This week’s batch of LA Times reviews is a double-header, with both Bill Addison and co-critic Patricia Escárcega taking to Spago in Beverly Hills (sometimes together) to find out how relevant the Los Angeles dining icon truly is.
First up is Escárcega, who had never previously spent any time at the restaurant while growing up in the Inland Empire:
Who is this restaurant for? I did not grow up eating at Spago, and so for many years the version of it that lived in my imagination was one culled from tabloids, movies and the fiction of Bret Easton Ellis: Spago as a hothouse of celebrity and excess, a home away from home for the sons of Beverly Hills, killing time in their Ray-Bans and popped collars over expensive salads. Whether that was half-true or half-caricature, it added up to the same conclusion: This was not a restaurant meant for me.
It’s that look back at Spago’s past (wistful or otherwise) that continues to inform the restaurant’s present-day operations. Escárcega calls the off-menu smoked salmon pizza and wiener schnitzel “a nostalgia available only to certain diners — those for whom Spago holds personal memory and meaning.” But that’s not to say the new stuff can’t shine:
In early June, on the cusp of summer, Spago’s menu is flush with the buttery sweetness of first-of-the-season white corn. The handmade agnolotti that was served over a velvety puree of sweet English peas back in April now is enrobed in a breathtakingly rich corn, Parmesan and mascarpone sauce.
In all, Escárcega mostly finds that Spago continues to work, 37 years on, for what it offers its regulars and those who wish to step back into the fog of a forgotten Spago memory. In that way, she says, Spago is a ‘special occasion’ restaurant, but the occasion depends on who is doing the dining.
As for Addison, he comes down more harshly on some of the fluctuations in the restaurant’s ability to serve all diners, every evening. That’s particularly true over mixed nights with different friends, where one can hew to some unfortunate classic renditions (a Wiener schnitzel that “the kitchen outright botches”, say) at a forgotten table, then turn around and enjoy a “most compelling” meal in the airy atrium dining room nearly the next day.
At its best moments, all of Spago comes together inside a dish like the sautéed black bass:
When Puck opened Spago with Barbara Lazaroff in 1982, it hastened stuffy Continental dining’s undoing. These flavors have a modern lightness, and Continental-French cooking is having a resurgent moment across America, but to see the restaurant that helped spur a culinary revolution serve a dish, without irony, that summons the traditions Puck once rebelled against is a real trip.
On the not-so-great-evenings, servers seem “indifferent” and, at one point, a friend is almost accidentally given a mushroom chawanmushi dish despite telling the server ahead of time that they are seriously allergic to its key ingredient.
Addison eventually settles in to believe that Spago is a workable restaurant for some, but not all — especially when the valet snubs those not driving sports cars, and stuffs nobodies into “purgatorial seating” well away from the main show. “I realize that I will never be one of its regulars,” he says. “That’s fine.”