With a 365-day growing season and a fleet of young chefs shopping from the local larder, the restaurant scene in the desert is heating up.
My first visit to Palm Springs was on a family trip at age 18. Like most of my childhood memories, this one included food: a sweet, thick milkshake made with local dates purchased at a roadside stand. While the shake left an indelible impression, for the most part the restaurant scene in Palm Springs consisted of chewable foods served by long-in-the-tooth waiters to even-longer-in-the-tooth customers. Fast-forward a couple of decades and I’m back there again, only this time the food landscape is infinitely more interesting. Yes, you can still get a date shake (as my young daughters will tell you), but from plein-air burger bars to golf course dining, Palm Springs is putting the farm back in farm-to-table, all with delicious results.
Moments before touching down in Palm Springs, you can see farmers’ fields below forming a giant living quilt. But as you walk through the arrivals in the Donald Wexler–designed airport, the tented open-air courtyard lets you know that you have arrived in the desert. Within a 45-minute drive there are several microclimates, from the desert floor to higher elevation areas. “From Palm Springs [134 metres] to Hemit [762 metres], you have a big difference in elevation,” says Michael Beckman, chef at Workshop Kitchen and Bar. “That means a close supply of year-round produce.”
As a newbie vacation homeowner in Palm Springs, and as a chef myself, I’m more than happy to test that thesis. I herewith present my favourite foodie haunts.
California farmers’ markets were some of the first in the western parts of North America, and the Palm Springs version is a vibrant and eclectic mix of Mexican, Latin, French, and North American flavours. The Certified Farmers’ Market, which is open from October to June, is held Saturday mornings in the parking lot beside the Camelot Theatres, a beautiful art-house movie theatre. In the winter, look for pomegranates and persimmons from Ha’s Apple Farm and organic dates from Bautista Dates (I like to stuff them with fromage frais or burrata, wrap them in prosciutto, and skewer them on the grill). Other year-round favourites are L’Artisan Valley Baking, where the lineup starts early for pain au chocolat. The pistachios at Santa Barbara Pistachio are a must for plane snacks, or you can cool off at the organic popsicle stand, where blood orange, watermelon, chai-coconut, and chili-lime varieties are made from fresh squeezed juice. Be sure to look for sprouted greens, Ruby Red grapefruits, Meyer lemons (grown on the local “cocktail trees”), tomatillos, and local organic eggs. Many of the vendors have the Square attachment for their iPhones to accept credit cards. Tech-savvy farmers? That’s California for you.
Within a 45-minute drive there are several microclimates, from the desert floor to higher elevation areas.
As the queue at Cheeky’s starts right at opening, first go for a sunrise hike up the 10-mile Tramway Road; that will bring you to 8 a.m. with an appetite, and ready to secure a spot on the patio. The tabletops are concrete and the food is even more solid. Fresh California ingredients blend seamlessly with Mexican flavours—think chilies, tomatillo sauce, and organic eggs. Start with the bacon flight, and from there you can pretty much close your eyes and point. The menu changes weekly to accommodate local product, but several dishes (including the bacon flight) are constants, lest the locals revolt. A recent visit had us digging into an heirloom-tomato sandwich with Nodine’s bacon, arugula, and fried organic eggs (hence the hike.) The young couple who own the restaurant have expanded their culinary compound to include a boutique hotel and open-air bar next door and, just recently, a restaurant across the street called Jiao, which offers diverse Asian fare with a street-food twist. All are worth a visit, but Cheeky’s is the best way to start your day in the desert.
Chef Warren Cordoba grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Costa Rican coffee country. He’s a regular at the farmers’ market, whose products constitute a good part of his menus at Citron at the Viceroy Hotel. On a recent trip to the market, chef Cordoba was making his rounds shoring up fresh chilies, squash blossoms, and more by the pallet load for the following week’s deliveries. Back at the restaurant, the ceviche with Hass avocado, Arbequina olives, and extra virgin olive oil is clean and refreshing, as is the quinoa salad with feta, grapefruit, mint, and lemon. But don’t get us wrong: we’ve also enjoyed a perfect steak frites here. Pull up a seat poolside and take in the Kelly Wearstler–designed digs and manicured grounds with mature cypress, grapefruit, and palm trees. A glass of the Whispering Angel rosé is all you need to complete the perfect picture.
The Workshop Kitchen and Bar is a toothsome new space that was once an old movie theatre; the interior catches your attention, but the food steals the show. Chef Beckman makes excellent use of product direct from several local farmers and employs low-tech (wood-burning pizza oven or grill) and high-tech (sous-vide station) cooking methods to make them shine. Part of the menu lists the local ingredients that are in their prime that season to help guide diners with their decisions. I can help too: start with an order of the octopus carpaccio and the crispy goat cheese and then move to vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts or cauliflower brie gratin roasted to crisp and smoky perfection over the fire.
When asked about his favourite local product du jour, chef Beckman gives props to Wong Farms and their Keitt mangoes. With a thin skin and sweet flesh, these beauties ripen on the trees near the Salton Sea. They cannot be shipped but must be enjoyed quickly and in a short geographical radius, making them the ideal 100-mile food. For his stellar crispy local goat’s cheese dish—which is accompanied with braised lentils, golden beets, and scallions—chef Beckman sources cheese from Drake Family Farms (also at the farmers’ market). To top it all off, add a duck egg from GoneStraw Farms, an option available to complement any dish on Beckman’s menu. Forget parsley; that’s my idea of a garnish.