No one in the food game has reinvented himself more than Wolfgang Puck, and he’s not ready to pack it in yet. He recently completed a 4 mil redesign of his flagship, the restaurant Spago in Beverly Hills, where he’s turned the room into a white palace, and installed a retractable skylight roof in the central dining area. It’s all quite glorious.
The basic footprint of the restaurant hasn’t changed. Puck, a friend, loves to tease me, so when I asked him if a private room was behind the wall where we were sitting, I got a cynical response. “The bathrooms are behind this wall”, he said, with glee. Yep, he’s the jester all right, just like his namesake in a Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The new Spago is dreamy, too. Puck still has his right arm, Lee Hefter, firmly behind him, retaining the title Executive Chef. But much of the new menu was created by young Japanese Chef de Cuisine Tetsu Yahagi, with the participation of Hefter and Herr Puck. Spago’s new dishes are light and whimsical, and many tilt toward Asia. It’s just what the industry wags are eating these days, and Puck knows it. No wonder Rod Stewart, Mary Hart and Jenna Elfman were dining there that night.
When I told the Master, what I call Wolf to get under his skin, I wanted to eat one of his old standbys, a Wienerschnitzel, he said, “you are my worst customer. You never come, and you never pay. If you order the schnitzel, I’m gonna charge you.” (He didn’t, though. Nobody in the business is more generous than Wolf. But I didn’t get that schnitzel.)
What I did get was very impressive. First of all, I almost didn’t make it to the new menu items. His pastry chef, Sherry Yard, invented a new flatbread for him, at his request, the best flatbread in the world. It’s based on whole grains, and studded with pumpkin seeds, not to mention sesame, poppy, and heaven’s knows what else. I ate 6 pieces in the bar.
I also had Puck’s famous tuna tartare cones at the bar, with two glasses of Viognier. When I got to my table, a parade of canapés arrived, starting with tiny tomato crackers filled with salmon mousse, then followed by quail eggs on a fried potato nest, and black caviar with blinis. Mind you, this is all before dinner formally began.
But thankfully, Puck had gone across the street to Cut, his steakhouse, giving me time to tell Chef Yahagi, who came to my table, to keep it light. And so he did. Er, Sort of.
Per my request, he didn’t serve pasta, per se, but instead, an amazing uni risotto, in a shot glass, a magic blend of exotic flavor and texture. Apparently, Beverly Hills loves uni like nothing else. With a medicinal tang and slippery orange character, uni doesn’t play Vegas outside our sushi bars.
We also had Fanny Bay oysters with a curry aioli and a spice blend the chef calls his kalcumber relish, and then the incredible black bass with crisp skin, two types of clams, herb coulis and garlic puree. The main dish was Snake River Farms (Idaho) Kobe New York sirloin, paired with Wagyu short rib with whole grain mustard and horseradish.
By now, Wolf had returned, to sit with us again. He then motioned one of the servers to bring out a veal chop cooked on bincho, Japanese charcoal. It was the perfect finish to a perfect meal, since we demurred when asked about dessert.
Sometimes I wonder where Puck gets the energy to work this room until well past midnight, not to mention the desire to stay in the game. When I told him that I, too, had changed my game, doing blogging and social media, it seemed to resonate with him. I share a birth year with the Master, 1949, and have known him since the seventies. But I can’t find many other similarities. When it comes to drive, initiative and imagination, this man leaves most of us, and that includes me, in the dust.
Spago Beverly Hills, 176 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, CA. (310) 385-0880. Reservations are a must.
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