With a place like Spago, it’s easy to get caught up in name dropping: celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, executive chef Mark Ferguson, master sommelier Sean Razee. But the restaurant works because of the team that sustains it every day, whether or not the big names are in the room. From executive sous chef Steve Maline and sommelier Vanessa Cinti to the veritable army of servers, the dining experience is like a seamlessly choreographed Broadway production. “The need for delivery at the highest level is mandatory,” says Ferguson about his staff. “We do a lot of interactive service… A lot of things are theatrically presented.” It’s a vivacious room and nobody misses a cue.
The Spago menu weaves between several signature dishes ” those miso cones filled with a spicy tuna tartare continue to be revelations ” and seasonal newcomers that emphasize summer. The chefs start everything from scratch, taking their lead from the products. Delicate little artichokes found tucked into a bright salad with dates and blue cheese might not be prepped until moments before they’re served, as they don’t like to be manipulated overmuch. Other dishes are started days in advance, requiring reduction after reduction. It’s the diner’s privilege to flit from one concept to the other.
Though the menu changes daily, there’s often a version of garganelli. Despite the sleek surroundings, these little pasta tubes will make you look for a plump Italian grandmother waiting in the wings. Seemingly simple, these little babies require a lot of love. The night I was in, the hand-shaped pasta was served with a bounty of wild mushrooms lazing about in a butter-chicken stock emulsion. With a nod to the spring truffles, Cinti poured a nebbiolo from Alba, Italy: a 2004 Colla. The muskiness of the wine was beautifully echoed in the mushrooms. “If you don’t like it, we can change it. If you do, we have more,” she says. Razee’s wine list is comprehensive, to say the least. A master sommelier, that’s to be expected. But his real gift to the restaurant is his tireless education of the staff. They know their stuff.
Spago has a way with steaming fish. Most nights there’s some version available. We had steamed wild King salmon “Thai style.” Talk about a labor of love, there’s a lot going on in that dish. Stir-fried vegetables set the stage for the steamed fish, jasmine rice, frazzled shallots and Thai basil crown. But it’s the sauce that delivers a sexy soul. Lemongrass-enlivened oyster sauce with ginger and still more basil, it’s a multi-faceted experience ” a perfect microcosm of the restaurant.
Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch