The Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group had its retreat in Vegas last week, bringing 92 chefs and managers to town to discuss the the operation of his restaurants from Tokyo to London.
On short notice, ELV was asked to swing by CUT to judge a chef’s challenge The Great One had put to five teams of his chefs: cook him something he’s never had before.
The teams, headed by Ari Rosenson of CUT Beverly Hills, Scott Drewno of The Source in Washington, D. C., Eric Klein of Spago Las Vegas, Tetsu Yahagi of Spago Beverly Hills, and Aram Mardigian of Wolfgang Puck American Grill in Atlantic City tried to dazzle their boss with everything from lamb carpaccio with tzaziki ice cream to a Japanese lobster “thermidor” that shot straight from Yahagi’s post-modern, Japanese-American mind.
Puck decided not to declare any real winner, but rather, just let the exercise stand as a way to challenge his chefs and get them out of their comfort zone.
Our personal favorites were Klein’s composed duck presentation and Tetsu’s thermidor. Everyone, including Wolfgang, swooned over the duck, and Tetsu’s smoking of the lobster over bamboo — and then serving whole, smoked bamboo shoots — was a marvel of ingenuity grounded in great flavors in a stunning presentation. As platings go though, there was no beating Klein’s duck, and the joke among all of us at the judging table was that pounding out a hundred of them every night might be a tad daunting.
So inspired were we at ELV by this little exercise, and so charmed were we by all of the Wolf Gang, that we decided to hightail it to sunny Californ-ia to check out CUT and Spago on Saturday night. (ELV, as you know, is known for his impetuousness.)
So, two nights later, there we were, in Beverly Hills:
…and faster than you can say “smoked salmon pizza with caviar” there we were at Spago L.A. sitting with the Godfather of Great Las Vegas Dining, and chowing down on Yahagi’s spectacular fare in its native environment:
The perceptive readers among you — and you know who you are! — will discern from the above photos that our evening did not begin at Spago, but rather at the original CUT in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. We stopped in first to say hi to Ari Rosenson and to suck down a couple of French 75’s at CUT’s swanky Sidebar. From there it was a five minute walk (yes, in SoCal there are still some places between which you can walk) to Spago, where first Wolf conversed with us, then wise-beyond-her-years, super-somm Maria Garcia dazzled us with one idiosyncratic wine after another — mixing in just enough old reliables like Chateauneuf Du Pape to keep us off balance and wonderfully sated whilst we chowed down on course after course after course of Yahagi’s light as a feather, yet intense cuisine.
It was another meal for the ages, and provided another confirmation (as if any was needed) that Spago L.A. remains one of the best restaurants on any level in America.
How does it differ from Spago Vegas you ask? Well, without getting into details (some of which are fuzzy after nine different wines), the food in Beverly Hills is obviously geared towards folks who eat there often. Yahagi’s mandate (and that of Lee Hefter before him) is to produce Puck’s signature Cal-Ital-French-Pacific rim cuisine for demanding customers who want it fresh, local, seasonal and inventive….but not too inventive. Here, Eric Klein feeds more people, but with less of a local following who demand to be dazzled. ELV would bet his life that you could put either one in the other’s kitchen and each would thrive, but Klein has to feel the weight of feeding both the masses and fussy foodies, while Yahagi and his team labor to keep a smaller, wealthier, and more finicky clientele satisfied.
Who has the tougher job? You make the call!
We can’t because we’re too busy still drooling over Yahagi’s kelp-wrapped, salt-crusted, abalone with white asparagus in a emulsification of abalone liver, white wine and butter, or his sweet pea agnolotti in a butter-marjoram emulsion. Both were about as Japanese as Charles de Gaulle, but both had us counting the days ’til our next drive down I-15.
176 North Canon Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210