If you’d love to sample all of the fantastic restaurants around the culinary mecca of Palm Springs, but you don’t want to go bust, save your appetite for Palm Springs Restaurant Week. During this 10-day showcase of local epicurean talent held each year in early June, more than 100 participating Coachella Valley restaurants offer an exciting array of three-course menus at an affordable fixed-priced of $24 or $36.
A foodie friend and I recently visited Palm Springs for a whirlwind weekend of casual and fine dining, and we devised this short hit list of restaurants for fellow gallivanting gourmets, with something for every taste, from traditional to adventurous.
First, some advice for out-of-towners partaking in Restaurant Week: give yourself extra time to find the restaurants. The street numbers defy GPS navigation, and the restaurants span across the valley. Locals will assume you are familiar with landmarks, such as when everyone I asked for directions told me Acqua Pazza was at the River. After circling for 20 minutes I realized the River is a shopping mall.
Desert Dining Oasis
Once my dining companion and I found Acqua Pazza (71-800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage) and got over the frustration of getting lost, we enjoyed the setting of the restaurant where we sat outside under bright lime-colored umbrellas beside a made-made aqua-tinted pond and water fountain. Though surely this area is a hotbed of activity at night, during the heat of the day we were one of the few who braved the sun to go out for lunch, and the River mall was nearly deserted.
Overall Acqua Pazzo is a good, standard bistro with good quality food and a variety of menu offerings. The Restaurant Week menu featured typical bistro items like Caesar salad, minestrone soup, sautéed sword fish steak, chicken piccata and filet mignon. I ordered the Caesar, sword fish and crème brulee. My dining mate had the Salad Acqua Pazza mixed greens with orange vinaigrette, 8-ounce filet and flourless triple chocolate cake, the latter of which he exclaimed was to die-for. Each course, I suffered a bad case of “yours is better,” though all of my choices were also good. The ambience was the best part of Acqua Pazzo, and I imagined in the evening how the location would be even more exciting and lively.
Cool Comfort Food
Norma’s (4200 East Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs) calls itself a diner, leading me to expect I would be chowing on flap-jacks in a silver Airstream, but this trendy eatery, hidden away at Le Parker Meridien Palm Springs, surprised me with its hip and happening atmosphere and inventive menu. Since we came at lunch time, and the $24 Restaurant Week menu featured dinner entrees, we ordered from the standard lunch menu; but looking at the “Norma’s at Night” contemporary comfort food items, such as food like Matzo Balls Chicken Pho and Penne Pasta, I was already eager to come back after the sun went down.
To start off, our sever brought out a shot of the smoothie of the day, a tangy mango, papaya and passion fruit blend that got my palate in the mood for more. As an insatiable sweet tooth, I was thrilled with the all-day breakfast offerings including house favorite, a fruit-filled, fruit-covered waffle with a crackly brulee top called “Was-Za?” For chocoholics, there was the beyond-indulgent Chocolate Decadence French Toast – layered and saturated-with-chocolate pound cake covered in strawberries, pistachios and Valhrona chocolate sauce.
While the breakfast-slash-dessert items were my favorite, not everything on the menu had the potential to induce a sugar coma. Along with several versions of eggs benedict and other comfort food, there was the popular Charlie’s Chopped Cobb Salad, a light and refreshing fresh Ahi tuna salad with wasabi chive dressing, from the “Rabbit Food” portion of the menu; and the Spicy Shrimp Quesadilla with mango salsa, which ranked high as a satisfying spin on a traditional dish. And if you are feeling excessively indulgent, you can always order the Zillion Dollar Lobster Frittata with 10 ounces of Sevruga caviar, for a mere $1,000.
Old School Italian
Arrive early at LeDonne Cucina Italiano (72624 El Paseo, Palm Desert), because the place fills up after 6 pm, mostly with regulars who have been going there for years, and years. The clientele skews toward 55 and up, which made me and my fellow 40-ish dining companion feel like we were at the kids table. This is definitely a local hangout, tucked away in a strip mall, where folks know the owner and servers by name, and generous portions of good Italian food is served with a smile and strains of Sinatra.
Voted the Best Italian Restaurant by Desert Sun for five years running, LeDonne offers a variety of risottos, spaghettis and many veal and seafood dishes among other Italian favorites. I ordered from the $24 Restaurant Week menu, starting out with a zesty salsicce arrabiata, a grilled Italian sausage sautéed in spicy arrabiata sauce, which was outstanding. I followed with the chicken champagne, a chicken breast sautéed in a lemon Champagne sauce, which was also satisfying, and I ended with a refreshing raspberry sorbetto. My companion ordered from the regular menu, including a large bowl of steamed mussels, and because he didn’t find good old spaghetti and meatballs on the menu, he settled on spaghetti Porcini, a dish of Italian Porcini mushrooms sauteed in a red wine sauce. Though we were trying to save our appetites for an early dinner, his entrees were so delicious he could not bear to leave any on his plate.
Eat and Be Scene
All of the restaurants I visited during Restaurant Week had something to recommend them, but my very favorite was Matchbox Vintage Pizza Bistro (155 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs). Adding to my overall wonderful experience was scoring a primo private balcony table overlooking Palm Canyon Drive for the best people-watching vantage in town, but it was the food, plus the professional and excellent service and the exciting vibe that won me over. As my dining buddy put it, it’s a “great date restaurant.”
Matchbox’s $24 Restaurant Week menu featured the same inventiveness as the standard menu, but nothing about their fare was standard. Even a no-frills dish like mac ‘n cheese got a makeover, becoming “adult” macaroni & cheese,” with grilled shrimp & Andouille sausage, sharp white cheddar & smoked gouda. And while I’ve been to many California pizzerias with creative combos, Matchbox’s steak & gorgonzola pizza — baked in an authentic masonry wood-fire oven and topped with parmesan & garlic béchamel and finished with arugula, red onion, garlic chip and pear tomato salad — boasted the most perfectly crisp smoky crust and the freshest and most complimentary mixture of garnishes of any pizza I have ever had.
As a connoisseur of bread pudding, I thought nothing could beat my fave from Royal Café in New Orleans, but Matchbox’s chocolate chip bread pudding, adorned with caramelized rum bananas, takes the cake. Absolutely scrumptious.
Since we were at Matchbox it only made sense to check out The Falls, the elegant fine dining restaurant next door owned by the same partners as Matchbox. Items from The Falls’ $36 Restaurant Week menu shared the innovative preparations and exquisite presentations of its neighbor Matchbox but offered a few more variations on creative combinations, such as proscuitoo wrapped shrimp, pan seared in olive oil and stuffed with sage, served over angel Hair pasta with a wild mushroom marsala sauce, and a roasted Berkshire pork chop seasoned with Hoisin Barbeque and served with ginger carrot smash. Dessert at The Falls also went over the top with incredible amalgamations like the house made Banana cream pie brulee.
The Place is the Thing
If it were not situated in the Hyatt Grand Champion resort, Lantana California Grill (44-600 Indian Wells Lane, Indian Wells) would have topped my list of restaurants to visit for Restaurant Week for its outstanding, elegantly prepared food and five-star service. If you are a guest at the hotel, I would definitely recommend it, but otherwise, the drive from Palm Springs proper and big corporate conference hotel ambience are not a draw. Not that the resort is not luxurious and beautiful in its own modern stone fortress kind of way, but the restaurant mood and décor reminded me of an upscale cafeteria, albeit with an expansive patio and gorgeous mountain views.
The $36 Restaurant Week menu featured a number of enticing and original California cuisine offerings, such as the a watermelon salad with arugula, feta, picked red onion and balsamic vinaigrette or the tomato caprese crostini appetizer of grilled ciabatta, grape tomatoes, balsamic glaze, fresh burrata, micro basil and arbenquena. For entrees, the hibiscus glazed salmon with chipolte polenta cake and pineapple cucumber salad was a perfect light summer delight; and the “carne asada” of seared prime rib cap steak with Spanish tomato risotto, black bean hummus and fresh avocado added a sophisticated flair to a traditional Mexican barbeque dish.
The inventiveness of the menu extended into the desserts. As a born and bred Southerner, I was particularly fond of the “American pie,” which was actually a sweet potato apple pie with Virginia peanut butter custard accompanied with a Medjool date puree. It was just sweet enough to call it a dessert, though it could have been a satisfying side dish for a sweet tooth like myself. Also delicious was the butterscotch crème brulee with housemade caramel popcorn, which again showcased the chef’s ability to make something traditional into something exquisite. The food was indeed superb, and if only Lantana were in a more charming, intimate setting, my dining experience would have been absolutely superlative.
A Fine Pairing
The 3rd Corner Wine & Bistro (73101 Highway 111, Palm Desert) is a wine lovers dream come true with a wine shop within the restaurant featuring more than 800 bottles to choose from — to take to your table or take home with you. Their well-trained staff can help you select a vintage to pair with your meal, offering something for every taste, from an assortment of fine wines and collectibles from all around the world as well as a large selection of affordable wines at retail prices.
For Restaurant Week, the bistro offered special $5-per-glass pricing of two premium wines, one red one white, to accompany their $24 three-course menu, which included their signature flatbread appetizers and sophisticated turns on contemporary California cuisine such as grilled salmon with grapefruit burred bland smashed potatoes and spinach and a popular duck confit with white bean cassoulet and whole grain mustard.
I opted to order from the regular lunch menu so that I could sample the renowned 3rd Corner hamburger with bacon, arugula, tomato, aged cheddar, carmelized onion and preserved lemon aioli with rosemary seasoned 3rd Corner fries. Because the chef grinds his own chuck in house, along with trimmings from prime rib, the burgers are thick and juicy with flavor, producing an entirely satisfying, tasty and sumptuous burger. I also ordered the flatbread pizza appetizer, topped with heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil and roasted garlic, which exploded with the flavor and aroma of the fresh ingredients on a crust that was deliciously baked to crispy perfection.
Adding to the appeal of the menu options is the fact that an abundance of the dishes are made from fresh, locally harvested and sustainably raised produce, poultry and meats from several farms in Southern and Northern California from which the chef sources his ingredients.
While I visited during the quiet lunch hours, I was told by my very personable and knowledgeable server that the restaurant and bar is lively in the evening, with couples, families and parties of friends filling up the plush leather booths and tables around the large dining room, surrounded by rich wood paneling and floor-to-vaulted-ceiling windows. Certainly the growth of the restaurant, which has expanded recently to two more locations in Encinitas and Ocean Beach, is a sign that 3rd Corner’s concept as a wine bar that pairs affordable wines with great food along with excellent service in a sophisticated and comfortable atmosphere is one whose time has come.
Renowned as “affordably hip,” the Palm Springs Travel Lodge (333 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs) offers good, standard amenities, including free WiFi, ample free parking, two pools, continental breakfast, in-room coffee service, fridge, Showtime, pet-friendly rooms and great mountain views. Best of all, the reasonable rates won’t break the bank, so you can spend more on dining. After all, most visitors are out enjoying the sites — shopping, golfing, riding the aerial tram or visiting any of the many desert attractions, so why spend a fortune on a room just for sleeping?
Because of its convenient, central location, the Travel Lodge often serves to accommodate overflow visitors from the area luxury hotels, and while you won’t be served overpriced drinks poolside in an exorbitantly-priced private cabana, you will experience great, friendly service.
For more information on Palms Springs Restaurant Week and a full listing of the participating restaurants, hotels and attractions, visit www.palmspringsrestaurantweek.com.