Thursday, January 22, 2009

Birthday Dinner at Spago - an experience that exceeded expectation

On January 20, the evening while the new president attended 11 inauguration balls, we went out to celebrate my husband's birthday at the Beverly Hills restaurant, Spago.

It was with some hesitation that I chose this restaurant to take Johan and his parents who were visiting from out of town. For years, I had heard of Spago, but thought it only a celebrity-studded chi-chi restaurant where people went to see and be seen. I wasn't sure about the menu, either, as I knew Chef Wolfgang Puck seemed to have a penchant for creating dishes in an Asian style, dishes that I felt an Austrian-born chef was unlikely to excel at. Because, you see, I was brought up on fine Cantonese food prepared by my mother, fine Shanghainese food prepared by my grandmother, and other fine Chinese cuisines prepared by Chinese chefs in Chinese restaurants. So I wasn't really interested in having those kinds of dishes as Spago.

So I was worried about whether I would like the food at Spago. I wondered if it would live up to the hype. I wondered if the wine list would be full of what I call museum pieces - DRC, first growth Bordeaux, cult Cabernets, all those wines that look good but can anyone afford to taste them?

But I still booked a reservation at Spago. One of my reasons was that it was a Michelin 2 Star restaurant and I had never been. I had heard good things about the restaurant, and I almost didn't believe them, and I wanted to experience for myself. But on a more personal note, I was starting to get to know the wine director at Spago, as he has been a customer of mine, and I think he is a cool cat, and the times I have been at the restaurant doing a sales presentation have been pleasant. And the last time I was in, I met Chef Puck himself, and he was not wearing a business suit, but his chef whites, and I felt, here is a real chef actually working in his restaurant. That impressed me.

So there we went, the four of us, not knowing what to expect. We had all checked out a sample menu which I acquired from the restaurant, but we all knew that the menu changes daily, so we didn't have any expectations.

We got to Beverly Hills a bit early, found street parking, walked around a bit and marvelled at all the 90% off! signage in the retail stores (normal January, or a sign of the times?), checked out Cut, Puck's other restaurant in the Beverly Whilshire Hotel, and ended up at Nic's Martini Lounge for some happy hour drinks. While it started off a bit slow in there when we first arrived, the bar quickly filled up with folks getting off work. It was a fun way to spend some time before dinner.

Finally, I was getting hungrier and readier for my gastronomic adventure at Spago. We walked down Canon Blvd from Nic's to Spago and were seated right away in the patio courtyard.

The restaurant was busy, though not quite packed. The patio was pretty, with twinkling lights and tables among bushes and things, a very enjoyable setting. The weather was so nice and mild, the heaters were not on, and never needed to be turned on. The enclosed nature of the courtyard seemed to lend itself to a very comfortable setting, so people could dine under the stars in the middle of January.

One little different noticeable touch regarding the service was this: we had white cloth napkins at our tables. When we sat down, our server took them away, all but my mother-in-law's, and replaced them with black napkins. We surmised that we were wearing dark colors and therefore got black napkins, while she was wearing a light color and had a white napkin. This was noticeable since I had never experienced that before!

I was in charge for ordering the wine, while we munched on our amuse-bouche, which was a sesame cone filled with tuna tartar. It was pleasant, but nothing to write home about for me (again the Asian-touch thing - seriously, if I want to eat raw tuna, it will be at a sushi restaurant!)

I had initially requested the 2004 Meo-Camuzet Marsannay, but Wine Director/Sommelier Chris Miller suggested the 2005 Meo Camuzet Marsannay instead. There was a big and interesting discussion about this. I chose the 2004 initially because I wanted a classic vintage, not a heralded vintage which I knew would be excellent. I guess I wanted a red Burgundy from a so-called "off" vintage, and see what that would be like. Also, I am a huge fan of 2004 German Rieslings, which have great acidity, so I extrapolated and wished to taste a 2004. However, I am not highly knowledgeable about Burgundy, so this was just an exercise in learning.

Finally, after much discussion, during which time Chris still recommended the 2005, even though he was not insistent, but just felt that it would show better than the 2004, we ended up with the 2005.

Here is a picture of it, though it is overexposed:

It turned out to be delicious and excellent. My first sip told me, ah yes, of course, it is lovely. The geek part of the brain wanted to taste the 2004 next to it, but when I heard the others at the table utter mmms and ahs I decided to put the geek away and just enjoy the wine, because it was really lovely.

Back to the food now. We all spent a good deal of time perusing the menu, for making the main dish choice was not easy. What was easy, for some reason, was choosing the appetizer. All 4 of us chose the sweetbreads! Sweetbreads was not a dish I was very familiar with prior to meeting my husband, but since, I have been a huge fan, as he is a huge fan. Almost without fail, if sweetbreads are on a menu at a restaurant, he will get them. After a bit, I became a fan of this tender, mild organ meat that is often prepared in a variety of ways.

The way it was prepared at Spago reminded me of how they were prepared at this one restaurant in the wine country of Austria when I was there in the summer of 2008. Kind of crispy fried as though the sweetbread were a veal schnitzel:

Not only were the sweetbreads themselves very beautifully prepared, the sauce that went along with it was interesting and good. The sauce had mustard, some citrus juice and some five-spice powder, an Asian ingredient - normally such fusion would offend me, but in this case, it was well done and worked well, a true sign of high-end chefdom - the ability to create new things while not grossing the diner out. :)

We all enjoyed our sweetbreads appetizer.

As I mentioned, choosing the main course was more difficult for many of us at the table. Johan chose the carmelized veal chop, a classic on this menu. I wondered whether I was going to choose the roasted chicken, or lamb. There was a duck dish on the menu but it was done Cantonese style, so I wasn't that interested. My father-in-law thought about choosing the Hungarian goulash, but later decided against it as he and the server agreed it would not be wine-friendly, especially since we were choosing a Burgundy. They both though a robust and inexpensive red would be a better pairing with a spicy goulash. He ended up choosing what my mother-in-law chose which was a loup-de-mer (fish). I ended up choosing the calf liver, even though I did briefly wonder whether I would have organ meat overload. My server assured me that it would be okay, as long as I didn't have a cholesterol test tomorrow. He asked me how I wanted my liver done, and I asked for medium. It turned out very nicely:

I didn't eat the fried onion rings on top, but I did enjoy the caramelized onions in the red wine sauce, and the liver was very tender and flavorful and silky in texture, not mealy like I fear liver to be. It was the perfect flavor intensive, and the level of doneness was also perfect, not pink, but not dry either. I was very happy with my choice, and impressed at the skill demonstrated in preparing this dish.

Here is a picture of my husband's veal chop, which I did sample a bite of. It was very good, though perhaps more plain than my dish. He enjoyed it though. I like the long bone that they left on the chop - great presentation:

For our second bottle of wine, I wasn't sure what I would choose. The 2005 Marsannay was a tough act to follow. I briefly considered looking for a domestic Pinot Noir - maybe from Russian River? or maybe Oregon? to follow the Burgundy. I almost did that until I found an older bottle of Burgundy from an appellation I had never heard of - it was premier cru and 1998 so I felt - hey, why not?

1998 Leflaive Blagny 1er Cru was tasting young for its age, not too showy, not too smoky, but still very nice and enjoyable. Though a few at the table said that they preferred the first wine to this one, the wine still disappeared at quite a fast rate, so if actions speak louder than words, I would say this was a hit as well.

Chris the sommelier appeared later also to give us a little bit of a 2005 St. Joseph he had... I didn't notice the producer, as he disappeared shortly after.

Hubby enjoyed every last bit of that very large veal chop. He seemed to be enjoying himself overall. By this time, all of us had formed the opinion that we liked this restaurant, and it exceeded our expectations.
When the dessert menu came, hubby and his parents all ordered the Hungarian Dobos Torte, a cake they knew well from visiting Hungary. They liked that Spago had dishes such as this that had a bit of historical and geographical significance, ie. you don't see Hungarian influenced dishes like goulash and dobos torte at your typical restaurant. That was fun for everyone at the table.

They decorate hubby's plate, which was a nice touch!
I didn't actually order this cake for dessert; I ordered a cheese course. I didn't get a picture of it, but it was three cheeses on a plate, with some warm breads. I was perhaps too full at this point to really enjoy it, but I did find the cheeses somewhat lackluster. Perhaps in my mind I thought Spago would have a cheese cart, which they did not. So in this small way, my expectations were higher than reality. I thought that a restaurant of this caliber would have a cheese cart - but then again, maybe they did have one in the past, and it wasn't popular? Could that have been it?
Small minor detail. We finished with some yummy coffee, and again reiterated that we had a very wonderful experience. And that we would be back!
I'm happy that my Spago experience was a positive one. The food, atmosphere, and service were all great. I can now understand why people still love the place after all these years. Perhaps now I will be more open to trying places that are classics, and be less suspicious that they are all hype!


The Wine Country said...

Awesome! Great pictures Nancy, everything looks super yummy.

Samantha Dugan said...

Hey Nancy,
So strange that my last post was under The Wine Country...have no clue how that happened.

Your dinner looks great and I am so happy that the restaurant lived up to its reputation. You know I had a recent experience that was much like yours....walked away floored by the evening! Guess some hype is there for a reason huh?

I too would have wanted to try the 2004 Meo-Camuzet...classic vintage and all but for your group I think Chris may have been correct in suggesting the 2005, although I think your father in law may have dug the acidity on the 04.

I envy your 98 Blagny experience, I've only had young ones and while they were tasty I assumed that with some age they would gain some weight and complexity, sounds like yours was doing just that!

Thanks for sharing your special night and so glad that Johan had a great birthday!

So where are you going for yours....coming up you know.

Nancy Deprez said...

Thanks for remembering my birthday, Sam! :) Yes, about that, I was seriously thinking about Craft! :)

Samantha Dugan said...

(drool) Craft was one of the best meals I have ever had, never thought I would say that about a steak kind of place thing I forgot to mention in my post about that dinner was the whipped potatoes, they were devine and I think you would LOVE them!

Michael Hughes said...

The sweetbreads look insanely good.

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