Spago at 20

Our food critic happily goes back to the ’90s to sample Puck’s special throwback menu

Say what you like about Wolfgang Puck, but the über-celebrity chef—whom I have known since he first came west 36 years ago—is a game-changer.

Twenty years ago, on Dec. 11, 1992, Puck made a bold move, opening a branch of his successful Hollywood restaurant, Spago, in the Forum Shops at Caesars. I came later that month, and the restaurant was empty. The chef recalls standing at the podium with his managers, wondering if he had made a big mistake.
But soon, the crowds came to eat dishes such as smoked salmon pizza and Chinese duck, and the Las Vegas food scene was never the same. Where there had once been just steak and the chuckwagon buffet, the floodgates were open for a parade of top American chefs to follow suit. Wolf was the trailblazer, and we owe him. Big time.

Menu-wise, Spago today is very different from the original, save the location. But next month, from Dec. 10-14, the restaurant will serve a special 20th anniversary menu with throwback pricing, which I urge you to experience. Dishes from the original Spago menu will be served, prepared by executive chef Eric Klein, and, on Dec. 11 only, by Puck himself. I’m not being nostalgic when I tell you that all the dishes are terrific and also that I can’t understand why they are no longer available.

Klein was kind enough to invite me in for a preview, and it was memorable. Since the smoked-salmon pizza is the one dish from this menu available on request, I skipped it. (For the record, though, it’s a cracker-thin pie smeared with dill crème fraîche, and is one of the most delicious items in the food galaxy.)
There was, fortunately, lots of compensation. Klein started us with sashimi of sushi-grade tuna dressed lightly with soy-lime vinaigrette and a plate of charcuterie, which he makes daily (not on the anniversary menu.) That was followed by crisp tempura shrimp so light and greaseless you could have sat on one without getting a stain on your pants. I also recommend that you look for the house-smoked sturgeon with crisp potato galette and horseradish cream. It wasn’t served at my tasting, but I’m still savoring it from the original menu.

Klein then dazzled us with an impossibly rich wild-mushroom risotto with caramelized shallots and Italian parsley. I had to push the dish away from my wife in order to save room for what was coming. (Usually, it’s the other way around.) Then my resolve melted when a second pasta course arrived—Maine lobster with spinach linguini and Chinese black bean sauce. (Buoyed by the success of the Santa Monica, Calif., fusion restaurant Chinois, Puck was heavily into Asian flavors then. This is one I wish he’d bring back.)

We had two entrees: Cantonese-style roast duck with wild huckleberries, ginger and stir-fried baby bok choy “Chinois Style,” and some Colorado lamb chops with a cilantro-mint vinaigrette and sweet-and-sour eggplant—both Chinese in spirit, but Puck-ian in taste.

Dessert was Wolfgang’s Kaiserchmarrn, a buttery, soufflé-like pancake, served in a hot pan with strawberry sauce and whipped cream on the side. For those old enough to be fans of Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, who famously said, “greed is good,” here’s a dessert that proves it.

There will be occasion to go back for Spago’s current favorites such as choucroute royal garni (a sort of deluxe sausage platter) and red wine-braised short ribs on another day. Seize this one.

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