The Penney features an attractive seating area in Rancho Mirage.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY DESERT ISLAND COUNTRY CLUB

I have passed through the security gate at Desert Island Country Club many times over the past 20 years but never noticed the clubhouse immediately off to the right of the community’s entrance — until my fellow art lover friend Deborah Page invited me to dine there last Wednesday with the club’s new owner, Miguel Nelson.

“You have to meet Miguel,” she insisted. “He has a new vision for this place, and he loves art like us.”

Desert Island opened in 1971, after Thunderbird Country Club member L.L. “Red” Oakes drilled a well that created the oasis, located at the corner of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope drives in Rancho Mirage. Desmond Muirhead, one of golf’s best-known architects, designed the championship course and populated the 160-acre property with hundreds of palm trees.

desertislandcountryclubdining

Roasted Heirloom Carrots includes California stone fruit, orange yogurt, freeze-dried mandarin, persian mint, and parsley.

Nelson, a Tucson, Arizona native who lives in Santa Monica and owns private event spaces in L.A. with his wife, Sherry Walsh, bought Desert Island last December and has since opened it to the public.

Last month, he revealed the club’s new dining concept, The Penney, named for the late desert landscape painter and one-time Desert Island resident Frederick Doyle Penney.

One of his still-life paintings of potted black-eyed Susans welcomes guests to the restaurant. This is where Page and I met Nelson for dinner. He was waiting for us at the far corner table, outside on the terrace, under misters, enjoying the view of the lake and mountains. A lightly amplified soundtrack added a hip texture to the space.

After a round of cocktails, which emerged from the swanky sunken bar, we indulged in a meal prepared by chef Jon Butler, who previously worked at Mr. Lyons Steakhouse in Palm Springs and several fine restaurants in Europe and Los Angeles.

desertislandcountryclubcalifornia

Desert Island opened in 1971.

We started with a quartet of appetizers — oysters and Peruvian scallops, shrimp aguachile, roasted heirloom carrots (topped with freeze-dried mandarin oranges), and a wild mushroom tart. It was amazing we could still stomach our entrées: lamb paccheri, hanger steak, and a pork rack. But we did — and we even split the dessert: coconut panna cotta with brooks cherries, pink pineapple, freeze-dried honey, and basil. (We were a day early for the next week’s menu, which also featured roasted summer squash, grilled Spanish octopus, and Murray River cod.)

desertislandcountryclubparlor

The Parlor has its own bar and cocktail menus.

During dinner, Nelson explained that he bought the club to diversify his portfolio of properties so his company, Marvimon, could better ride out economic swings, such as the one created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Then he saw the potential to position Desert Island as a destination for locals and visitors.

After dinner, he toured us through the rest of the remodeled clubhouse, which includes a ballroom and The Parlor, an intimate piano lounge with a cocktail bar, restored 1967 Brunswick billiards table, and original paintings of desert islands by Nelson.

While he’s using the offseason to finish the clubhouse and develop programming, The Penney is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday all summer long. View the menu and reserve a table at di71.com.