Omakase Series at Shorebird Palm Desert Thrills Taste Buds

The new coastal concept restaurant on El Paseo recently launched a sushi-forward omakase dinner series. Here’s what to expect if you make a reservation.

May 28, 2024
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MOLLY KIMBERLING

Shigoku oysters dressed with Japanese uni and tobiko. Spanish bluefin carpaccio, center cut from an 800-pound fish. Red snapper flown in from Japan this morning, meticulously sliced and topped with a pinch of salty roasted shishito.

If these dishes sound like the opus of a Michelin-trained culinarian and a master sushi chef, that’s because they are. You might picture such showmanship unfolding in Brooklyn or Paris or San Francisco’s Marina District. But this artfully orchestrated omakase night is happening right here in Palm Desert.

In the quiet upper-level dining room at Shorebird, a coastal concept restaurant from WildThyme Restaurant Group, chefs Bert Bonnarens and Huy Dang command an open kitchen, preparing an off-menu 15-course tasting experience for diners in the know. They prep, plate, and present each creation to guests with the help of WildThyme director of culinary development Jay Bogsinske and Shorebird staff.

The bilevel eatery opened in February at the corner of El Paseo and Highway 74 after an extensive renovation of a former St. John boutique. It is one of six globally inspired concepts from WildThyme that include the Japanese-centric Kai in Pacific City (where chef Dang helms the sushi bar) and modern Mexican favorite Molé Comida, also located on El Paseo and walking distance from Shorebird.

Chef preparing oysters

Chef Huy Dang prepares the first course: Shigoku oysters topped with Japanese uni and fly fish roe.

This is the first in a monthly series of omakase dinners. The next one takes place June 12. Seating is limited, and reservations are strongly recommended.

True to the omakase tradition, dating back to 17th-century Japan, the meal features several small plates, and the menu will never repeat.

Bonnarens and Dang develop their imaginative courses separately, using only the highest quality seasonal ingredients. Then, they work together to determine service order, building from the lightest bite to the heaviest and concluding with something sweet.

As the sun slowly dips behind Mount San Jacinto, setting the room aglow, wide-eyed patrons rave over their favorite bites. Spot prawn tartare garnished with pickled cucumber, gin tonic gazpacho, and cucumber blossom. Brown butter–poached Petrale sole with coconut hollandaise and a strawberry ceviche sauce poured tableside. Wagyu strip loin with thin shavings of summer truffle and seared foie gras.

Omakase means “I’ll leave it up to you” in Japanese, and with Bonnarens and Dang at the helm, Shorebird diners are in highly capable hands.

Here, Bonnarens discusses what it takes to put on Shorebird’s omakase series and why he loves orchestrating memorable culinary experiences.

Caviar and truffles? Your first menu started this series off with a bang!

We didn’t spare on it, that’s for sure. We’re always going to base [the menu] around really high-quality products, and it will always be around 10 to 15 courses. We will also try to use seasonal products, so [the menu] is going to change every time. We might have a small repetition in the dishes, but it’s not going to be the same menu twice.

How do you develop the menu?

Well, I sit down and drink a lot of coffee, and then I just think about what we’ve got in hand and what would go with it. To get one dish to the final stage, I think I rewrite it at least three to four times because I’ll add something and then the first ingredient doesn’t make sense anymore.

[Working with Huy], we make sure we don’t use the same products, and then we make our own dishes and see where they go together. So, flavor-wise, we see which one should go first, which ones follow. And we of course we go from light to more intense. But the bringing up of the ideas is kind of separate.

Do you taste as you go?

We try to do that, but I have a database [of ingredients and flavors] in my head already. I started working in Michelin-star restaurants at 18.

Tell us more about that experience.

I worked at a three-star restaurant and a two. The most recent was two, where I also held the highest position. That was with Sidney Schutte in the restaurant Spectrum in Amsterdam. He’s my most recent [mentor]. I also worked for him in Mexico in Cabo. And from Cabo, I went to the United States.

Chef Bert Bonnarens says he felt proudest of his Hokkaido scallop course, served with Kaluga caviar, black sesame hot espuma, pomme soufflé, and yuzu-koshu beurre blanc.

Spot prawn tartare served with pickled cucumber, gin tonic gazpacho, and cucumber blossom, plus a wafer imprinted with herbs.

Samurai-inspired napkin folds.

How similar are the omakase offerings to the standard menu at Shorebird?

It’s very different, but I think it’s a very good combination of everything we do in this company. We have the coastal influences at Shorebird, we have influences [that chef Huy brings] from Kai. It’s a really good representation of what our chefs at WildThyme can do if we get carte blanche. I think that’s the best way to explain it. It’s not tied to a specific branch. We do it at Shorebird because it’s the best location for it, but I think it’s a real show of what our executive chefs here at WildThyme can do.

What is your overall vision for the meal?

The real force behind what we do is to surprise guests.

Some of our cooks downstairs were asking, “Why do you reduce everything so much? Isn’t this a little bit too salty? Isn’t this a little bit too strong?” We only get three to four bites on a dish, so you want those flavors to hit you in those three bites, and then it’s done.

It’s 10 to 15 dishes, but they’re small portions. We try to do those intense flavors, and here and there, we try to mix in a little surprise — like the coconut hollandaise with the strawberries. If you hear it, it doesn’t make the most sense, but once you see it in front of you and you try it, it does.

Why are you passionate about food?

I always wanted to be chef. Since I was really young, I was cooking at home with my mom and then, later on, alone. Then I decided to go to culinary school. For me, it’s seeing people enjoy it. It makes me really proud when I see people try something and they’re like, “This is really, really, really good.” I want people to [create a] memory.

Spanish bluefin otoro with Japanese uni and gold leaf.

Japanese Thai red snapper nigiri with roasted shishito.

Bonnarens pours the strawberry ceviche sauce over brown butter–poached Petrale sole.

Standing, left to right: Chefs Huy, Bonnarens, and Bogsinske discuss the evening’s menu with guests.

Wagyu strip loin with summer truffle shavings, crispy Japanese sweet potato, black garlic jus de veau, shiitake duxelles, and pan-seared foie gras.

The final course: white chocolate panna cotta with rosemary crumble, Coachella Valley date ice cream from local brand Perfect Pint, and grated tonka bean.