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Chef Wolfgang Puck inside Spago; photography by Carin Krasner

Spago, Reinvented

by Lesley Balla | Angeleno magazine | January 3, 2013

The first time I went to Spago was in 2002. I sat on the patio by the big tree that was wrapped with twinkle lights. The service was some of the best I had encountered in L.A., and the wine was incredible, though I can’t recall what it was. In fact, I can’t recall what I ate. I do remember that the evening felt magical.

After a complete overhaul that seems designed to bring in a younger, hipper crowd—a Doug Aitken work that looks like a giant, glowing iPhone with a cracked screen now lines a wall and the stained-glass accents are gone—I’m happy to say Spago still feels special. The new food, vibe and décor are wild departures from the classic stylings we all knew and loved, but the bones of the room, the expert dedication in the kitchen, and the top-notch service and hospitality are all still intact. Spago has been reinvented, and it’s spectacular.

That’s easy for me to say. I wasn’t a regular at Spago by any stretch. I wasn’t attached to the golden hues, the garden and the stained glass. The goulash and schnitzel weren’t the first things I’d order,
though I recall going for sweet corn agnolotti whenever I could. I didn’t have a favorite anything. So while the address remains the same, I find the transformation to be astounding.

It starts at the big black door when you walk into the foyer. I’m sure it’s matte black and closed so your entrance will be that much more dramatic. You can’t see inside until you walk in, and that’s the point. Puck wants you to be wowed. You probably will be.

Designer Waldo Fernandez has created a sleeker space that definitely feels more of the moment. Some changes I love: The bar is darker and cozier, with small lounge tables for sipping and nibbling; the dining room is more open with a chic, stripped-down, black and white look. A glass partition to the kitchen was added, so now you can see the entire line of cooks bustling at the burners, counters and wood-burning oven. The wine collection is now showcased along one wall, with large booths flanking both sides of the room. Every table is a see-and-be-seen table.

Some elements I’m not crazy about: The lounge space that now separates the dining room and the patio is too well lit. And the patio was completely gutted—trees were uprooted and two white, monolithic fireplaces now flank the space on either side. But it’s still lovely (the retractable roof is a nice touch), and the monolithic fireplaces are stark, tall and inviting.

Puck’s older clientele who are still clinging to their favorite dishes from 15 or 20 years ago might not be pleased with the new, season-centric kitchen philosophy, which means no more ordering without consulting the ever-evolving menu (though special requests are gladly accommodated). But it’s a risk Puck is willing to take to get a younger generation of Spago proselytizers through his doors. And given the quality of his new fare, it will likely pay off.

At the helm is Chef de Cuisine Tetsu Yahagi, a young, Japanese-born chef who worked under the tutelage of Executive Chef Lee Hefter for the last seven years. The refined menu has wonderfully bright Asian touches. It’s not just steak tartare; it’s silky veal tartare served in two hollowed-out bones, topped with creamy white smoked mascarpone. Thinly sliced, barely cooked octopus “ceviche” dances on a plate with slivers of beets and edible flowers. And the yuzu is tart but not overpowering with a quinoa crisp that adds just the right amount of texture.

I could make a meal out of any of the pastas, especially the rich single raviolo that oozes a golden egg yolk when you cut into it. You’ll see a lot of quotation marks in the menu descriptions, indicating a twist: Jidori chicken “pastrami” isn’t really pastrami, but rather pastrami-spiced leg meat and gorgeous tender breast served with a piquant mustard sauce.

When it comes to desserts and baked goods, it’s as if a cloud has been lifted and pastry chef Sherry Yard’s creativity can now shine through. Teff flour and pumpkin seeds add heartiness to the lavash in the bread basket. Next month, Yard—who’s been with Puck for almost 20 years—is moving on to breathe new life into the Helms Bakery with Sang Yoon (of Lukshon), and new pastry chef Della Gossett (Charlie Trotter’s) will take the helm.

For Puck to take his flagship and do a complete 180 was one of his boldest moves yet, and perhaps one of his smartest. He needed a new path to go the next stretch. Spago’s old look, while cutting-edge 15 years ago, had become dated and stale. The menu, while still beloved, was stagnant. This dramatic reimagining is just what the doctor ordered: a new Spago for a new generation.

Spago
176 N. Cañon Drive,
Beverly Hills, 310.385.0880
wolfgangpuck.com

Lunch: Tue.-Thu., Sat., noon-2:15pm; Fri., 11:30am-2:15pm; Dinner: Mon.-Fri., 6-10pm, Sat., 5:30-10:30pm

Appetizers: $12-$24
Entrées: $29-$79
Dessert: $14

What to Wear
This is a younger, hipper Spago. But you’re still in Beverly Hills; keep it chic.

Where to Sit
Corner tables on the patio and the banquettes in the dining room give you the best vantage points for surveying the scene.

What to Drink
Don’t miss the new cocktail menu, especially the Tainted Love (Tanqueray No. 10 Gin, Campari, St-Germain, lemon). The 30,000 bottle wine collection remains the same.

If It’s Not on the Menu…
If you’re one of Puck’s beloved (and usually very famous) regulars, you can still ask if the kitchen will make your favorite dish, though chances are he’ll try to steer you to something new.