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Aug 28, 2003 08:42 PM

Birthday dinner: Spago or Bastide?

  • d

My SO and I were all prepared to celebrate my birthday week after next at Bastide, but the "meal of the year" posting about Spago has made me think twice. The most recent discussion I found re: Bastide is from May, and is mostly negative. Another neg. is that we can only get a res. there for a Monday night (haven't checked with Spago yet).

I would prefer a leisurely long meal in a low-key place, and Spago doesn't fit the bill for the latter. I've been wanting to go to Bastide since it opened, maybe I'm just a victim of the hype. But if folks think the cooking Bastide is jive I'd rather have a decadent and pricey meal elsewhere. Any frank advice?

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  1. Here’s my frank two cents: as far as food is concerned, Spago’s reputation is, to me, simply stunning. I have had two meals there in the last month – a fairly serious lunch and a full-on tasting menu that had the added bonus that our host was a good friend of one of the sous-chefs, who had been informed (and excited) about our visit. Thus, our tasting menu had 90% of the same items that others have reported in the last month or two plus 2 or 3 extras dishes. I had the evening tasting menu with matched wines. Food-wise, Spago seems almost a joke to me. I can’t imagine that people seriously interested in food can rave about what they’re serving. For lunch, my wife had the lobster club sandwich, a typically over-produced affair, served on olive bread (can you imagine a worse compliment to lobster than black olives?) with a side of Terra chips. Yes, that’s right, store-bought chips – this in a 4-star restaurant (according to the eminently worthless LA Times review). The soft-shell crab that others genuflect about has got to be double-dipped in batter, fried within an inch of it’s life and thus left with absolutely zero of the quality that makes soft-shell crab worth eating in the first place. Between the batter and the "wasabi sauce" you may as well be frying Mrs. Smith’s fishsticks because god knows you can’t taste the pungent, briny, metallic joy that soft-shell crabs can provide – you even lose the wonderful crust between the shell and the meat that pan-sautéing emphasizes that results in the burst of juicy crabmeat once the seal of the shell is broken. Instead, you have lump of deep-fried nothing that tastes of batter and oil and a mild, creamy sauce that turns it into fast food (and this is an insult to fast food). The dinner was worse than lunch, if only because it was interminable and to my palate embarrassing. The dishes seem like the kind of crap that Emeril yaks about on his insipid TV show – each and every dish an unholy concoction of too many disparate ingredients that (a) provides no harmony and (b) obliterate whatever ingredient is supposedly at the center of the dish. One exception: the Italian dumpling that is filled with marscapone and sweet white corn. These are delicious, and addicting. Plus, they match very well with the wine – the Bonnacarsi Chardonnay, which otherwise is an insanely heavily oaked wine but it somehow works here perfectly. We had this dish at both lunch and dinner -- it is a small serving but embodies everything a tasting menu can be – a short, thrilling adventure into a series of flavors and textures that leaves you wanting more of the same but instead you get an entirely new sensation on your plate and palate. While certainly it’s nice to taste 9 or 10 wines with dinner, if you know just a bit about wine and spend a modicum of time in wine stores staying even cursorily aware of what’s in the stores then the wines are at best uninspired – they are routine examples of varietals that, I guess, are "exotic" when compared to Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc (things like Albariño and Grenache ).

    Spago is fascinating for many reasons – it’s success, it’s scene, it’s popularity – but it’s hard to understand how the cuisine has much to do with it’s reputation. The food is conceptually locked in the 1980’s in terms of flavors, precision and presentation. Spago has had a lure for me for years – I was convinced that there just had to be something there, and thus my two recent visits – which have finally put to rest any lingering questions. It’s a great cultural field trip, a fascinating place to check-out and observe – Rupert Murdoch accidentally elbowed me, with some force, in the back and then, making eye contact, didn’t even pretend to apologize, the sure sign of Alpha-Male-ness I suppose – but many, many places in town are doing more interesting things with food.

    I know I’m railing against the place but I’m just amazed at the regard bestowed upon it. I don’t mean to criticize anyone who loves it. Good for them. A great restaurant is the one which you love. And, depending on where you are in your culinary journey, then Spago may be just the ticket for you. Clearly, many people love it and who can argue with success, especially in America? To me, it’s a tacky if slightly fascinating Disneyland with pretentious, horribly insecure dishes. It’s a power-scene nonpareil, and it’s so loud that a table of 6 has to shout to talk.

    I haven’t been to Bastide, but do want to go – I see the chef buying his fruits and vegetables at the Farmer’s Market and he’s clearly very serious about what he selects so this is a good sign.

    9 Replies
    1. re: Fidelixi



      First of all, I'll agree with you on two points: the softshell crab is not a very good dish, I've had plenty better at modest Japanese restaurants. Second, the marscapone and white corn pasta is perfectly balanced.

      Now on to my criticism....

      "And, depending on where you are in your culinary journey, then Spago may be just the ticket for you. Clearly, many people love it and who can argue with success, especially in America? To me, it’s a tacky if slightly fascinating Disneyland with pretentious, horribly insecure dishes."

      I'm sorry, but this just sounds like unadulterated snobbery (after you just said you didn't want to criticize anyone). I'm also sorry to use the "snob" word, since just about everyone on this site is guilty of this in the eyes of the average American eater. Including myself.

      Next, what do you mean by pretentious? At these prices and in the heart of Beverly Hills, how can Spago possibly be pretending to be anything it isn't?? It's haute cuisine, by definition. There's no way that I can imagine Spago's chefs to be insecure in their abilities, either. Maybe they aren't the best in the world (there's can only be one place that is), but they certainly don't fear that they are not among the best.

      Anyhow, that's my 2cents.


      1. re: David Tseng

        Can't I try to have it both ways?

        I once heard a definition of adulthood that was as follows: being able to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. This now seems a fairly obvious steal/bastardization of Fitzgerald's statement that "test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." All this is by way of saying that Spago to my mind is objectively mediocre (I say this with full awareness of its subjectivity) BUT, truly, I also believe that there are as many tastes as people and thus chacun a son gout. Parenthetically, I like the underdog and thus am opposed to the "powers that be" so I have an attachment to bashing the strong -- especially when I feel their "power" is undeserved, as I think the case here.

        And, to clarify: by pretentious I mean highly and unnecessarily complicated, affected in design and presentation. By insecure I of course am not referring to Hefter & Co.'s emotional state -- I mean that the food, on the whole, is uncertain. Personally, I find no assurance in the direction of many of the dishes, except a recurring theme of overwhelm and sensation at any expense. If haute cuisine is by definition all of these things, then I guess I’ve learned that I don’t like haute cuisine. But, I don’t think that’s the case. It’s true that I lean away from classical French cooking but to me, when it’s good, it’s highly elaborate but still quite precise, refined and subtle – and finally, mysterious. That’s what’s missing from Spago – it’s in-your-face, over-the-top, obvious an d boldly unintegrated. In that way it’s hard to call it haute cuisine. It’s fusion as far as I can see -- French, Asian, the kitchen sink, California all by way of Austria. I got no problem with that model, I just don’t care for the execution that’s arriving on plates at my table.

        Everyone raves about the Austrian dishes. If one of you has a hankering to take me to Spago so I can learn my lesson about how terrific it is, I promise to order those dishes.

        1. re: Fidelixi
          dbl.trouble twin grubber

          Jeesh, didn't mean to spawn this type of exchange. But such is the nature of hounds ;) A little healthy debate never hurt anyone, right?

          Still not many specifics about folks' experiences at Bastide, although overall much seems to weigh in Spago's favor. Nonetheless, I'm leaning towards sticking to Bastide for the b-day, and saving Spago for the anniversary! That's a plan that might work just fine...

          1. re: dbl.trouble twin grubber

            Take one for The Team and go to Bastide. Report back with all of the details. I am still not going to spend my bucks at this place until I see a few favorable reviews. No problem finding lots of favorable Spago reviews and kudos.

          2. re: Fidelixi

            [PURELY Sarcastic Remarks follow]

            No, you can't have it both ways. I'm right and you're wrong! Having in both ways is for godless, Bud-light-lovin', ambivalent Gen-X'ers!

            [end sarcasm]

            Okay, I got that out of my system. I see where you are coming from, and I could see agreeing with you, but...

            I think my level of thinking on Spago goes like this: nice room, explosive flavors, yummy. Simplistic, I know. And to breakdown our disagreement, I think you are grading on a steep curve (Spago OUGHT to be good, it's expensive, it's hyped, it's in BH fer god's sake) while I am grading 'objectively', it's a heck of a lot better than Crocodile Cafe...


            1. re: David Tseng

              [seriously sarcastic, but in all jokes there is truth]

              Crocodile Cafe?? 'nuff said. I see what we're dealing with and I'm scared.

              Okay. While I agree that I do grade on a rather harsh scale, for the bucks and reviews I think it's appropriate when it comes to Spago. Frankly, I pride myself on my objectivity and if Spago were a fraction of the cost it still wouldn't interest me. It just ain't good food as this guy defines it.

              As far as Bud Light goes...I don't drink the stuff. When I have a beer, it's ale or hefewiezen but mostly I'mpulling corks out of wine bottles at home. Ambivalent? Yes, about many thing, but not when it comes to food (except for oatmeal, polenta and anything but the freshest uni)...Gen-X?...I don't know, what's the cut off for my birth year? godless...well, there I stand guilty as charged...but that doesn't mean that I don't believe in sumpthin'!

              What's the next restaurant under discussion?

        2. re: Fidelixi

          I actually agree with regard to the tempura soft shell - too battery. But the rest of your comments, with which I entirely disagree, are an absolutely fascinating (quintessential?) example of the timeless dictum, "chacun a son gout". And of that which makes this board so worth following.

          1. re: Fidelixi

            I haven't been to Spago yet, so I can benefit from both sides of the argument without feeling my horse is losing. And it's great that the give-and-take has remained intelligent in this thread...maybe flamers can't afford high-end Puck?

            I will add that any post that includes an anecdote as great as the Rupert Murdoch one is an automatic nominee for post of the year, regardless of other content. :-)

            1. re: Fidelixi

              We have been to Spago twice this year. I am probably the biggest critic and hardest person to please that I am aware of, and I am a major fan of Spago. I say that IN SPITE of the decor and the scene, both of which are not to my liking. It is just amazing how universally delighted such a diverse group of people are about one restaurant. Someone has to be unhappy with it. It is the exception that proves the rule.

            2. Great report, Fidel, from a poster whose opinions I hold in high esteem. The fact that our reactions to essentially the same meal are 180 degrees apart underscores the purely subjective nature of food preferences. For instance, the one dish I felt was LEAST successful was your favorite. Us Grubbies thot the corn mascarpone ravioli was guilty of two high cuisine sins: contrived & cloying.

              The Grubmeister loves Chowhound, not because you can rely entirely on the opinions of the posters. This board provides an enormous amount of info that you can run thru your own personal filters to make decisions on what places might be shrines of culinary enlightenment for YOU. For me, take Chowhound, stir in ample portions of newspaper reviews, top ten lists, Zagat, water cooler chat, … whatever, shake, rattle & strain, then make your reservation & enjoy. Life’s great.

              You don’t care for Spago. We’d buy a season pass. Vive la difference.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Mr Grub

                Right on, Mr. Grub. My sentiments exactly.

                1. re: Marco Polo

                  ditto, I should have read your reply before posting. Yours is funnier and more true.

                2. re: Mr Grub


                  I love Chowhound for the very same reasons you do: chowhound + personal filter = (1) hours of wasted time and (2) better choices, ideas and information. To my mind, it's the greatest of the many resources you cite.

                  And, to keep the props flying: I appreciate your posts, especially the mellow, controlled tone and (seeming) patience with which you compose (and, I imagine, live).

                  Looking forward to our next, likely unacknowledged, disagreement...

                3. I would choose Bastide and maybe play hooky on Tuesday.

                  We go to Spago two or three times a year and I really love certain things they do (Austrian dishes, home cured fish, chicken soup with marrow dumplings, any desserts, wine, boozy lunch, service) and dislike some things (having my father-in-law make our reservation so we get a decent table, anything "Asian" is sweet and yucky).

                  That said, Bastide says "birthday" to me and I can't wait to go back.

                  1. The cooking at Bastide isn't jive, it just isn't great. Don't get me wrong, Alain is a good chef, but as good as the hype, no way....he is still cooking the same food he did at Citrus or LCV....I put myself in the hands of Lee Hefner at Spago....

                    2 Replies
                      1. re: elmo

                        Or in those of Hugh Hefner. Lord knows they have experience.

                      2. I found Bastide pure torture, but if you must go sit outside.

                        I think the food at Spago is generally better. I don't care much for their dining room -- I'd try to sit in their atrium. To me the highlight of the Spago menu is their collection of very well prepared Austrian specialties, including an awesome goulash and perfectly delicious consomme. There are undoubtedly some bad items on the menu as other posters have mentioned, but I haven't had them.