Ever look at some artfully plated dish of gorgeous ingredients and declare it “too pretty to eat” ... before promptly digging in? That’s exactly the reaction the culinary masterminds behind that edible art desired. And while chefs use plenty of tricks and techniques to make a meal visually appealing, few are as surefire as vivacious color.
From striking sauces to dazzling desserts, some of the Coachella Valley’s most magnificent meals use a spectrum of shades that make them even more memorable. We’ve selected the area’s most vibrant dishes and talked to the chefs behind them to find out how they use hues to create haute cuisine.
4 Saints, Palm Springs
When Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs sous chef Cirilo Rodriguez decided he wanted to create a unique omelette infused with Latin flavors for the rooftop restaurant’s brunch service, he knew he wanted it to highlight a bold, blue corn tortilla. “The blue has earthier tones than white or the yellow. The white tastes more like the actual corn itself and the yellow is sweeter, but blue has a good earthy, minerally taste to it that adapts very well to the egg,” says Rodriguez of the tortillas that he sources from an East L.A. tortilleria called Diana’s, where his family bought the tortillas he grew up eating as a kid.
To craft the dish, he flash fries the tortilla to make it pliable then lines it with Oaxaca cheese before nestling the omelette of roasted poblano, pico de gallo, and the same, semi-hard cheese into the shell.
Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs sous chef Cirilo Rodriguez.
“You get that Taco Bell Double Decker-style Crunch Wrap around the omelette,” he says with a laugh. “I always loved crunchy tacos as a kid and I have an infatuation with eggs, too, so I was like, ‘I want to make a crunchy taco omelette.’ That’s how it evolved.”
The finished product is a multi-color plate layered with yellow eggs, the blue tortilla, green avocado, and a few blistered red cherry tomatoes for good measure. “I was always taught that people eat with their eyes, so you have to make it aesthetically beautiful so people are intrigued,” the chef says. “But then they’re delighted once it tastes amazing.”
Hokkaido Scallops in Cucumber-Yuzu Juice
Sandfish Sushi and Whiskey, Palm Springs
These sought-after scallops sourced from Japan’s northernmost main island of the same name are silky and sweet, so while chef-owner Engin Onural wanted to display them against a bright and beautiful background, he also didn’t want to overpower their delicate flavor. The solution? A mild English cucumber. Onural juices the entire cuke (deep green skin and all), adds a touch of citrusy yuzu juice and passes it through a sieve. The outcome is a translucent, smooth sauce. “If something is on the white spectrum, like a scallop, I want to use a contrasting color. And green, to me, is such an appealing color and the eye wants an appealing color,” he says. “I like to play with colors and make them more transparent and softer, because I want the fish to be seen.”
Onural, who opened his Uptown Design District sushi restaurant-cum-whiskey bar in early 2018, also utilizes the purple leaves from micro beets along with micro cilantro to give the dish the subtle essence of beets and herbs while adding an extra pop of color.
“I like to play with colors because I want the fish to be seen.”
But one of its most interesting components may be one you can barely see: salt that Onural harvested himself on the Norwegian island of Aukra during a summer trip to Scandinavia. It’s been blended with organic seaweed he picked up an hour north of the salt farm. “The batch is actually the one I brought back myself,” he adds. “It’s a big thing in my little world.”
“People come and ask for it because it’s been posted [on Instagram] so much.”
Panko-Crusted Chicken-Stuffed Rice Ball with Coconut Yellow Curry
Rooster & The Pig, Palm Springs
While the sunny yellow sauce may steal the show, Tai Spendley (pictured above), chef and owner of this sleek Vietnamese-American eatery, actually developed the dish around something else: a childhood memory. “Growing up, the way my mom made rice was in a pot and the outside part of the rice would get kind of burnt a little crispy, and as kids we used to love eating that part,” he recounts. “I wanted to create something a little like that.” And, thus, his deep-fried rice ball, coated with panko breadcrumbs and stuffed with chicken, was born.
That standout color comes from fresh turmeric (“It will stain your hands,” Spendley warns) that he blends with cumin, coriander, ginger, and black pepper in a food processor to concoct a paste before adding coconut milk to end up with a thicker-than-average curry, helping to ensure the ball keeps its springy shape while surrounded by the sauce. It’s then topped with a bit of red bell pepper, basil, and microgreens for contrast. The dish has, not surprisingly, become one of the restaurant’s most oft-Instagrammed items. While Spendley changes the menu frequently, the fan favorite isn’t going anywhere for now. “People come and ask for it,” he says, “since it’s been posted so much.”
Charred Black Pepper Beef Carpaccio
Counter Reformation, Palm Springs
For the best beef carpaccio, you need a little fat, says Herve Glin, executive chef for the Parker Palm Springs, where this sexy wine-and-small-bites bar is located. He sources USDA Prime New York beef for the dish, explaining that the quality and the marbling of the loin cut is perfect for the carpaccio. Glin and crew let it dry age for an extra week in house. “As you leave it to age, it gives you that deep burgundy color and it takes on more flavor,” he says, adding that he then rubs the outside with smoked salt and toasted black pepper before giving the meat a quick sear and slicing it paper thin to reveal the bright red, raw inside and slightly charred edges.
The plate is finished with a flavor-backed truffle chimichurri along with chives and micro wasabi, which he insists is more than a pretty sidekick. “The green is not just for color but for flavor, too,” notes Glin. “You want to try to have your garnish be a part of the dish ... another element, a complement to the dish.”
“As you leave [the loin cut] to age, it gives you that deep burgundy color and it takes on more flavor.”
The Pumpkin Spice
T&T Innovation Kitchen, Palm Desert
This multi-dimensional dessert — that’s capped off some of the intimate restaurant’s ever-changing tasting menus — is so complex that Dominique Valenzuela, the pastry chef at JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, sketched out an actual blueprint before tackling it. While the entire dish is pretty dynamic, the most eye-catching element might be the disc of pumpkin-spiced cheesecake, colored with a puree of fresh Baby Pam pumpkins and taken from a recipe Valenzuela learned in culinary school in Upstate New York, where he would sell the creamy cakes at a local cafe. “The colorscape really plays off of the plate,” according to Valenzuela. “I really wanted the pumpkin color to be prominent, but I also wanted it to have the feel of a pumpkin patch — a little organic in its feel with the candied pepitas, nasturtium leaves, and the fresh florals,” he says of the speculoos cookie-crusted cake.
“I wanted it to have the feel of a pumpkin patch.”
The dish is rounded out with a bevy of other components that tie the inventive sweet treat together, including micro sponge cake, cremé Chantilly, mandolin-sliced candied kumquats, and a brown butter ice cream. Since the menu changes weekly, Valenzuela works with executive chef Peter Smith to make sure his sweet endings balance out the meal’s savory courses. “We get to come up with some fun dishes playing off one another.