Published Jul 9, 2003

In a review in today’s LA Times, local food maven-in-making Irene Virbila waxes ecstatic over the food at Spago.

Well, I’ve been there twice, both visits about a year apart, and I disagree. In fact, Spago’s on my list of restaurants that Just Aren’t Worth It.

I won’t disagree that the food at Spago is quite good. I will disagree that the restaurant is in any kind of rare air at all. I had two meals there that were well put-together, a little too rich, a little too busy flavor-wise, and reminiscent of what you get pretty much every other place that you might qualify as Great Food In LA. I no longer recall the exact menus (they weren’t worth recalling, frankly), but no dish struck me as something I wouldn’t get elsewhere, at half the price.

Perhaps that’s not owner Wolfgang Puck’s fault; it’s true that he was one of the inventors of what we consider contemporary Californian cuisine, with diverse influences from Asia, south of the border and traditional European cooking. Much of what’s come since is, at the very least, following in his footsteps, if not outright imitation. So, that I found food at the original to be similar to that I might get elsewhere should not come as a surprise.

Nor, necessarily, should I be bothered by eating the classic fare; instead I should respect the invention and the roots. Much like reading Dashiell Hammett, whose detective stories are full of cliched plots and lines, but who established those cliches, who invented them before they were common, I should appreciate Puck’s food for establishing the California cuisine cliche.

But I don’t. See, sixty years later, Hammett is still the master of what he wrote. Read The Maltese Falcon and it’s light-years beyond what a Sue Grafton or Carl Hiassen can do. But go to Spago, or Chinois, and eat the same quality of food — or even less — than you can get at my favorite places, like Joe’s or 2117 or something like that. In many ways the execution is even below the level of those cheaper places, because the fixation on a heavier feel and the use of too many flavors (which even Virbila admits to) actually detracts from the dish.

Perhaps this is a personal stylistic dig I have against Puck in general, because it’s fair to say I’ve never been impressed by any of his restaurants. I thought Chinois was okay — again, not original. The two times I’ve been to his Cafe on Sunset, I had meals that were absolutely unacceptable — too much emphasis on gaining the desired flavor, none on any other facets of the execution, including doneness and texture. The low point of my experiences was a “roast” chicken at the Cafe, the kind of roast chicken that you can get in every restaurant in LA. But this wasn’t roasted, it was boiled, coated with spices, and shoved under a hot broiler for about 5 minutes. Oh, it was moist, all right, but it was rubbery. I bet if I’d dropped it, it would’ve bounced. The skin, featuring the spices, was good, but anything that wasn’t directly touching the spices was bland enough to feed to a rest home. But the aroma and look were perfect!

I digress, but I think my bitterness reveals a fundamental dissatisfaction with every Puck-related dining experience I’ve had (well, with the exception of his frozen pizzas; those are pretty good).

I think it was about a year and a half ago that I last went to Spago. I suppose it’s possible that they polished their food in that time. But I’d be surprised, because everything seemed like exactly what it was supposed to be. Just I didn’t like what it was supposed to be. Oh, except for the desserts. I’ve got to give props to the pastry chef, those were the highlights.

So, Spago. I don’t know why it’s one of LA’s great restaurants. It seems like a power place to take power people to prove you Eat At Spago. It seems like a place that’s famous for having been there forever. Come to think of it, it seems like a place that’s perfect for Beverly Hills. And it is the people with money who make taste here in LA, and Beverly Hills is where the people with money are.

So maybe I give Wolfie too little credit. Maybe he does know just how to make a restaurant that can succeed over a period of years. Know your market, sell to your market — it’s great advice and often overlooked. Well done!


As your friendly neigborhood restaurants go… SPAGO aint it and 2117 is. In fact, I’m fairly impressed that you know 2117. You continue to surprise me with your gourmandise.

P. S. it seems that your redesign blew away the other comments… bummer.

The comments are still there… it doesn’t seem to be displaying them, though. I have some work to do to get them to show, I guess… later this week, maybe?

Comments fixed!