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The Puck Stops Here

[whitespace] Spago Palo Alto
Christopher Gardener

Cutting-Edge Cuisine: Spago Palo Alto distinguishes itself with sharp decor and a menu that pampers, purrs and occasionally shows some teeth.

Spago's master brings his metropolitan pizzazz to the Peninsula

By Christina Waters

E LEGANTLY FLASHY, with decor as loud as the noise level, Spago brings a bracing hit of L.A. straight into the heart of Palo Alto. Hoping that upscale glamor and vivacity will succeed where the quiet open spaces of Jeremiah Tower's late, unlamented Stars stumbled, Wolfgang Puck and company have finally launched their latest culinary arena. The hubbub is huge, with a reservation list two weeks long. And the results are, even at this early stage, impressive.

Then again, for the chunk of change poured into this postmodern bundle of aggressively mismatched upholstery, hyper wall treatment and marble tables the color of three-day-old cappuccino, Spago Palo Alto should impress.

Ceiling beams painted insistently primary colors make frantic visual dialogue with the Russian expressionist rug design--very Sonja Delauney on acid. Our banquette seating was almost an oasis in the midst of all this noise and color swirl. Almost, since tables are wedged in so tightly that staffers require more moves than Cirque du Soleil acrobats just to pour the San Pellegrino water we've come to crave with high-intensity foods.

Armed with the talents of chef Michael French (formerly of Postrio) and pastry chef Christine Law, the menu pampers, purrs and occasionally shows some teeth. Truffles, steak tartare with quail egg, Maine lobster with American caviar, foie gras--it sets a luxurious tone. As does the pre-dinner glass of wine in the adjoining cocktail pavilion, where the bartenders offer samples of everything on the list. A properly dry, citrusy Domaine Neveau 1995 Sancerre ($6.50) and a hugely fragrant Duckhorn Decoy Migration Cabernet ($7.75) started us off and followed us into the main dining room.

When breads were offered by the second of our six servers, we gasped. Huge architectural triangles of crisp flat breads sprouted from the depths of a cleverly folded napkin, punctuated by bread sticks so good we barely touched an excellent whole wheat francese and another loaf studded with scallion and pine nuts. Unsalted Normandy butter added yet more glitz. We celebrated the sublime crackers by ordering a half bottle of Qupé Syrah 1996 ($13) from a wine list long on Santa Ynez Valley vintages.

"I'll bet he's got 25 percent more seating than Jeremiah did," my companion observed of the bustling dining room as I helped myself to a second flat bread.

A third server produced our appetizers, one plate boasting a trio of impossibly fresh Maine scallops garnished with caramelized fennel and plush spaghetti squash ($13). A sweet, hoisin-style sauce massaged the tender flavor of the shellfish, sautéed to moist perfection.

My companion's order of Hudson Valley foie gras arrived with a quartet of silver dollar-size potato latkes, and a thin slice of rather fatty goose liver, atop a nest of mizuna and flash-fried ginger ($14). Dusted with pistachios, the latkes added even more oil to the dish, which might have prospered with less fuss and less cooking. The scallops, whose crown of squash was festooned with succulent black trumpet mushrooms, were so good we ignored the foie gras' lack of signature creaminess.

The syrah was opening beautifully as we admired how attentive service is at the newest Spago. Our mineral water--kept chilled in an ice bucket--arrived with sliced limes on the side, not automatically added to the glass, and a server spent quality time with a neighboring table, offering to make a dish without garlic to suit patron desires.

The entrées made a hit. My Moroccan barbecued free-range squab had been rubbed with anise, cloves, coriander and pepper and was served sliced atop a mound of currant-laced couscous, sauced with pomegranate vinaigrette and a mustardy onion marmalade ($22). Each ingredient worked beautifully to produce a dish as good as its concept, as did the tamarind-glazed rack of lamb ($24). A bed of sweet-and-sour eggplant soaked up the cola flavor of the tamarind, an inspired enhancement of the rare, moist lamb.

Spago dazzled us, finally, with the dessert sampler ($7.50 per person), showcasing a little bit of everything on the menu. Knockouts included a ginger crème brûlée and some amazing grapefruit and tangerine sorbets. A bittersweet chocolate truffle arrived warm and topped with hot fudge sauce--even better was a fudge brownie, also warm, topped with espresso ice cream. A few gorgeous cookies, a miniature pear tart tatin with crème fraîche ice cream and a gossamer blood-orange gratin with Grand Marnier sabayon absolutely finished us off. Surely this dessert sampler has already become one of the top destination dishes on the Peninsula.

Though it was, by our finishing at roughly 9:30pm, almost impossible to hear in the packed dining room, we'd had a memorable experience--which is exactly the point. Judging from the menu and clientele, Spago Palo Alto has positioned itself a notch or two above the pack of trendy dining rooms catering to the designer youth of Silicon Valley.


Spago Palo Alto
Address: 265 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650/833-1000
Hours: Dinner 5:30-10pm nightly
Entrées: $18-$27
Chef: Michael French
Ambiance: Colorful, molto vivace
Service: Expert
Cuisine: Progressive California

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From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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