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The "New" Spago Is Sensational, Sophisticated, Succulent!

I have been writing about Wolfgang Puck and his restaurants since I first met the chef at Ma Maison in the late '70s, and I started commenting on Spago the night it opened, January 12, 1982, at its original location on Sunset.
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The new exterior of the Beverly Hills Spago

My Huffington followers can read here and salivate at the very first extensive review anywhere of the newly renovated Spago. The decor, the food, the service... all are analyzed in this restaurant review, which was conducted over the course of the 'soft' opening week, when your reporter took a small table near the kitchen and explored many of the dishes being introduced. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Chef/Entrepreneur Wolfgang Puck.

It is no secret that one of my favorite restaurants in the world is Spago (176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, 310-385-0880). Next to asking me how I stay so thin (to which I jokingly reply, "I don't swallow"), the most frequently asked query is what is my favorite eatery, and over the years I have invariably answered with this Beverly Hills icon. I judge a restaurant by three criteria, like the three sides of a triangle... food, ambiance and service. And Spago has always been the epitome of that equation. I have been writing about Wolfgang Puck and his restaurants since I first met the chef at Ma Maison in the late '70s, and I started commenting on Spago the night it opened, January 12, 1982, at its original location on Sunset.

Probably no journalist has written more about Puck and his many worldwide endeavors than me, and I do admit that he and his associates have become part of my extended 'family,' from his Chef/Partner Lee Hefter, to pastry whiz Sherry Yard, VP/managers Tracey Spillane and Tom Kaplan, to Spago Chef de Cuisine Tetsu Yahagi to Chef Ari Rosenson at Cut and catering's Matt, Cut's Mishel and Dana, along with Chef Sonny Sweetman at the Hotel Bel Air and the whole service staff (Ellen, Johnny, Laurent) to the back office support led by Maggie and Pam. (Attended a spectacular dinner party for 60 last night at the Hotel Bel Air thrown by philanthropist Henry Segerstrom, Debra Downing, and the entire South Cost Plaza crew from Costa Mesa; Wolf's Chef Sonny Sweetman served me a rare Sonoma duck breast and Loup de Mer which were perfection.)

Veal filet mignon tartar in a marrow bone is my starter of choice.

Someone asked me this week about this admitted preference for Spago, saying that restaurant critics should be above such partisan views, and I replied by quoting Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice: "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?" For obvious reasons, I didn't finish the quote: "And if you poison us, do we not die?"

View of the new dining room, with its open kitchen in the rear.

My favorite dish may be the Maine lobster done 'Hong Kong' spicy style, with jasmine rice.

So you can imagine that I was on tender hooks about the recent closure and redesign of the Beverly Hills abode. I knew that the interior design genius of Waldo Fernandez had been brought to bear on the revamp, and that much thought had been exercised on creating a new view of the dining experience in the digital age. Wolf had dropped hints to me of what was in his mind, suggesting that he was intending to offer many smaller dishes for the table to share rather than the usual appetizer and main course. What he half-joking called "a progressive tasting meal." But what he and Lee and staff have created takes this idea much further than I expected.

Exec Chef/Partner Lee Hefter with maitre d' Laurent.

I have never met a short rib that I didn't like, but these are beyond ethereal, they are sublime.

The buckwheat soba noodles are wok-fried with crab and clams in an exquisite sauce.

First, a few notes on the redesign. (Incidentally, Spago's original designer and co-owner Barbara Lazaroff was expeditious enough to remove all of the original artifacts -- even the olive tree -- from the restaurant and put them in storage for future use elsewhere. Last night she mentioned that an auction house next year will auction off some items, with the proceedings going to a variety of worthy charities she supports.) The new space has been redone in shades of brown and white. Two chimneys have been added, with the major one blazing on the patio and the second dividing the patio from the main dining room.

Wolf had always told me that he wanted a retractable roof over the patio and, indeed, that is what he has, making it weather-proof and, incidentally, the most romantic dining spot in our fair city. The glass dome over the main dining room has been enlarged, and booths have been placed on either side. I was stunned to see the 7,000-bottle glass wine cellar which occupies the entire left side of the dining room... a massive collection of 3,000 different boutique wine labels. (Unfortunately, it doesn't yet included my favorites, Selim Zilkha's Laetita "La Collina" Pinot Noir and the Resnick's superb Justin Isoceles. But I'm working with Master Sommelier Christopher Miller to correct this.) The private dining room has been enlarged to 140 seats, with a new bar in front there, and the restrooms have been amusingly redone. All in all, a stunning redesign without altering the sturdy lines of the restaurant. Some interesting art work is up and more is coming. A huge Ed Ruscha is going on the south wall of the dining room.

A massive wine rack occupies one wall of the main dining room.

Chef de Cuisisne Tetsu Yahagi leads a team of dedicated chefs behind the cooking line.

By the time you read this, the eatery will be open to the public and the clamor for reservations will be at its height, but it's a large space and Manager Ellen Farentino and Lisa Marie and her staff are so efficient that you will likely be able to fit in somehow... and I recommend an immediate visit. You see, as always, Wolf surprises with his take on the food. I had expected a much more Asiatic approach, but it's rather a refinement of what has always worked before. Great ingredients prepared with care. But the puckish Puck always has a trick or two up his sleeve, and Lee's predilection for all things Asiatic, abetted by the charming Tetsu, guarantees that there are surprises galore on the menu. Oh, yes, are there!

A whole turbot is prepared for tableside service; it feeds four or five.

Pouring broth on a Xiao lung pao Shanghai soup dumpling, which was incredible.

Sashimi featured bluefin tuna and hamachi, with a spray of citrus.

I will detail some of the fascinating, delicious dishes to be had in no particular order, since the entire menu can be explored this way. Invariably I will now start my meal with the veal filet mignon tartar ($16), a stunning meat concoction packed into a marrow bone, to be consumed with the tiny spoon provided. As Lee told me one night, dig deep into the bone to get the full flavor, for it is layered, with smoked mascarpone on top. I had to find out how it was mixed, and learned the ground veal was mixed with shallots, capers, a dash of Worchester sauce and some Tuscan olive oil. Served with a few husks of crispy rye, a few green leaves and some crispy shallots, it was addictive. The famed Chino Farm's Vegetable Salad ($16) is still here, containing pine nuts, Roquefort and dates, now julienned rather than chopped... I was curious about a new dish, the "Barely Cooked" Catalan Octopus Ceviche ($17) with purslane and beet rings. Later, I learned that they grill a two foot long octopus leg just long enough to give it grill marks and then slice and serve it while tender.

The 'barely cooked' octopus is tender and tasty.

The spicy 'Sting Ray' is served in a bamboo leaf. It is unique and extraordinary.

The camera-shy pastry genius, Sherry Yard, supervises all the new breads and desserts.

The all-new bread basket has a different lavash cracker, Chinese buns, and dark rye bread. It comes with Wisconsin butter and nori (seaweed) butter.

One dish was a 'special' which threw me for a loop it was so tasty: buckwheat soba noodles made in-house, cooked Italian-style with Japanese ingredients. The noodles are mixed with giant clams, which have been julienned and cut super-thin, stir-fried with white scallions, chili oil, and ginger beads. I actually dreamed of this dish one night. Knowing that I have never met a short rib I didn't like, Lee sent me a sample of his new version, the meat braised for almost three hours, served with pickled mustard seeds, black trumpet mushrooms, fresh grated horseradish, and a horseradish cream, which I took for a quail egg. The beefy goodness was then enhanced even more with a drizzle of beef stock which had been reduced until it was thick and syrupy.

Again, knowing of my passion for Asian food, Manager Ellen proudly brought forth a small soup bowl containing a xiao lang bao, which I know to be a Shanghai-style soup dumpling, then pouring from a teapot a stream of hot chicken broth atop it, the soup having a flavor reminiscent of lemongrass and ginger. Imagine this, a fresh sting ray put on a bamboo leaf with homemade sambal added and grilled in the leaf. Tracey came by with a calamansi lime from the Philippines which she told me to squeeze atop the spicy fish. Talk about luscious, unusual, this was it.

My friend at the next table had ordered the whole turbot ($110) for his family of five, the two-pound, 32 ounce fish grilled whole on the bone, just brushed with olive oil and boned at the table by the waiter. It had octopus, chorizo and threads of saffron dressing on it. Knowing my predilection for eating fish heads, they kindly offered it to me but I politely declined... next time. Now there is a dish which I cannot, will not pass up whenever I visit here ...a two-pound, steamed Maine lobster for two ($75) cooked/sauced 'Hong Kong style,' my favorite way. The sauce is prepared in a wok with oyster sauce, ginger, chili oil and scallions, then poured over the lobster. Served with jasmine rice, it could serve two or three... or one hungry journalist who didn't want to share.

The "Uova da Raviolo" carbonara with smoked bacon will astonish you with its flavor.

Sherry's desserts feature the fruits she finds at the farmer's market, as well as rich chocolate.

I am booked into Spago next week with some friends for a further exploration of this wonderful, exciting and exhilarating menu. There is a prime cote d'boeuf ($95, for the table), which I want to explore (and I have already noted to all that the bone is mine). My buddy, Dennis Mao, is supplying them with his magnificent Jidori chickens, and I must taste the chicken breast and pastrami'd leg ($24). I saw a dish go by and snapped a picture of it, the uova da raviolo "carbonara" ($14) with smoked bacon, comparing it with Gino Angelini's heavenly version.

Oh, yes, I neglected to mention the Chirashi sushi ($21). I started with one evening, a bluefin tuna and Hamachi selection with salmon pearls and my beloved uni (sea urchin or oursin). In keeping with Wolf's declaration about wanting to have lots of 'nice' vegetables about, I have sampled the Roasted Brussels Sprouts ($12) sprinkled with shiro miso-maple mustard. I preferred the sauteed and pureed corn ($9). Still to come, the Colorado lamb chops ($35) and the Liberty duck breast ($26)... the Black Sea bass ($25) and the bacon-wrapped monk fish ($19).

Not to be neglected is the whole side of this restaurant presided over by the inimitable Pastry Queen, Ms. Sherry Yard. Knowing of my addiction for bread and butter, I had been forewarned that I was in for a special treat. My waiter smiled broadly as he brought forth the bread basket and the butter dish: "The butter is in two parts, one of Wisconsin butter, which we think is the best in the world, and other cube is Nori butter, made with seaweed."

As I reached for the unusual lavash bread, the Brooklyn-born maiden emerged from the kitchen and said:

That lavash has pumpkin seeds, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, and is made with Teff flour. The Chinese butter buns there have some sesame oil and scallions and chives in the flour mix. The rustic whole wheat sour dough bread is a three-day process, with spelt and rye flour, done in miche style.

I was too busy stuffing my mouth with samples of each to reply. We discussed the sensational butter, since we both had been fans of the Irish-made Kerry Gold, but she told me that this was even better. And then, at the end of a meal, she brought forth an assortment of desserts for me to sample... blackberries, mango, currants, cassis sorbet, Earl Grey tea essence and Arlette Wafer cookies. Along with rum baba boules, passion fruit frozen kumo, and oven roasted pineapples. I have yet to try the Black Bowl, a chocolate crumble parfait, with cardamom glace and chocolate brulee cookie. After all, a man has to still have some peaks to climb... and my Spago experience thus far is just at the tip of the iceberg.

It's incumbent that I say a few words in closing about the Wolfgang Puck empire these days. With two venues scheduled to open in Detroit in November, he will have 21 fine-dining restaurants operated from his Las Vegas base. I'm told that he operates or licenses about 80 limited-service restaurants, including the Wolfgang Puck Express ones at many airports. A new Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina concept is being explored in two locations in South Carolina, starting with the one I wrote about last year in Las Vegas' City Center.

Wolfgang Puck Steak is another concept being rolled out, a smaller version of the elaborate Cut we see here at the Beverly Wilshire, in London and Singapore. His catering operation is hugely successful. My Huffington readers will recall my post about the wonderful Wolfgang Puck Iced Coffee, and I know his line of retail products, cookware and cookbooks sold on the Home Shopping Network must be booming.

The reinvented Spago is now open for dinner, and they plan to open for lunch in a few weeks. Don't expect to get his legendary smoked salmon pizza with crème fraiche and caviar here any time soon, but in a few weeks, at lunch, they will have some exciting new pizzas. Not bad for a young Austrian chef who landed here in the mid-'70s with a few hundred dollars in his pocket. And you must take my word for this: He is still the sweetest, charming, most unassuming guy you will ever meet. Amazing. All of it. And you read about it here first.

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for 12 monthly issues) email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.