Of the 72 restaurants listed 20 years ago in Palm Springs Life, only a fraction remain open under their original names: Le Vallauris, Ristorante Mama Gina, Las Casuelas — The Original, Melvyn’s at the Ingleside Inn, and Riccio’s. Gone with the wind are Perrina’s Restaurant, Dar Mahgreb, Dominick’s, and Paul D’Amico’s Steak House. Fortunately, adventurous restaurateurs continue to fill the voids. Moving into old digs is a dazzling array of restaurants designed to satisfy the simplest or most sophisticated taste buds. Cooking styles among new restaurants range from California fresh and organic to regional dishes representing Vietnamese-French and Indian cuisine. Chef Mario Marfia, formerly executive chef at Ristorante Ago in West Hollywood, prepares treasured family recipes at his intimate, 14-table Trattoria Tiramisu in Palm Desert. Bringing the intense flavors of Sicily to his specialties such as calamari alla piastra (grilled squid with red onions and arugula) and tagliolini con zucchini (house-made pasta with zucchini and tender shrimps) has attracted loyal diners in record time. Considering the restaurant’s name, you would expect Italian restaurants’ most popular dessert would shine here. And it does: The light-as-a-feather tiramisu should be savored as one would a fine wine.
Brace yourself for Latin American specialties from Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, and Cuba, tempered with fresh fruit-blended drinks at Tierra Mia Restaurant, also in Palm Desert. Not listed on the menu, these refreshing drinks are available on request. What is on the menu are entrées such as chicken with lime and honey, served with lime slices and rice, and tomato rellenos (oven-baked tomatoes generously stuffed with shredded beef, rice, and onion, embellished with bread crumbles and melted cheese). The only thing distracting you might be the twin flat-screen televisions broadcasting soccer games in English and Spanish.
• The simple hamburger and French fries have evolved into something more gourmet under the guidance of Executive Chef Jim Shiebler at Purple Palm Restaurant & Bar at Colony Palms Hotel in Palm Springs. The Purple Palm Burger features grilled Bermuda onions, portobello mushrooms, and fontina/roasted garlic/ chipotle spread, accompanied by pesto shoestring potatoes. Other dishes include a mélange of baby lettuces combined with Maui onions and shaved baby vegetables, securely wrapped in a strip of cucumber. The Maine lobster and sweet-corn bisque duo combines lobster knuckles with toasted pistachios and fava beans and a vanilla bean lobster jus with tarragon-Armagnac mousseline. Carrying the exotic theme into the décor, deep purple images of palm trees cover the walls.
Getting back to basics is Charlie’s California Fresh, a hidden gem tucked away in a light industrial neighborhood in Palm Desert. This is a breakfast and lunch place, closing at 2 p.m. Breakfast attracts a loyal following. For those who want to get the day off to a good start, the griddle turns out thick-sliced cinnamon bread dipped in egg-white batter and coated with shaved coconut. Lunch crowds pack Charlie’s for healthy choices, such as a serious albacore tuna salad sandwich with words we want to hear: “fat-free mayo” and “nine-grain bread.” Chef Brendan Clancy offsets classic caloric favorites with balsamic vinegar, cilantro, and brown rice, while managing to keep the flavors fresh and zingy. Building contractors gather in a private dining room around a stunning granite table to converse. There’s also comfortable seating in the main dining room near a showcase displaying desserts such as house-made bread pudding.
• Donetella and Eddy Roman from Verona, Italy, have brought the intense flavors of their home to the desert at Ristorante Donetella in Rancho Mirage. The menu lists 35 pasta choices. Napoletani seems one of the simplest, with fresh tomatoes, basil, and olive oil prepared to al dente perfection. More intense pastas include linguine allo scoglio (a mélange of clams, mussels, prawns, and calamari with cherry tomatoes in a mild red sauce) and bucatini matriciana (pancetta, onions, and garlic in a light red sauce). On the cusp of one of the most exquisite of Asian cuisines, French-Vietnamese Bamboo Cove in Palm Desert brings the exotic flavors of the region to our doorstep. You can feel secure with shrimp or crab egg rolls, but venturing into the world of Imperial Hue pork in a banana leaf or spicy ginger and lemongrass clay pot chicken will bring you closer to the heart of Vietnamese cuisine. You might want to sample the menu first by trying lunch, offering eight “Power” choices, from traditional egg roll, pho beef, and tropical fruit ice cream to vermicelli lemongrass beef. The signature dessert, Asian pear brûlée, makes a sweet ending to the odyssey.
From beginning to end, Cork Tree in Palm Desert offers a stellar experience for wine aficionados and those who gravitate toward esoteric entrées such as duck leg confit with spinach, frisée, candied walnuts, and a dressing of Fuji apple, raspberry, and sherry. Executive Chef Herve Glin was influenced by the legendary cooking of his native Brittany, France, and shares his enthusiasm in many ways — from wine-themed dinners to cooking classes. A good way to introduce yourself to the Cork Tree is to try the bar menu, offered daily from 4 p.m., with sophisticated samplings such as a marinated salmon tower or crab and rock shrimp cakes or the popular appetizer sampler with five selections. Wine is poured generously at 7 1/2 ounces per glass. The chef ’s table is ideal for small parties, as is the wine table with a brassrod “toasting bar” for clinking glasses.
At Cava, on the pool level at Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa in Indian Wells, tables are smartly set with midcentury-influenced glasses spotted with orange. And if you want to sip on the most generous lemonade in the desert, this is the place to order a tall, chilled glass with something off the charts such as mozzarella bocconcini, an oversized salad with basil balsamic seasoned with Hawaiian volcanic red salt. Executive Chef Greg Picard has a way with flavors gleaned from time spent in New Orleans. Cava offers the ultimate early-bird special with a $14.95 dinner that includes soup and salad bar, entrée (such as grilled ono with lemonshrimp butter), beverage, and dessert.
The new kid on the restaurant block serving comfort food is Paseo Palms Bar and Grill on El Paseo in Palm Desert. Sandwiches range from hot ham and cheese to classic meatloaf. Executive Chef Eldon Pico has big ideas at small prices during happy hour, with $5 bar items that range from salt and pepper calamari and the Paseo Burger.
• Naughty noshes are a mouthful, such as giant onion rings with blue cheese and buttermilk dressing. Seven salads include roasted chicken salad dressed with aged balsamic. High Tea is a Saturday ritual with assorted delights from Pastry Swan Bakery, fresh fruit, finger sandwiches, and the mainstay of traditional tea, scones accompanied by clotted cream, and jams. Heading the dessert menu is a $12 banana split; who could ask for more?
Reminiscent of restaurants found around Chesapeake Bay, Crab Pot Restaurant & Bar in La Quinta serves generous portions of king crab, salmon, Pacific mussels, shrimp, and other permutations of seafood in a large silver bowl. Forget fine china. Servers place white butcher paper and mallets on tables when guests order the seafest for two or more. For the knife, fork, and spoon crowd, there are grilled salmon and halibut. Cioppino lovers will find a heady blend of clams, mussels, Dungeness crab, and seasonal fish in a red sauce filling hollowed sourdough bread.
An intimate but exotic dining destination, India Oven in Cathedral City features tandoori-style cooking, which blends flavors in a hot clay pot. Specialties such as murgh makhani (tandoori chicken cooked in butter with tomato gravy) and vegetable korma (mixed vegetables and nuts in curry sauce) bring you as close to India’s Pubjab region as possible without leaving the desert. Chicken is marinated in homemade yogurt, accentuated with mild spices and then baked. The Kaushai family that owns the restaurant shares its recipes for 15 tandoori breads, a traditional Indian-style whole wheat bread filled with delights ranging from sesame seeds to sweet cherry-flavored nuts. Bali wines are poured to complement this spicy cuisine. Sample it all during lunch when specials ($5.95) are served between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Desert restaurants are delving into global kitchen culture with passion and panache. There’s no reason to stay home when such marvelous menus await.
WHERE TO EAT
1) BAMBOO COVE
72286 Highway 111, Palm Desert, (760) 776-7999
Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa, 44400 Indian Wells Lane, Indian Wells, (760) 773-4444
3) CHARLIE’S CALIFORNIA FRESH
75130 St. Charles Place, Palm Desert, (760) 341-2990
4) CORK TREE
74950 Country Club Drive, Palm Desert, (760) 779-0123
5) CRAB POT RESTAURANT & BAR
78121 Avenida La Fonda, La Quinta, (760) 564-7333
6) INDIA OVEN
35875 Date Palm Drive, Cathedral City, (760) 770-3918
7) PASEO PALMS BAR AND GRILL
73040 El Paseo, Palm Desert, (760) 837-3800
8) PURPLE PALM RESTAURANT & BAR
Colony Palms Hotel, 572 N. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, (760) 969-1800
9) RISTORANTE DONETELLA
71511 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, (760) 773-6434
10) TIERRA MIA RESTAURANT
42305 Washington Street, Palm Desert, (760) 772-3992
11) TRATTORIA TIRAMISU
72655 Highway 111, Palm Desert, (760) 773-9100