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Puck's First Peak

Wolfgang Puck's new ventures may have stolen Spago Hollywood's thunder, but chef de cuisine Gina DeCew turns out some excellent food at the original restaurant.

May 02, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Spago, the pizza place a young Austrian chef opened above a car-rental agency on the Sunset Strip back in 1981, revolutionized the way we eat in Los Angeles and in restaurants all over the country. Before, who had the chutzpah to put "gourmet" and "pizza" in the same sentence? Or the savvy to intuit what people would like to be eating before even they knew it?

Now, 18 years later, the little restaurant that could is no longer the flagship of Wolfgang Puck's growing empire. That title goes to Spago Beverly Hills, which Puck and his partner and wife, Barbara Lazaroff, launched in 1997. But the old place, rechristened Spago Hollywood, still attracts throngs of visitors who either haven't heard about the newer hot spot or can't get in, along with nostalgic locals who aren't necessarily looking for a scene.

Some nights, in fact, it's possible to walk in without a reservation. Now noncelebs might land one of the coveted window tables with a quintessential view of the Sunset Strip billboards and the city lights beyond. The restaurant is more comfortable than before, too. New chairs are easier on the back, and you're less likely to have someone else's seat bumping against yours. Much of the longtime staff is present, including the man who never forgets a face, maitre d' Michael Dargin. The waiters, some of whom have been here almost two decades, are unflaggingly polite and attentive, even when the gaggle of girls at a 13-year-old's birthday party keep changing their orders. Spago Hollywood is, in short, still fun.

The kitchen has a more relaxed feeling these days as well. The pace is less frantic and, though chef de cuisine Gina DeCew hews closely to the Spago orthodoxy, the menu seems slightly more Asian-influenced than before. Of course, it changes frequently with the seasons and the supply of fresh seafood or Chino Ranch produce. For starters, there are Spago's famous pizzas on that well-developed, bready crust infused with an ineffably smoky edge from the heat of the wood-burning oven. The classic choice is the one that you have to know to ask for--a smear of creme fra 5/8che covered with satiny slices of house-smoked salmon. I can also be seduced by the "white pizza," blanketed with a mix of good mozzarella and two other cheeses, fontina and goat, roasted garlic and surprise! broccoli florets. But the exotic-sounding pies, such as the one with duck sausage, shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions and sage, are more often than not a mishmash of flavors and ingredients, and difficult to eat to boot.

Many of the pastas suffer from a similar surfeit of ingredients, but that's California cuisine for you. One dish that I've liked is the postage stamp-sized gnocchi laced with mascarpone and imported black truffles in a light bechamel sauce perfumed with a few drops of truffle oil. (The last touch I could have done without.) I love the lobster shiu mai, pleated dumpling wrappers stuffed with delicious, barely cooked lobster suffused with ginger. Ah, and the crispy potato galette is like divine hash browns, topped with moist house-smoked sturgeon and a spunky horseradish cream. The Spago Caesar, spiked with just the right amount of anchovy, good Parmesan and, in this interpretation, red chile flakes, leaves a sensation of lingering heat after each bite of the chilled Romaine hearts.

I suspect most people fill up on pizza and pasta, but for those who can avoid those temptations, there are some excellent and filling main courses. First on my list is the grilled calf's liver crowned with frilly fried onions and set on a mound of wonderfully gritty polenta. Grilled rack of lamb, tiny, plump beauties with long bones, has fabulous flavor. And the New York strip is a fine piece of aged beef (if you want it medium rare, though, I'd suggest ordering it rare) presented on crusty potatoes dosed with whole mustard seed. The quality of the fish is superb, too, from John Dory and big-eye tuna to Alaskan halibut and Atlantic salmon.

Whenever I come here, someone at the table inevitably orders Cantonese duck or crispy quail, and usually it's pretty good, if you don't mind sweet sauces. But the berry-filled spring rolls that accompanied the duck one night (what an idea! ) are cloying. That's part of Puck's genius, though. His Asian dishes tend to be grown-up versions of childhood tastes for the crispy and the sweet, which is what fast food is all about. He's just been smart enough to exploit that combination so that people think they're eating higher up the food chain. And everything is made with the best ingredients.

The wine list, tailored by sommelier Michael Bonnacorsi, fills out the roster of big California and French names with interesting, relatively little-known wines from the Rhone, Spain, Italy, Germany and, yes, even a couple of crisp white wines from Austria. For wine aficionados with deep pockets, there are old bottles of pedigree and, at the bar, a fine list of after-dinner spirits.

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