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'Where We Were Supposed to Be'

“When we started out, they said I was crazy to come here because everybody only ate at the buffets,” says Wolfgang Puck, laughing. He’s sitting by the window of his new restaurant, Spago, glancing out at the Bellagio fountains, but also keeping an eye on the dining room, where black-clad waiters glide between white-clothed tables, ferphoto by Rob Flickerrying plates of smoked salmon pizza and Colorado lamb.

Spago: Yes, it’s new and, yes, it’s at the Bellagio. The original Vegas Spago opened in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace 26 years ago, back when Las Vegas dining options were limited and a “celebrity chef” was someone who’d cooked salmon with Vincent Price on PBS (yes, Puck did and, yes it’s on YouTube). As one of the first big names to open on the Strip, Puck helped establish our city as the dining capital it is today. “Everyplace had to get chefs. That was the way to go. Once there was Frank Sinatra and  Dean Martin and now [it’s] the chefs.”

Yet, with dozens of restaurant around the world and six in Las Vegas, Puck felt it was time to breathe new air into the sails of his flagship. “Change is good,” he says, “I was wondering what to do with Spago here: Close it down, remodel again, maybe do something different”... and what could be more different than a new location and a new menu?

A contrast to the painted sky and over-the-top Greco-Roman setting of the previous Spago (location of the infamous “doggy chow” scene in Showgirls)  the new version has an outdoor patio beneath genuine sun and clouds, inviting diners to gaze out at the Bellagio fountain show rather than at tourists buying T-shirts. The room applies minimalist design to luxe materials such as velvet, oak and crystal; one wall is dominated by a series of bas-relief panels depicting topographical features of the Vegas Valley by local artist Katie Lewis.

The food reflects a similarly restrained take on opulence. Puck explains his ingredients as “the best ingredients, but not fussy,” says Puck. “We always have been proud of our traditional menu mixed with innovation. If you like the pizza, you like the wiener schnitzel, you can get that. Or you can get fresh Santa Barbara fish, barely steamed with a little olive oil.”

Roasted beets are swirled with yogurt and feta, mint and pistachio--spring on a plate, a mixture of fresh flavors that are floral without being cloying. Petite lobster rolls on squid-ink brioche don’t drown the meat in sauce, but lightly brush it. Grilled rib eye with Bordelaise and a potato-bacon terrine should be a heavy dish, awash in cream, but the meat is flavorful without the sauce, and the terrine is light as a croissant. Desserts blend technniques and textures in service to a flavor, such the Cherry, the Strawberry or Spiked Lemon — the latter is a cloud-like chiffon cake and fluffy mousse dolloped with Yuzu cream.

“When we opened Spago, it was the first one with an open kitchen. We had — not the traditional French food, like I had cooked at Ma Maison. we had something totally different,” he recalls. “Who had done a white tablecloth restaurant with pizzas? But we made them different … we kept it fairly simple, but good quality. And it was a hit and that is why we are here today.” Puck gestures toward the crowd of diners but, more importantly, at the kitchen beyond.

Yet Spago at the Bellagio could have come to pass much, much sooner. Twenty-five years sooner, actually, were it not for a contretemps over control between the chef and the casino owner. “When Steve [Wynn] built this, when there was gravel here, we used to talk and he used to explain to me what he was going to do... He showed me the pictures with the lagoon and everything and we were supposed to take this spot here,” Puck recalls.

“But Steve did not want to lease it to me, he wanted to own it. He said, ‘You can manage it.’ I said, ‘No, I want to own it.’ He said, ‘Why do you want to own it, you’ll have to spend so much money to build it?' I said, 'I’m going to have a lot of space, I want to own the space,' and he said. ‘I want to own the space.’ So …”

It was probably to be expected that egos large enough to shape the worlds of dining and gaming would clash, although Puck notes that, “Two years after that, I did his birthday.” But it wasn’t expected that Spago would wind up at the Bellagio after all — except perhaps by one man who always kept the possibility in mind. “It could not have turned out better,” says Puck. “The perfect opportunity, after 25 years, to be where we were supposed to be.”

(In the Bellagio; 702-693-8181, bellagio.com)

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