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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Welcome to the Layer Cake, Son: Spago Palo Alto is known for Wolfgang Puck creations like the beet layer cake.

The Thrill Is Gone

While it still offers solid dining, Spago Palo Alto's days on the culinary cutting edge are over

By Stett Holbrook

THERE WAS a time back in the late 1990s when Spago Palo Alto radiated a bright, frenetic energy fueled by the surging dotcom economy and the restaurant's L.A. glitz. When it opened in 1997, there was a two-week wait for reservations. As a Northern California outpost of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck's growing culinary empire, the restaurant was one of the biggest things to hit the peninsula's rather staid dining scene.

Today, those heady days of expense accounts and stock options are a bittersweet memory. And Spago's food, while still solid, has a whiff of nostalgia about it as well. Like a classic rock station that spins well-worn Foghat and Whitesnake tunes, Spago can still offer a good time, but the food fails to wow. Now that the buzz has died, Spago is just another expensive restaurant with satisfying but unremarkable food you can find at countless restaurants around the Bay Area.

Puck was an innovator in the mid-1980s with his inventive pizzas and fusion of classic technique with Asian and American ingredients. Well before the Food Network, he was one of the country's first celebrity chefs. The Austrian-born chef-entrepreneur has cashed in on that fame and opened dozens of restaurants and cafes around the country and put his name on a line of frozen pizzas and cookware. While he continues to open new restaurants, I think his days as an innovator have passed. He sits on top of a highly successful enterprise that trades on his name and dependable but sometimes predictable food.

On my first visit, I asked our friendly and professional server for a few recommendations. She steered us toward the house-smoked-salmon blinis and roasted beet "layer cake" salad. Yawns followed. The smoked salmon ($14) was silky and delicate and topped with American sturgeon caviar. The salmon lay astride herb-flecked blinis (think little pancakes) spread with dill crème fraîche. It was pretty good, but we expected more. The beet and goat cheese salad ($15) is as ubiquitous as seared ahi in Bay Area restaurants. At Spago, slices of beet are layered with Sonoma goat cheese and sliced into wedges. It's a novel presentation, but it doesn't change the fact that this is a tired dish you can find just about anywhere.

The steak tartare ($15) was better. This too is pretty standard fare but the rich, satiny dollop of beef bookended by two shavings of Parmesan cheese and served with grilled bread and fresh grated horseradish stood out for its glistening meaty richness.

I usually don't order chicken at restaurants because it's often a boring dish, but my server sold me on the night's roasted "Blue Foot" chicken ($24), a specialty breed of bird that's supposed to have more of a true chicken flavor than its mass-produced counterparts. The chicken was indeed flavorful, and I loved the roasted porcini mushrooms served with it, but the dang thing was tough and dried out.

The most notable entree was the sautéed bluenose sea bass, a snowy-fleshed, juicy fillet cooked to perfection. Good too are the seasonal side dishes ($7). I have a soft spot for any restaurant that serves Brussels sprouts (and cooks them properly) and Spago delivers a plate of the green gems caramelized until just tender and tossed with bacon and Gorgonzola. And the Yukon gold mashed potatoes are uncommonly rich, smooth and creamy.

My lunch at Spago was better than dinner. Except for the been-there-done-that smoked salmon pizza ($14), the food was quite good. The delicate, hand-rolled garganelli pasta (a rigatoni-size tubelike pasta) tossed with house-made smoked pheasant sausage, garlic and broccoli raab ($15) was superb. "Duck frites" ($17)—seared Sonoma duck breast and French fries—was great, too. The tender, meaty duck was paired with rapini (a bitter Italian green) and roasted cipollini onions and a rich, butter-laced béarnaise sauce. It's a thoroughly satisfying, comforting dish.

Desserts are good, but like much of the menu, they're nothing you haven't had before. Crème brûlée? Check. Bread pudding? Check. Even the cheese menu offered nothing you couldn't pick up at a well-stocked grocery store. I did like the banana cream pie ($7.50), a chocolaty, caramelized version of the classic. The kitchen also makes its own ice cream and sorbet ($7.50 for three scoops). The pistachio ice cream and prickly pear sorbet were great.

Spago's certainly still packs them in. While you no longer have to wait two weeks to get in, the dining room quickly fills up and the noise level rises dramatically. The bright, multicolored walls and ceilings and junglelike pattern of the carpet feels very late 1980s. It's not quite the see-and-be-seen scene it was back in the day, but it still attracts a good-looking, well-heeled crowd. The place is particularly popular with men talking business and pearl-and-cashmere-wearing ladies who lunch. Some things at Spago have not changed.

Spago Palo Alto
Address: 265 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto.
Phone: 650.833.1000.
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2pm Mon-Fri; dinner 5:30-9pm Mon-Thu, 5:30-10pm Fri-Sat.
Price Range: $18-$40.

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From the December 28, 2005-January 3, 2006 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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