Tuesday, February 15, 2005

SPAGO'S SIBERIA - a Personal Experience

Essex House Restaurant Drops The Ball

We all have horror stories about dining out....Stephan Pollard writes about his experience dining at Chef Alain Ducasse's Essex House Restaurant....evidently it was an $890.00 disaster.

My Own Personal Experience At Spago's West Hollywood

Ah, yes, Stephen Pollard's experience reminds me of my birthday dinner at the now defunct Spago Restaurant run under the tutelege of Chef Wolfgang Puck in West Hollywood, California.

At the time, Spago, which was situated above Sunset Boulevard was THE restaurant to dine in. My sister's friend wanted to treat us to a special birthday dinner and had made reservations for a window table THREE months in advance. When we arrived, we were seated in the plastic tent at the rear of the restaurant, i.e. Spago's Siberia..despite our reservations.

To this day, I wonder if it was because we were all African-Americans? Normally, I would have thrown a major hissy-fit at the reservations desk, but as my twin and I were being given a birthday treat, I behaved myself and kept my temper down.

Perhaps I had missed the point of Spago...I must ask restaurant designer Barbara Lazaroff what on EARTH she was thinking. I certainly hope it was supposed to be the hoi polloi's way of 'slumming' with its California-style of pizzas because this dining experience at a trendoid restaurant became more and more ludicrous. The place had a marked lack of class, in my view. As a matter of fact, I didn't HAVE a view because we were seated in Spago's Siberia!

The wait staff was cold and imperious and treated us as if we were plantation servants given a night off from the fields to eat at Spago's.

For instance, in Spago's Siberia, prior to our meal, we were served French Bread...with no bread plates. The wait staff simply just tossed the bread basket on the table and left us to eat our bread with crumbs falling all over the table. Well, damn! Spago is supposed to be a popular foodateria, not a juke joint. The bread crumbs on the table began to really annoy me so I gestured to a waiter.


"Excuse me, but may we have bread plates?"

The waiter sniffed at me, raised his nose higher in the air and retorted in a phony Continental accent, "We do not HAVE bread plates."

I almost fell out laughing that guy, who, at those prices, expected us to eat with French bread crumbs falling all over the place. I pointed to a Spago Siberian couple seated near us, enjoying a dessert at the end of their meal in the tent.

"See those dessert plates they are eating off off?"

"Sniff. Yes."

"I want one for each person at my table."

The waiter stormed off and returned with the plates for our bread. Then I politely told him to clean the bread crumbs off the table and he did. Quickly. I mean, really!

In Spago's Siberia, diners had a self-conscious way of eating their meal...as if they were ashamed to be seen dining in the plastic tent. It was a kind of shoulder hunching and furtive peering around that gave their feelings away.

Again, my companions and I began to find the phony pretensions of the staff and the restaurant funny. After a while, there was a lot of laughing at OUR table.

In Spago's Siberia, the floor was covered in sawdust. Strike 1. I HATE sawdust on a floor unless I'm eating at a BBQ or biker joint. It gets in your shoes and carries fleas. At Spago's prices and attitude, it wouldn't have hurt them to install and maintain a clean floor.

In Spago's Siberia, I noticed that diners who had ordered wine had their wine buckets filled with ice and placed directly on the sawdust covered floor. When I pointed that out to my fellow diners, we fell out laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. We could just imagine sawdust and God knows what else falling into the bucket as the wait staff walked by. Nasty.

Luckily, I am a non-drinker (except for the occasional Cosmopolitian), because if MY wine bucket had been on that floor, I would have raised holy hell and told that staff to GET me a wine stand PRONTO. And if they didn't have any, SOMEBODY would have been sprinting down Sunset and LaCienega Boulevards to Williams and Sonoma at the Beverly Center to BUY one.

And the food? We found the pizzas to be unique and delicious (this was before the era of the popular California Pizza Company chain whch has branches all over the place ripping off Puck's California-style of pizza).

Even though we did enjoy our meal, it was the attitude, the ambience, the arrogance and the cheesy pretentions that we certainly could have done without.

I never did go back to Spago. Even though the West Hollywood branch above Sunset Boulevard is now closed (I wonder where all those fleas in the sawdust went), Puck has opened other branches of Spago in Beverly Hills and elsewhere (Las Vegas, Disney World...feeding the tourist hordes). I often wonder if the Beverly Hills branch has a Siberia?

However, I did eat at a Puck offshoot restaurant called the Wolfgang Puck Cafe at the Universal City Walk for lunch a couple of years ago (it wasn't MY idea, it was a working lunch sponsored by Warner Bros Studios, so I HAD to go). I ordered a pasta with a marinara sauce and was absolutely embarrassed for Wolfgang Puck.

The pasta was stale and barely warm with a thin flavorless sauce and the whole thing had obviously been sitting for some time and reheated in a microwave prior to serving. I would have done better heating up a can of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli and eating that instead.

However, Wolfie's been busy...Gayot's Restaurant Review writes about his restaurants at Downtown Disney and the Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida,

"In Puck’s burgeoning empire, Disney World is the place he chose for his dazzling Grand Café---a unique, four-in-one restaurant where hordes of tourists have four options: the Wolfgang Puck Café, Wolfgang Puck Express, B’s Sushi & Raw Bar and The Dining Room. The Express is for folks in a hurry to get to a nearby nightclub or to the movies across the street---or for those who don’t want to put up with the wait and higher prices in the café or upstairs dining room. The wood-fired pizzas, sandwiches, salads and soups are always reliable."

Well, there's a lot of profit in feeding the tourist appetite. As for myself, I avoid Wolfgang Puck restaurants completely. I've got my sights set on Govind Armstrong's Table 8 instead. You can read more about Table 8 and Armstrong over at Violets and Lemons's very first post.

Another Siberian Experience

I found this anonymous quote from a visitor who ate at Danny Ng's Restaurant in New York City. It made me laugh because the writer mentions being seated in Siberia as well.

"Often an ethnic restaurant preferred by the local people is a sign of quality, authentic cuisine. Not here. Our first clue was our seating in the restaurant Siberia, next to the waiter service center. Several empty tables in good locations were "reserved" but no one sat there while we were served. The waiters and manager proved curt and brusquely answered our questions, annoyed with our curiosity and interest. Our group appreciates Chinese cuisine and we have eaten at Chinese restaurants world-wide, including all the major Chinese cities. Our questions regarding menu claims were treated as an annoyance. For example, people who have eaten pepper steak in Szechuan expect heat from the dish, not the waiter serving this improperly bland dish. Also, this is the first place anyone has ever eaten where white rice is an a la carte item."

Reinforce Your Restaurant Expectations with Research

I like to visit certain websites which display personal restaurant reviews from visitors to a certain city. I often find the differing restaurant experiences entertaining to read and informative.

Virtual Tourist.com
and We8There features personal reviews from the U.S. and all over the world. Read what was written about Spago at Virtual Tourist.com. here.

One Last Thought

Everyone's entitled to their opinion and experience and when eating out, one never knows what to expect when visiting a new restaurant, does one? Get styled up, hold tightly to your credit card, do your research and you'll be guaranteed to have a wonderful meal!