Returning from my annual winter getaway to Palm Springs, Calif., with a tan and a sense of relaxation is a given. But unpacking the memory of memorable meals?
Not so easy.
Until this year, when I encountered more promising newcomers in six days than I have during the past six years. The desert’s dining scene is on a definite upswing.
The city’s most buzzed-about culinary news is out of the recently remade L’Horizon Resort & Spa, a series of low-slung midcentury bungalows designed by noted desert architect William F. Cody.
So•Pa, the hotel’s knockout of an outdoor restaurant, is under the direction of big-deal chef Giacomo Pettinari, an Italian with a résumé that includes L.A.’s Valentino, London’s Floriana and Spain’s El Bulli. Drop in for an ultra-stylish breakfast, lunch or dinner, all not expensive — a surprise given the landmark surroundings, and Pettinari’s pedigree.
Another hotel newcomer is the great-looking Arrive. At its casual poolside Reservoir restaurant, chef Michael McDonald pledges “modern Southern California cuisine,” which translates into the city’s best tacos, abundantly fresh salads, pristine crudo and BLTs stuffed with crab. The appealing breakfast menu promises to put a serious dent in my other Palm Springs a.m. go-to, Cheeky’s.
The property also includes a P.S. amenity: Ice Cream & Shop(pe). The scoop case is filled with a colorful, ever-changing selection of ice creams and sorbets (pomegranate chocolate chip, blackberry-cabernet, date) that are produced in-house.
The hotel’s sharp looking Customs Coffee showcases beans from the nearby Joshua Tree Coffee Co., a small-batch roaster that started, with two-pound batches, in owner Royce Robertson’s kitchen.
Down the street, stylish Ernst Coffee relies on imports from Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Ore., and also pours a well-edited selection of beers and wines, best enjoyed during the shop’s late-afternoon happy hour.
Best bargains under the sun
“Value-priced” and “Palm Springs” don’t always go together. But two newcomers are changing that dynamic.
At the counter-service Chicken Ranch, chef Matt Smith sources birds from a local free-range farm, then roasts them to juicy, flavorful perfection. Buy a little (a breast, a leg-thigh combination) or go whole-hog with a whole chicken. Smith also tosses big, bountiful salads, and pulls together a half-dozen simple side dishes, all served on the premises or packaged to go.
Three cheers also to cozy Smoke Tree BBQ Bar & Grill, where chef Steven Helland skillfully imbues pork, beef, turkey and chicken with the smoke from oak and fruit hardwoods. They’re served in heaping platters with a series of just-right side dishes and a host of regionally brewed beers.
On the subject of deals, the bar menu at the starkly white Eight4Nine Restaurant & Lounge offers seven more-than-decent $9-and-under deals (a half-size salmon Nicoise salad, a sweet corn chowder garnished with succulent California crab) and proximity to the bartenders’ craft cocktail wizardry.
Bakeries that shine
The city’s woeful baked-goods track record is showing signs of a reversal. After several years of selling from a Saturday morning stand at the Palm Springs Farmers Market, Townie Bagels baker Andrew Wysocki has moved into a sunny brick-and-mortar outlet.
His usual array of chewy, skillfully crafted bagels (and schmears) is bigger than ever, supplemented by a selection of well-made breakfast and lunch sandwiches, all at stop-in-every-day prices. To the bane of swimsuit wearers everywhere, Wysocki also has an affinity for chocolate babka.
What a delight to stroll into Peninsula Pastries. There are baker Christophe Meyer’s flaky croissants (the almond version is a bestseller for a reason), gleaming fruit Danish and tempting tarts, but also the gracious hospitality — and lilting French accent — of his wife and business partner, Helene Meyer, as she spreads cheer behind the counter.
This creature of habit couldn’t help returning to several long-standing favorites. Especially 20-year-old Tyler’s Burgers, where snaring a late-lunch seat at the counter is what I have long considered an essential Palm Springs experience. Arrive early or risk losing out on the gotta-have potato salad.
That my husband and I discovered Rooster and the Pig on our final evening proved to be our trip’s only regret (well, that and shortsightedly reaching for 30 SPF sunblock instead of 50), because the modest Vietnamese restaurant, located in a forgettable downtown strip mall, became an instant favorite.
Every lovingly composed dish that came out of chef Tai Spendley’s kitchen made a more-than favorable impression. There were charred Brussels sprouts peppered with garlic and feisty pork sausage, spring rolls stuffed with papaya, garden-fresh basil and a double dose of mint, and thinly sliced beef fried to tantalizing crispiness and served over tender slurp-worthy noodles.
Forget about the obvious attraction of 90-degree weather. I want to return to the Coachella Valley for a crack at the kitchen’s magnificent, ginger-scented whole red snapper. The dish arrived at the table to my left, just as we were paying our bill, and with that single peek I made a mental note: Order this when we come back next year.