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[whitespace] Flaming
Photograph by Goerge Sakkestad

Firing Squad: Sous chef Noah Cooper and line chef Rafael Ojeda heat it up during the lunchtime rush.

Star-Spangled Spago

Be a star--or just dine like one--at Palo Alto's enduringly glamorous palace of renaissance California cuisine

By Christina Waters

HOW CAN ONE not be impressed? The peninsula pad that Puck built--that would be Wolfgang Puck, impresario of the deservedly famed Spago, Chinois on Main and various Wolfgang Puck Cafes--offers appointments by Robert Rauschenberg, a clientele poised between dotcom billionairedom and a few Nobel prizes, and yet it still manages to outfox jaded foodies with its fresh, seasonal ideas. Armed with healthy appetites and fully loaded VISA cards--a necessity here--Carin and I hit the tapestried banquettes last month for one of the best meals we'd ever had in Palo Alto. That is saying quite a lot.

A glass of luscious Page Mill Sauvignon Blanc '99 ($7.50) kept up with one of ripe, spicy Rosenblum Zinfandel '98 ($7), and before we could make up our minds about menu items, a heavy linen napkin arrived laden with breads. Soft whole-wheat sourdough anchored playful crackers of seed-studded flat bread and amazing, tall cheese sticks. Restraint was impossible with such a selection.

Spago appetizers comprise an all-star list of sexy flavor and texture contrasts, usually wrapped around current harvests. Sashimi and house-cured salmon, filet tartare with quail egg, foie gras with warm salsify--ideas thread back and forth from East to West. In this, chef Michael French is true to Puck's original culinary concept, all the while maintaining individuality. My appetizer of coriander-crusted Maine diver scallops arrived, a trio of plump morsels in a warm broth of ginger and fennel topped with salmon roe ($17). Sumptuous, yes, but even more inventive was a tangle of wild mushrooms centering a crucifix of tempura flash-fried cardoons on a bed of arugula ($14). This humble, old-world relative of the artichoke--rarely seen outside of Italian immigrant kitchens--brought regional authenticity to a glamorous starter. The fennel edged closer to the saltiness of the seared scallops--all the flavors of these exquisite ingredients opened into further complexity as they came to room temperature--just as fine wines do.

Our entrees cross-referenced the surf and turf department, a sautéed Atlantic John Dory ($27) and a classic grilled Provimi veal chop from the current menu ($36). Both dishes arrived--as did every single item--with spectacular simplicity, edible artworks framed by 3-inch borders of white porcelain. The generous, thick veal chop sported a dramatically long, thick bone--an appealingly robust statement. Indeed, crusted with a piquant relish of olives and fennel--fennel, the aromatic of the evening--it sat like Adam's rib on a bed of garlic potatoes, dotted with tiny, glazed pearl onions in a balsamic browned butter. All flavors conspired; all agreed. We found nothing to dissuade us from the opinion that we were sampling the finest veal chop in California. Each bite of succulent veal was enveloped in the wild flavor of fennel. Thick, tender and juicy, it was altogether an outstanding veal chop and worth the splurge. Ah, but Carin's tender, delicate John Dory--two alabaster filets perched atop highly salted Yukon gold mashed potatoes--was a fish to die for. Lovely, tart, sherry-glazed broccoli rabe accompanied, the bitter greens cutting through the richness of fish and potatoes, and a bouquet of flash-fried parsley topped the very Euro presentation. The fish were treated to the perfect, if sinful, accompaniment of shrimp-infused butter sauce, making every bite dreamy enough to counteract the alarmingly salty potatoes. Every detail--save the salt--of this Spago dinner was impeccably in place.

Had I been a far larger woman--and in my next life I will be--I might have managed a warm Vahlrona chocolate truffle cake or Riesling poached pear Charlotte, perhaps some handmade chocolates and petits fours from pastry ace Paul Lemieux. Alas, we could only manage a shared cheese plate of Explorateur triple crème--God save us--served brilliantly with housemade cranberry compote and crusty baguette ($12). The soft, ripe cheese ravished the tart berries. Consistent, yet not predictable, Spago always delivers. With a setting and clientele so glamorous, great food almost seems optional.


Spago Palo Alto
Address: 265 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.833.1000
Cuisine: Trendsetting California fusion
Chef: Michael French; pastry chef Paul Lemieux
Entrees: $21-$36

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From the January 11-17, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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