It's even crazier that it manages to do justice to every single type of cuisine it attempts.
In fact, if anything suffers, it's the home turf. There are certain dishes, the ones that read most like standard, fancy, New American fare, that are beautifully prepared but a little boring. (A lamb dish served with figs a few weeks back comes to mind, but just barely — it made such a small impression as to be literally forgettable.) Santa Barbara spot prawns, served with seared and crunchy cubes of suckling pig belly, were a tad overwrought and confusing — I'd rather have seen the prawns themselves truly highlighted and celebrated rather than muddle them up with overpowering pig fat.
If I had to pick a regional cuisine that Spago does best, I'd have to say Italy, with the wide-ranging influence of Asia a close second. Chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi, more than ever, is putting his Japanese heritage and formal training to good use, under executive chef Lee Hefter (both of whom have been with Puck for many years). From the Thai-tinged coconut, peanut and ginger in an amuse of carrot soup to the Indonesian flavors on a delicate barbecued stingray and beyond, there's no doubt Spago's menu has become more Asian than ever, and with fantastic results. But the simple excellence of this kitchen's pasta is hard to beat — the piping hot, smooth, sweet interior of the pumpkin agnolotti; the rich yellow yolk running out of a single, giant uova da raviolo, served carbonara-style with smoked bacon.
But the very best of what you're likely to experience here comes last. Sherry Yard's desserts are both highly technical and intensely whimsical. I found myself reacting with adult awe at the perfection of, say, a 50-bean Tahitian vanilla ice cream, as well as with childish wonder at a crispy, darkly caramelized edge on the ice cream's accompanying vanilla and maple-roasted pear and caramel pain perdue. A sprinkle of outrageously sweet, perfect raspberries around the dish felt like an extra blessing, a tiny kiss. The "rock, pebble, chocolate" dessert comes with "warm truffles," which rupture to reveal oozing, warm chocolate centers. Creamy, cocoa-dusted bonbons dot the plate, as well as others that burst, unexpectedly fruity, in your mouth. On closer inspection, they turn out to be grapes, also dusted in cocoa. It's a trick of sight, taste and texture that's worthy of Willy Wonka.
Of course, the news has just come out that Yard is leaving Spago after 20 years to open her own bakery in Culver City. She'll remain on staff through mid-February, when Della Gossett will take over. Gossett, with years as Charlie Trotter's pastry chef, is sure to eventually put her own mark on Spago's dessert menu, though Yard says she will be working closely with Gossett on the transition and, "as with all Spago menus, desserts will be based on what is seasonal."
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For now, the last months of Yard's desserts are just another reason to visit Spago promptly. Go now, while the excitement of this new incarnation is still fresh. Go to revel in the outrageous decadence of a restaurant that pampers customers in the old-school style, without feeling stodgy in the slightest. Spend a fortune on the priciest items and the fantastic wine list, or don't — nibbles at the bar, or at one of the cocktail tables, are just as fun as the grandeur of the full experience. But there is, without question, as much reason to go to Spago now as there ever was.
SPAGO | 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills | (310) 385-0880 | wolfgangpuckrestaurants.com | Lunch: Tues.-Thurs., Sat., noon-2:15 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m. Dinner: Nightly, 6-10 p.m. | Entrées $29-$90 | Full bar, extensive wine list | Valet parking