Dish

The search for Spago

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Homey Portuguese eatery makes up in cordiality what it lacks in cuisine

Goes to show how often I get around to restaurants outside walking distance,
or maybe how deep my nostalgic streak goes; the Portuguese restaurant Spago
is still, to my mind, the “new” eatery in the space once occupied
by Alexander’s, even though the latter dining room has been defunct for
years. Alexander’s was one of the “fancy” restaurants of my
childhood, and I remember it mainly for its Manhattan-style clam
chowder—which nobody seems to serve anymore—and Tiffany-style
glass lampshades. At Spago, the red chowder’s long gone but the
lampshades are still in place. In fact, aside from the Portuguese
accents—a rooster over in the corner, cultural-society golf tourney
trophy proudly at the entrance—the whole decor is pretty much the same
as it was when Thriller was climbing the charts. The place has a nice
undercurrent of that old boomtown feel that still lounges in the nooks and
crannies of Edmonton, an atmosphere I (just now decided to) call
“Lougheed Lounge.” The strip-mall location hasn’t
gentrified much since the ’80s, either: big, fat traffic corridors on
two sides, cemetery across the street and associated memorial-mart across the
avenue and an adult-novelty store next door. (Man, was I curious about that
as a kid.) I don’t mention all this to be negative; dining at Spago was
a homecoming. Fitting, then, that the service was so… homey. This is a
family-run establishment, and it shows. And it’s very pleasant. We
arrived quite early by fine (or medium-fine) dining standards; for a while we
were the only party in the capacious room, and the service was quick,
friendly and chatty, with a very neighbourly vibe that extended over the
course of the evening as obvious regulars, and obvious friends and family of
the proprietors, slowly semi-filled the place with birthday parties and
greetings. Rolled eyes, jokes over dropped wine-jugs, mock-grumpy banter…
what Spago lacks in the affectations and professional unctuousness one might
expect from a semi-pricey restaurant they make up for (unless you’re a
big snob) in eagerness, earnestness and friendliness. But friendliness
doesn’t make it to the plate, and unfortunately Spago needs just a dash
more care and attention (and creativity) in the kitchen before it can
honestly justify their mid-teens-to-low-twenties prices. Take the baked
Camembert appetizer, for example. The cheese itself was well-prepared, a
straightforward ball nicely browned, perfectly golden and presented with a
desultory scattering of slightly stale Stoned Wheat Thins (has anybody ever
had a fresh Stoned Wheat Thin?) and a raspberry sauce like runny Smuckers.
The quails, too, were fundamentally well-prepared but rendered unmemorable by
their white wine/butter/garlic sauce, a generic liquid which makes frequent
appearances throughout the menu. An unexpected spiciness to the mussels
(again in white wine sauce) managed to nudge Spago’s appetizer
offerings a notch above the stripmall steak-’n’-pizza level. A
little more imagination, a hint of cuisine informing the home cookin’,
would have been welcome—and was, in fact, expected. On the
entrée front, my dad and I both went for the most interesting-seeming
dish on the menu, the house special pork ’n’ clams. The same wine
sauce made its appearance once more, this time as the moistening element in a
deep earthenware plate in which big pork pieces, cubed potatoes, clams and
mussels have been baked and served. Hot and hearty, tasty but totally
unchallenging—a literal meat-and-potatoes dish, which Dad loved and
which left me agreeably full, but kind of bored and disappointed; the zones
of the dish not washed by the sauce were too dry, the moist bits tasted more
or less the way the quails and mussels had. Maybe I am a snob, since
everybody else at the table seemed beside themselves with gustatory bliss. I
didn’t even get a chance to sample the Steak à Spago, another
house special (pan-fried steak topped with egg) because my brother devoured
it instantly and praised it unstintingly once fork hit plate. In our
after-dinner discussion, the phrase “better than Century Grill”
came up more than once, and I felt like I’d tumbled into some kind of
alternate dimension. But as the dessert tray (a collection of the usual
outsourced cheesecakes and choco-whatevers you can find anywhere) came around
and I looked and listened to the just-getting-busy restaurant—little
kids wandering around, warmly tolerated; laughter and non-annoying choruses
of “Happy Birthday”; calls for more wine and shouts from the
kitchen—I realized that I hadn’t entered an alternate dimension
but returned from one, back to a baseline Earth Prime where cordiality trumps
cordon bleu. Spago’s got lots of soul and obvious pride; if they can
pull even a little of that out of the atmosphere and put it on the table,
they’ll be essential dining. V Spago 12433-97 St • 479-0328

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