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Counter Intelligence: Spago makeover smooths aging star's wrinkles

The newly redesigned Beverly Hills restaurant modernizes the dining room and brings a fresh take on Japanese cooking as it plays down its tasting menu and adopts an Italian course structure.

December 22, 2012|By Jonathan Gold | Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic

The first responsibility of any great restaurant is to keep you in the bubble, the soft-serve cocoon of illusion where you forget the world exists for anything but your pleasure. And the newly redesigned Spago, from the moment you toss your keys to the valet to the moment you stagger back out again, gives good bubble.

The thick prime rib steak sings with the flavors of blood, age and char; the tagliatelle with white truffles perfumes half the observable universe when its glass dome is whisked away. Sommeliers beam at the brilliance of your wine selection as if it weren't the sixth bottle of that Austrian Riesling they'd sold that evening. There is important art on the walls, including a photograph of a shattered cellphone the size of Pau Gasol, and a painting you could swear you saw at an Ed Ruscha retrospective, and while the music may tend toward the sort of '80s rock your meathead younger brother may have stashed on his iPod, at least you are not picking at your hearts of palm salad to the beat of hotel-lobby electronica.

Jonathan Gold quiz: Do you know your gingerbread?

Waldo Fernandez, designer to the stars, chopped and channeled the dining room, enlarging the skylight, taking a death ray to the encrusted layers of kitsch, making the room modern, although not oppressively so. The formerly cramped tables near the open kitchen now seem like the most desirable in the house, and the patio, when it is covered on cold nights by the new, retractable roof, looks more like the great hall of a $10-million Aspen ski lodge than a Bel-Air garden party. The olive trees are still there, as is the Expressionist stage-set lighting, but the Hollywood fun that Barbara Lazaroff once brought to the restaurant has been bleached right out of the place. Spago is still lovely, perhaps lovelier, but it could as well be in New York or Las Vegas as L.A.

When Wolfgang Puck moved Spago from West Hollywood to Beverly Hills 15 years ago, his mission was clear. The original restaurant had been a funky, cheerful place, a big-city trattoria designed as a side project to Puck's serious cooking at Ma Maison. It had the inadvertent effect of changing Los Angeles from a Le and La sort of town into the world capital of casually elegant dining. It turned out that the dudes with the platinum cards really did like hanging out on Spago's wacky furniture better than they liked dressing up for salmon en croute.

As a young critic in the 1980s, I spent a long time worrying about the effect of Spagonomics. Restaurants here were effectively constrained from charging more for foie gras and truffles than Puck did for broccoli pasta and goat-cheese salad at the most popular restaurant in town, which effectively choked off haute cuisine in Los Angeles. And although Puck basically invented the modern idea of Asian fusion cooking at Chinois and the idea of the brewpub at Eureka, I also fretted about his considerable talents being wasted on glamorized snack food.

The 1997 move to Beverly Hills was supposed to scrub the casualness out of Spago, to cement its reputation as the serious restaurant it had become and to establish Puck's personal cuisine — the Austrian flavors of his youth, expanded and elevated through amplified flavors, superior local produce and impeccable French technique. It kind of worked. Marrow dumplings and Kaiserschmarrn never quite took the place in local food culture once held by duck-sausage pizza and chocolate-raspberry terrine, but Spago affirmed its position as the flagship of a vast restaurant empire, and Puck, one of America's first celebrity chefs, was still the most recognizable toque in the U.S.

But as the current century slouches into its teens, Puck stands at a crossroads. Swifty Lazar, Tony Curtis and Billy Wilder are gone, and the tastes of the young Hollywood generation tend toward bottle service and dirty Vegas weekends. Puck is an engaging guest on talk shows, but on television he has clearly been elbowed aside by a younger, less-accomplished crowd. It is hard even to imagine him as a contestant on "Top Chef Masters," and while he could outcook Gordon Ramsay with both whisks tied behind his back, gratuitous cruelty isn't his gig. Whatever is possible to do as a hot chef in this country he has done a dozen times over, with exclamation points.

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