If you’ve read your “United States of Arugula” (and, really, everyone should), you’re well aware that the age of the celebrity chef–an age we’re still enduring–may very well have had its start here in Los Angeles at a restaurant called Spago. The chef, of course, is Wolfgang Puck and on the night that I ate there with my family (including my aunt and uncle and cousin, who were visiting) there was Chef Puck himself making the rounds, going table to table–this was two days before the Academy Awards–smiling his movie star smile and making everyone feel welcome.
At its prime, just the word “Spago” evoked notions of Hollywood glamour and exclusivity. On a typical night, there were more celebrities to look at than there were breads in the bread basket. Only, as Puck continued to grow his empire (an empire that’s put his face in airports and frozen food sections across the country), he became his own competition: his restaurant Cut–which I visited with my parents a few nights later–is now the hustling/bustling celebrity center Spago used to be (on the night we went to Cut, we saw Bradley Cooper and just missed Steven Speilberg).
But all of this, believe it or not, is besides the point. The point, really, is the food. None of this would’ve happened for Chef Puck if his food wasn’t wonderful. And Spago–which has been in business since 1982!–still serves wonderful food.
There, on the table, you’ll see all of our drinks and bread selections. In front of me, is a wedge of matzoh–yes, matzoh–that actually gives that dry cracker a good name:
It’s topped with Parmesan and other delectable spices and made me thirsty for the well-made Negroni I sipped along with it.
Here, in this terrible picture (taken surreptitiously), you can see Chef Puck chatting up a nearby table. That’s him at the bottom center.
When he came to our table (while we were still on cocktails), my aunt and uncle–who are from Jacksonville–told him where they were from and he instantly named a Jacksonville restaurant that he knows (my aunt and uncle knew it well) and forged a connection on the spot. His ability to engage customers on a personal level, while still running a restaurant empire, is almost unheard of these days. When was the last time you ate at a celebrity chef’s restaurant and had the chef come visit your table? For that matter, when was the last time you ate at a celebrity chef’s restaurant and actually had the chef in the restaurant at all?
Craig and I made a deal to share our first courses. He had these wonderful blinis topped with smoked fish and trout roe:
I had the “beet cake” which is a truly gorgeous presentation—layers of goat cheese and beet topped with micro greens and shaved raw beet slices:
I’d like to attempt that at home, some day.
For my entree, I had a mammoth veal chop served, elegantly, with two sauces–very French, very classic.
Matt, my cousin, shared Wolfgang’s famous wiener-schnitzel with my dad (the kitchen kindly split it for them):
Craig had the scallops which came with tiny octopus creatures on the plate:
Let’s look at one close:
For dessert–and you have to have dessert at Spago; it’s prepared by celebrated pastry chef Sherry Yard–we had this apple caramel concoction:
This lovely Austrian dessert (sorry, I can’t find the dessert menu online!) that was like a pancake stuffed with berries and cream:
(And yes, my mom told them it was my birthday–and also my uncle’s birthday–so there are candles galore.)
And a chocolate dessert that knocked our socks off:
All of this is evidence that Chef Puck, no matter how famous he gets or how big his empire grows, has not let his flagship restaurant slip. To run a restaurant for 30 years and still have it feel relevant and exciting is no small feat in the food world.
Spago lives up to its name.