L.A. Dining: Old school to new school

Kenley and I took advantage of the the winter DineLA restaurant week to experience both an L.A. institution as well as a newcomer with rave reviews.

During DineLA, restaurants offer prix fixe, three-course meals for lunch and dinner. Foodies and bloggers eagerly wait for the list of participating restaurants to be posted and scour the special menus in search of the best offers. (You can read about where we ate during the October 2011 DineLA restaurant week here.)

The winter DineLA restaurant week, promoted by the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, was the week after our wedding anniversary, so we decided (OK, I decided, and Kenley kindly agreed) that a splurge was in order.

I booked a Friday lunch at Spago in Beverly Hills, the flagship restaurant of the ultimate celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck.

Spago celebrated its 30th anniversary just a few days before we visited, and Puck now oversees an empire of more than 20 fine-dining restaurants in at least seven states and three countries, not to mention his casual restaurants and catering company. Puck has been catering the Governors Ball at the Oscars for the past 20 years. (You can read about his menu for this year’s Oscars in The Hollywood Reporter here.) He was one of the first celebrity chefs to open a restaurant in Las Vegas (Spago in Caesars Palace in 1992), helping to make Sin City a dining destination. His latest restaurant is in the recently reopened Bel-Air Hotel. (Read a Q&A with Puck in the LA Weekly here.)

And just days after we ate at Spago, the James Beard Foundation (which hands out awards that are equivalent to the Oscars of the restaurant world) announced that Puck would be honored with the Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Puck was the first guest chef at the James Beard House and is the only one to win Outstanding Chef twice, according to foundation president Susan Ungaro.

“It was at Spago that Wolfgang pioneered many restaurant concepts now taken for granted: the ‘open kitchen’ cooking with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients; and the notion that ‘fine’ dining need not be stuffy and formal,” the press release notes.

Still, the minute you walk into Spago, you almost feel part of a wealthy and exclusive club. The hostesses greeted many of the people by name as they walked in. On a Friday, and probably every day of the week, there are tables filled with ladies who lunch. They wear hats, sip one too many cocktails, and they’ve probably been seated at the same prime tables for years. Other tables are filled with men in expensive suits having power lunches and discussing the next TV show or movie you’ll be watching. Some say the best tables are in the very pretty courtyard, but I say the best tables are around the side looking into the courtyard.

We spotted Jason Priestley (best known for his work on “90210”) and David Charvet (best known for “Baywatch,” “Melrose Place” and being married to Brooke Burke) dining at separate tables. Kenley quipped that it was his favorite lunch of 1996.

Kenley started his meal with a spicy tuna cone, which had come highly recommended. It’s not on the lunch menu, but they’ll make it for you if you ask — and it’s worth asking. The tuna melts in your mouth, plus you get the crispy crunch from the sesame miso cone. (The recipe is on Puck’s website, if you want to attempt to make them at home.)

My first course from the DineLA menu was an Italian prosciutto and burrata salad with roasted quince, arugula and balsamic dressing. It was a large portion of cheese on top of a small portion of arugula, so it wasn’t the green salad I was expecting, but it was light and refreshing.

For our second course, we ordered the Italian chestnut agnolotti with mascarpone and reggiano, which was on the supplemental DineLA menu. It was rich and flavorful, but not too heavy. Kenley loved it.

For our third course, we both ordered pizzas. I had the spicy chicken pizza with roasted peppers, burrata mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes and rapini. Kenley strayed from the DineLA menu and ordered Spago’s signature smoked salmon pizza. The pizzas were not as good as our previous courses. Mine was a bit dry and did not taste as fresh as I would have liked. Kenley’s was rich and probably really good if you like smoked salmon, but I found it overpowering. One piece was more than enough for me. (If you’re a fan of smoked salmon, you can find the recipe for the smoked salmon pizza on Puck’s website.)

For dessert with the DineLA menu, we got a sample of three creations. The best was a caramel chocolate bar served with Cracker Jacks on top. It was a perfect mix of sweet and salty.

It wasn’t the cheapest lunch I’ve ever had, but the prices during restaurant week made it more affordable, and the experience was totally worth it.

Puck recently announced that he plans to shut down the Beverly Hill Spago for renovations this summer and reopen in September, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The restaurant is definitely old-school and can use some updating, but I hope he keeps some of the old Hollywood ambiance. I’m sure reservations will be hard to come by this spring before it closes and in the fall when it opens back up again, so reserve your tables now. The New York Times recently published an article on “Spago at 30” and Puck’s renovation plans, which you can read here.

The following Friday, we tried chef Sang Yoon’s Lukshon, which opened about a year ago next to the Father’s Office gastropub (another of Yoon’s restaurants) in Culver City. Lukshon was quickly added to writer Jonathan Gold’s 99 essential restaurants list.

Father’s Office has what many consider to be the best burger in town, yet notoriously doesn’t serve ketchup. So Kenley and I were curious to check out Yoon’s modern Asian restaurant.

Kenley and I both chose the DineLA menu, so we were able to sample two of the three selections for each course. The small plates came out as they were ready. For the first course, we had Hawaiian butterfish with pickled watermelon radish, as well as spicy chicken pops. The butterfish was tender and refreshing.

But Kenley still talks about the spicy chicken pops, which basically are a sophisticated version of chicken wings — perfectly seasoned and cooked, and simply spectacular. They were crispy on the outside and bursting with flavor.

For our second course, we had Prince Edward Island black mussels in a sauce of green chile, coconut, basil and lime. We also ordered short ribs rendang marinated in red chile, lemongrass and coconut cream. I wished I had bread to soak up the sauce with my mussels. (Isn’t that the best part of ordering mussels?) The ribs were good but not as memorable as the aforementioned chicken pops.

Our third courses included jasmine rice — which was needed to counter the spicy chicken pops — and aged ham.

At Lukshon, you always get a complimentary chef’s selection for dessert, so you actually get four courses with the DineLA menu. We had a custard and a tart. Both were light and citrusy and cleansed the palate.

Dinner at Lukshon was similar to an Asian version of Jose Andres’ Bazaar, but less experimental and less expensive. Lukshon is casual yet sophisticated. It’s a great date restaurant or place to take out-of-town guests, or for days when you’re craving something other than burgers. There’s a large patio that would be great for lunch or dinner when the weather is a little warmer.

You can read the reviews of Lukshon from the Los Angeles Times and the LA Weekly.

I’ve already started a list of restaurants I want to try during the next DineLA restaurant week, though the dates haven’t been announced yet. Last year’s second restaurant week was in October, but based on a survey I received, the Convention and Visitors Bureau seems to be at least considering a change to the summer. Check out the DineLA website link at the top of this post for updates.

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7 thoughts on “L.A. Dining: Old school to new school

      • Wow, the men in my life are hard on me. You wouldn’t dare ask a woman such if she wasn’t your sister or your daughter. I have not had to buy any new clothes, or at least not because my old clothes don’t fit. But thanks for your concern!

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