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The New, Improved Spago

Fifteen years after Wolfgang Puck opened a little place called Spago on the Sunset Strip, the chef who almost single-handedly invented California cuisine has a stunning new Spago in Beverly Hills.

And believe me, this is not the same old Spago.

At a time when the 48-year-old superstar could be resting on his laurels (and the profits from all those other Spagos, Wolfgang Puck Cafes and frozen pizzas), he has steered this $4-million restaurant in a new direction. Always able to intuit just what restaurant-shy Angelenos most want, now Puck is taking a calculated risk in focusing on what he would like to cook. How long, after all, could this formidably talented chef be expected to churn out smoked-salmon-and-caviar pizza?

In collaboration with Lee Hefter, his protege at Granita, Puck is creating incredibly delicious food that’s both simple and sensual. It’s the kind of cooking you could only get before if you asked him to cook off the menu. And few people thought to ask.

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What’s coming out of the kitchen now is not just California or Mediterranean cuisine with a few Asian touches. The dishes are inspired by many cuisines (not forgetting, this time, Puck’s native Austria) interpreted in a fresh, contemporary style.

The restaurant also has a different look. Puck’s partner and wife, designer Barbara Lazaroff, working with architect Stephen Jones, has turned the former Bistro Garden into a sophisticated and glamorous space. The dining room wraps around an enchanting garden patio framed by tall, feathery pepper trees. Two century-old olive trees--brought in at enormous expense--shade a fountain inscribed with the word “passion’ in 20 languages. Spago’s signature open kitchen, where a team of young cooks works the line of back-to-back stoves, is state of the art, closed off from the dining room by color-splashed glass panels. The genius of Lazaroff’s design is that almost every table is a good one, whether it’s a booth along the walls, a table up front with a view of the kitchen or a quieter corner in the romantic garden. She’s left those wire-mesh garden chairs behind at the Spago on Sunset (now called Spago Hollywood) and come up with her own curvy wood and leather designs. For once, Lazaroff has had the good sense not to overdecorate. The result is one of L.A.'s most appealing interiors.

The two-page menu is equally dazzling. First courses include a sweet corn soup laced with cream and nuggets of Maine lobster with a few bites of vinegary eggplant caponata for punctuation. There’s a salad of warm crayfish tails layered with diced potatoes and gorgeous, intensely earthy beets from Chino Ranch. One night, perfect white asparagus, the first of the season, were flown in from Austria. As big as Churchill cigars, they were simply served with bread crumbs in brown butter spooned over them, “the way they’re eating them in Vienna right now,’ whispered the waiter. Also astonishingly sensual is the plate of Hudson Valley foie gras served two ways. A silky, richly marbled terrine with pear chutney and a sprinkling of Brittany’s prized fleur de sel (“flower’ of sea salt) is paired with sauteed foie gras and a tart rhubarb compote.

After a trip to Italy, Hefter is beginning to understand how pasta should taste and be sauced, if the moon-shaped tortelloni, lightly stuffed with egg-yolk-enriched Fontina and sauced with fresh artichoke, shaved Parmesan and summer truffles, is anything to judge by.

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Asian dishes are well conceived, too. When soft-shell crabs were in season, the kitchen served the juicy crustaceans fried in a crackling thin tempura batter, with a little touch of black bean sauce and a sweet, gingery Asian slaw. Marinated Japanese hamachi is draped over sticky rice seasoned with a drizzle of fragrant yuzu and pumpkin seed oil and paired with a crunchy seaweed salad. Among the main courses, cote de boeuf is a terrific piece of beef, cooked rare on the bone and thickly sliced. It comes with a saucepan of rustic pommes aligot, a potato-and-garlic puree whipped with Cantal cheese that Hefter learned to make at the two-star restaurant Michel Bras in the Auvergne region of France. Velvety grilled calves’ liver is garnished with bracelets of crispy onion, red wine-roasted shallots and sage polenta. One night, pigeon perfumed with Sichuan peppercorns on ribbons of light and dark cabbage outshone everything else on the table.

For me, the plainer fish dishes are the best, such as the grilled whole dorade with artichokes, lemon and coriander. Or the special one night of turbot on the bone in a marvelous beer sauce. At 30, Hefter is still smitten with the idea of tall food and trendy ingredients like truffle oil. That’s how the same cook who can produce a dish of such simplicity and effect as loup de mer en escabeche, grilled sea bass splashed with very old aceto balsamico, can also get carried away with purely decorative elements like summer truffles, shaved over an otherwise splendid dish of roasted Maine lobster on a bed of tiny sweet corn.

Spago Beverly Hills is a big, bold restaurant that has been working nonstop since it opened. Some nights, the staff will do 400 dinners. But if anyone knows how to turn out good food on such a huge scale, it’s Puck. However, I have had the occasional meal in which dishes tasted dull, as if the kitchen were too tired to cook.

The dishes I can rely on include his Childhood Favorites, such as an intricately spiced goulash stewed slowly with onions, marjoram and both sweet and hot Hungarian paprika and served with herb-flecked spaetzle. Or a classic Wienerschnitzel as big as a plate with a warm, German-style potato salad. Or a sort of head cheese garnished with new onions and a few drops of intense green-black Austrian pumpkin seed oil, an experience in itself.

One new dish may be my favorite. Beef cheek is set on apples cooked to almost an applesauce consistency and spiked with horseradish pungent enough to make your eyes smart. You can’t get food like this anywhere else in L.A.

On the dessert front, pastry chef Sherry Yard, from Spago Hollywood, has created an immensely beguiling array of sweets for the new restaurant. Before the opening, she spent some time in Vienna learning Austrian desserts. If you have room for only one, order the Kaiserschmarren, tender, torn crepes served warm with berries--the ultimate comfort food. She makes a mean Apfelstrudel, too, with fat wedges of apple darkened with cinnamon and strewn with currants, the closest thing I’ve had in this country to the real thing. Sometimes she’ll make Tapfenknudel, big, fluffy cheese dumplings with fresh apricots or plums hidden inside, served warm and drizzled with browned bread crumbs and butter. Or you might try her perfect mille-feuille of vanilla-freckled pastry cream and fraises des bois from Chino Ranch layered with pastry so light it threatens to sail right off the plate.

Sommelier Michael Bonaccorsi has created one of the most savvy wine lists in L.A.--or anywhere in the country, for that matter, when you see what he’s got from California, Italy, the Rhone and Austria. It’s rare to find a wine list that has 20 wines you’d love to try that are also affordable. And they’re not just oak-heavy Chardonnays and Bordeaux. If you know nothing at all about wine, try the house white, a Gruner Veltliner from Freie Weingartner in the Wachau region of Austria. You can also trust Bonaccorsi, the least pretentious of sommeliers, to suggest a wine from Spago’s generous list.

With this new restaurant, Wolfgang Puck has pulled a brilliant trick out of the hat. And he’s showing L.A. and the rest of the country once again what a talented restaurateur and chef he is. The high-voltage energy of the new Spagos will, I’m convinced, spark a restaurant revival in L.A.

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SPAGO BEVERLY HILLS

CUISINE: California eclectic. AMBIENCE: Casually elegant and comfortable. BEST DISHES: sweet corn soup with lobster, warm crayfish salad, foie gras, beef cheek with apple horseradish, cote de boeuf, Kaiserschmarren. WINE PICK: 1995 Brundlmayer Gruner Veltliner “Alte Reben,’ Austria. FACTS: 176 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills; (310) 385-0880. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and for dinner daily. Dinner for two, food only, $65 to $110. Corkage $15. Valet parking.


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