Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Okay, I’m a little late on this one. 17 years after it opened I finally had dinner at Spago in Beverly Hills and I have to say it was kind of great. I was there with Brett Easton Ellis who now lives in LA, and with Paul and Chris who had never been to Spago either. (Rumor has it Paul was banned years ago for suggesting that Barbara Lazaroff’s design might not be everything one could wish).

Spago could well be the most famous restaurant in America, at least if you value glamour and glitz over the pathbreaking cuisine of Chez Panisse, the other contender for America’s most famous.

I should say at first the restaurant knew we were coming and took great care of us, but I watched other tables and they were equally well taken care of too. We were offered several amuse bouche, one was the raw uni cornet, which I always thought of as Thomas Keller’s invention, but since Spago has been open longer, maybe Wolfgang’s was first or at least the inspiration for Keller (or maybe they stole the idea from the French Laundry).

What makes Spago great? I kept asking myself that as I looked around the dining room and noticed that everyone seemed really happy and excited. Maybe it’s the celebrity factor that thrills people, or perhaps it is simply the fact that the food is consistently good, especially the classics. If you order simply you won’t be disappointed. If you order right you might be kind of amazed.

The menu is fun to read though ordering is kind of challenging because you want to try that “Karntner Kase Nudeln” Giant Farmers Cheese Ravioli or the roasted Chino Farm’s Beet layer cake. And what about that sweet corn and mascarpone agnolotti with shaved summer truffles? The agnolotti were sent to the table so I didn’t have a choice and they were so transcendent. Agnolotti are one of my favorite dishes and these were the best I’ve had outside of the Piedmont.

When the waiter came to take our order Brett told him that he hates to make a decision and asked him to make it for him. The waiter suggested the vine ripened California heirloom tomato salad and the caramelized “natural” veal chop which Brett happily accepted. I ordered the Adriatic fig and proscuitto salad with fresh burrata cheese, 50 year old balsamic vinegar, and micro greens, and the pan-roasted Alaskan halibut. Chris and Paul ordered the spicy beef goulash and the wiener schnitzel”. See what I mean? The menu asks you to take these crazy chances…

All of our appetizers were amazing. My halibut was slightly overcooked but Brett’s veal chop was perfect and delicious. The goulash served with pan-fried spaetzle was okay, not mind blowing, and the wiener scnhitzel did nothing for me. Kevin O’Conner, the sommelier, poured some very interesting wines for us,-- a 2006 Chenin Blanc from the Loire, Jasnieres, Cuvée du Silex from Pascal Janvier, and Jean-Marie Fourrier Morey St. Denis “Clos Salon” 2001 that he had been saving in the cellar. It was insane. He then poured a 2000 Flaccianello , a 100% sangiovese wine that was calling out for cheese. They sent us desserts--a huckleberry semifreddo, a chocolate layer cake, and something else I can’t remember. All were okay. I’m just not a dessert person. I would have preferred cheese.

As we finished dinner, I actually thought to myself that I’d like to come back. I really had a great time and though the dining room is not exactly my style, there was some great 80s rock playing in the background. I thought it was all kind of perfect.

176 N. Canon Drive
Beverly Hills, California 90210

In the Fields and Pastures of Stone Barns

The other day I got a private tour of the gardens and pastures of Stone Barns with my former editor at House & Garden, Dominique Browning. It was a real treat to walk through the vegetable gardens with Jack Algiere, the farmer in charge. Stone Barns is famous for Dan Barber’s restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, but it is also an educational center and a non-profit farm.

At any given time they have six acres of fields planted and one acre of plantings in the greenhouses. As we started through the fields I saw rows of tomatoes, some 30 varieties. There were also rows of varieties of eggplants, peppers and potatoes. They were harvesting zucchini flowers for the restaurant while we were there, and Jack explained that everything is harvested by hand and all the vegetables are grown in a sustainable and organic way.

Then he took us to the rows of corn that he has been given a grant to grow from Anson Mills. Anson Mills is one of my favorite sources in Columbia, South Carolina. They produce heirloom grits, cornmeal, Carolina gold rice and various flours. The corn we were looking at was almost unknown here till they began to bring it back. The variety is called New England Eight Row Flint and is considered the best corn for polenta. He plants the corn in the traditional"three sisters" method along with several varieties of beans and squash.

We then went over to meet Craig Haney, who manages the livestock. They raise, pigs, sheep and chickens. They have Berkshire pigs, various varieties of chickens all used and sold at the restaurant and farm. I learned all about how they rotate the animals and how that whole process supports the land and in the end is sustainable. I also learned that they have a farmers market Wednesday, Friday and Saturday which was great news to me. You could go buy all their amazing products. They do have a few vendors come that sell cheese as well, but pretty much it is all their products.

We then had a wonderfully simple lunch that Dan prepared. A green gazpacho soup, a peach, tomato, and sliced zucchini flower salad, house cured bologna and soppresatta, and some cheeses. It was simple and delicious. We also had a selection of desserts. My favorite was the goat cheese sorbet with black and red raspberries. Following this we sampled a mulberry chocolate cake and a tanka bean ice cream that was really delicious.

What Stone Barns is doing here is really inspiring. There is so much to learn and take home to your own garden however small it may be. My only wish is that they might open another restaurant there that is more casual-- something that really just showed off food in the simplest way and was more affordable.

Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture
630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, NY 10591
Tel: 914 366 6200
Fax: 914 366 7905

Membership Has Its Privileges

A friend in LA was telling me about a really cool store called Rawesome around the corner from his house in Venice. When he said it sells only raw ingredients I wanted to hop in my car immediately and check it out. Sadly, it is only open Wednesdays and Saturdays at noon. I had to wait a whole week before going over there with Amanda to check it out. Naturally we were early and had to wait for it to open. As we did, we watched avid customers assembling with boxes and coolers stacked on their dollies.

Eventually the door opened and the frenzy began. We both loved the place at first sight. Rawesome gets around FDA regulations about selling raw milk, cream, butter, cheese, yogurt, and so forth by making the products in the store available to members only. We talked to James, one of the owners, about his fights with the FDA over all this but were interrupted when a farmer arrived to deliver the eggs and James trotted off.

As I went from cooler to cooler I was a little alarmed by the frenzy, the aggression, the slightly nutty desperation of the members in pursuit of their supplies. On the other hand, the ingredients were incredible and between us we spent a small fortune. Amanda, who was on the second day of 10 day fast,was in heaven over the fresh coconut water, honey, terramin clay, and these amazing halite salt crystals she loves. I got all the dairy I could hold. We both became members on the spot-- 25 dollars a year.

When I got home I tried the raw butter which I happen to love; it’s not as sweet and creamy as good French butter, but on some freshly toasted bread with sea salt it was amazing. The cream was great as was the milk and goat’s milk yogurt.

This is really one of the coolest food stores I’ve been to in a long time and I plan to make it a regular stop. Though they are very protective about press and attention, they welcome everyone who shares their passion and belief that raw ingredients are better for you. But you don’t have to be a raw food devotee to shop here. There’s something wonderful for everyone.

665 Rose Avenue
Venice, California 90291
Opens at noon Wednesday’s and Saturday’s