March 2010

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2010.

Searching for minotaurs by bike

Palm Desert sheep sport hieroglyphic tattoos. Photos by David Lansing.

Palm Desert sheep sport hieroglyphic tattoos. Photos by David Lansing.

This morning I walked over to a bike shop that’s a couple of blocks from The Mod Resort. Laura had told me that they rent bikes and I thought it might be cool to tool around on a road bike if they had one that was big enough for me. Which they did. Ryan at Funseekers! (yes, with an exclamation point) not only rented me a very cool hybrid for the day but gave me a bike trail map and suggested a couple of Funseeking! routes.

Just to get the feel of the bike, I headed up El Paseo, the main drag through Palm Desert. You know, it’s always interesting to see a place while biking instead of driving. It looks completely different. For some reason, despite the fact that I’ve gone up and down El Paseo half a dozen times this week, it wasn’t until I was on my bike that I realized there was so much public art around here.

A dog on stilts in the middle of El Paseo; Brad Rude's "Trick Ride."

A dog on stilts in the middle of El Paseo; Brad Rude's "Trick Ride."

It’s like I’m just pedaling along and—Oh, hey! Look! There’s a bighorn sheep! Not a real one, of course, but a very colorful one peeking out from the shade of an acacia tree. And a minotaur holding a hare…and a dog balancing a horseshoe on its nose…and a 15-foot-high apple red dragonfly!

In fact, there’s got to be at least two dozen startling pieces of public art in and around the El Paseo shopping district, all part of the city’s massive Art in Public Places Program which they’ve been doing since 1986 (basically, if you’re going to develop in Palm Desert, you need to put up a piece of art). What a great concept. And seeing it by bike was perfect.

A horse, a hare, and a coyote; Sophie Ryder's "A Conversation."

A horse, a hare, and a coyote; Sophie Ryder's "A Conversation."


A fine mist blows over Armando's in Palm Desert. Photo by David Lansing.

A fine mist blows over Armando's in Palm Desert. Photo by David Lansing.

There are a ton of restaurants along El Paseo, “the Rodeo Drive of the desert,” in Palm Desert. Unfortunately, there are not a ton of good ones. One of the ones I like is Armando’s. There’s nothing really special about it. It’s typical Tex-Mex food with oversized platters of tacos and burritos and enchiladas, all swimming in a lake of melted cheese. I don’t care. I love Mexican food so much—even so-so Mexican food—that I’m happy with my chile relleno and eat every last bite, right down to the stem, while a pair of black birds sit on top of the chair next to me, waiting for me to turn my head so they can steal one of my tortilla chips.

Anyway, I’m sitting there drinking one of those bucket-sized margaritas that you have to sip with a straw because the glass is too big to lift, the misters throwing a fine spray over the patio, when the woman at the table next to me starts up a conversation with the couple beside her. She tells them she’s a realtor, from Las Vegas, here for some convention, and wonders if the couple knows of any place good where she might have dinner tonight.

Why, yes, the couple says, they do. “Our favorite restaurant out here is the eye-talian place at the Desert Springs Marriott,” says the gal who, although she could easily be a contestant on The Biggest Loser is wearing denim shorts and a bikini top.

How can this be—not the outfit so much, but the restaurant recommendation? How can these people be local and be sending this woman to Ristorante Tuscany?

The guy she is with, who could also be on The Biggest Loser, nods his head in agreement and says, “It’s really incredible. It’s better eye-talian food than you’ll get in Italy.” Then he chuckles and looks at the woman beside him. “Not that, you know, we’ve ever been to Italy, but you know what we mean.”

The Vegas realtor thanks them for their recommendation and then asks the couple what they do out here in the desert.

The plus-size woman says she has a fortune-telling shop in Cathedral City. “Tarot cards, that kind of thing. I do spiritual readings, chakras, body balancing.”

The Vegas realtor asks her what the name of her place is.

“The Spiritual Wellness Center. I specialize in mind and body wellness. Holistic healing from the inside out. You should come by. I’ll give you a free reading.”

Mind and body wellness from these two. Imagine.


Disney boats deliver diners to Ristorante Tuscany. Photo by David Lansing.

Disney boats deliver diners to Ristorante Tuscany. Photo by David Lansing.

The Ristorante Tuscany dining room at the Desert Springs JW Marriott Resort feels like a cross between Vegas (the music playing when I walk in is Andrea Bocelli’s Con Te Partiro, which is the classic opera song used on the Bellagio commercial for their dancing fountains) and Disneyland (you can ride one of the Jungle Ride boats across the artificial lake to get to the restaurant).

It’s a very elegant room—if you’re big on murals of flamingos and Grecian urns and like chairs upholstered in faux-tapestry with bucolic scenes of Italy where you park your butt. But the elegance is thrown off by the diners, most of whom are sunburned and wear resort clothes, at best, or golf shorts with Old Navy tops. Well, like I said, this is part Vegas, part Disneyland, so what would you expect?

My waitress, Sally, comes by and asks if I’m ready to order and when I wonder out loud if they might have a cheese plate, Sally assures me that even though it isn’t on the menu, they can make one for me in the kitchen. Hmmmm….

“Is it really good cheese?” I ask her.

“Heck, yeah,” she says. “It’s unbelievable.”

But the cheese plate is for desert. First, I order the calamari fritti which comes out so pale and lightly breaded that it looks like a plate of round French fries. And it’s really fishy tasting. The way frozen-thawed-sat-around-forever seafood can be. Next comes some lobster ravioli that look almost exactly like the stuff that comes in the little plastic trays in supermarkets and tastes nothing at all like lobster (when I ask Sally if it is really lobster ravioli she bends over and looks closely at my plate, moving her head around, and finally says, “It kind of looks like it”).

I want to like the food at Ristorante Tuscany, I really do, but it’s not going well. And I don’t even blame the restaurant as much as I blame the two guys from Amish country who came into the steam room this afternoon while I was sweating up a storm and had a long conversation in which they tried to figure out what, exactly, an en-chee-lada was. “I guess it’s kind of like a soft Mexican taco,” one said, “but I never liked them either.” The other Amish dude agreed with him and suggested that tonight they eat at “that eye-talian place they’ve got here. At least we know what spaghetti is.”

And there, indeed, are the Amish boys, not two tables over, forking up the spaghetti.

Let’s face it: This is a convention hotel and so everything from the lousy mojito I had in the lobby bar to my ridiculous version of calamari fritti is dumbed down. Way down. For the Nachos Generation.

But what is the point of having linen tablecloths that the bus boys meticulously sweep the crumbs from with those little brushes they hide in their black aprons if the food sucks?

The lobster ravioli was certainly an improvement over the calamari (or maybe it was just the second glass of Orvieto Classico Sally poured me that helped), but that isn’t saying much. It obviously isn’t house-made ravioli. Not even close.

I keep reminding myself that if I was in Havana right now, as I was a year ago today, I’d think this was incredible food. Because Cuba has the worst restaurants in the world. But this isn’t Cuba. It’s California. And this is an expensive restaurant in an expensive resort; they should do better.

The manager of Ristorante Tuscany keeps cruising by to check on me, see how things are going. I lie shamelessly. On one of his drop-by visits, I ask him where, exactly, the Orvieto is from.

He seems confused. “Italy?” he guesses.

Yes, I know, I tell him. But where in Italy? Umbria?

The word “Umbria” really sends him for a loop. He’s never heard of it. Which perhaps makes sense when he tells me he’s from Bulgaria. He’s here on a work visa.

Well, who cares, right? It’s good. So I have another glass. And then Sally brings me my cheese plate. Which consists of a square of Monterey Jack with jalapeno, another square the color of a pumpkin that has absolutely no taste whatsoever, and a little foil wrapped wedge of something with a red laughing cow label. I dare not open it.

A few minutes later, Sally comes by and asks about the cheese. “You were right,” I tell her. “It’s unbelievable.”

And I wasn’t even lying.


Last Friday I wrote about having a Gin-Gin Mule at Morgan’s in La Quinta Resort. Actually, the first time I sampled this Audrey Saunders’ original was at the Tar Pit in Los Angeles. Saunders, aka the “Libation Goddess,” made a name for herself at Bemelman’s Bar at The Carlyle Hotel in New York before moving on to open her own place, the Pegu Club, five years ago. Her signature drink there, of course, was the Pegu Club Cocktail, a somewhat forgotten libation that was all the rage back when the British still had an empire and Myanmar (what a hideous name) was called Burma.

No one knows exactly when the Pegu Club Cocktail was first stirred up but the earliest mention of it seems to be in Harry Craddock’s classic 1930 “Savoy Cocktail Book.” Says Craddock, the Pegu Club Cocktail “has traveled, and is asked for, around the world.”

Well, not for long it wasn’t. In 1942, the British abandoned Rangoon (now Yangon—another hideous name) as well as the Pegu Club in the face of the rapidly advancing Japanese infantry, and they seemed to have taken their cocktail with them. Until Saunders almost single-handedly revived it.

While it’s not all that difficult to get a Pegu Club Cocktail in New York, it’s still rather rare elsewhere in the world. Which is why I was so thrilled to hear that Miss Saunders had partnered with Mark Peel at the Tar Pit in Los Angeles last December. Word was that she was going to go for “neo-tropical” and “old Hollywood swellegant” cocktails, which is exactly what she did. In addition to Saunders’ Gin-Gin Mule you could order a Jamaican Firefly (dark rum, housemade ginger beer—one of her signatures—fresh lime juice, and simple syrup) or a Fitty-Fitty (half gin, half French vermouth, with orange bitters—another Saunders signature ingredient).

Alas, while the Gin-Gin Mule remains, Miss Saunders split with Peel and headed back to New York last month (just another reason to go to Morgan’s in the Desert at La Quinta).

A couple of notes about the recipe: Saunders loves gin. She carries something like 26 different gins at her bar in New York (and keeps the vodka out of sight beneath the bar). So obviously she’s rather particular about which gin to use for any given cocktail. The traditional gin to use in a Pegu Club Cocktail is London Dry Gin. But I think Bombay Sapphire works just as well (and I like the idea of using a gin named Bombay in a cocktail invented in Burma; it all seems so tropical and cheerio).

Secondly, you’ll notice the recipe calls for orange curaçao. You could use triple sec or Cointreau or something, but there’s a reason why she uses orange curaçao: for the coloring. It’s what gives the drink that lovely sunset glow. If you use triple sec you’ll get something that looks more like a margarita. Personally, I use a kumquat brandy that I make myself but you’ll have to come over to my house to try that (or make it yourself).

Lastly, you’ll notice that the recipe calls for both Angostura bitters and orange bitters. The problem is that orange bitters can be a bit difficult to find. I’ve got a little 2-oz. bottle of Collins Orange Bitters that I’ve had forever (I can’t even remember where I got it). So if you can’t find orange bitters, you’ll be tempted to skip it and just go with the Angostura bitters but it really changes the drink’s profile. The backbone of the drink is the citrus flavors and the orange bitters provide a lovely spicy undercurrent. By the way, the next time you’re in NYC, stop by the Pegu Club, not only for a cocktail but also to buy a bottle of Regan’s Orange Bitters #6. Saunders sells that and Peychauds bitters just because they’re so difficult to find. As she says, “Our markup on these items is minimal—our benevolent, altruistic goal here is to put you on the path of the righteous, and point you toward the light.”


The Hoppy House

The Hoppy House in the early '60s.

The Hoppy House in the early '60s.

Another thing I really like about The Mod Resort: it’s so close to everything. In fact, since I got here, I haven’t gotten in my car once (and, yes, I actually have left my room—on occasion). Sometimes in the morning, before it gets too warm out, I’ll just stroll aimlessly about the neighborhood. There are a lot of interesting homes out here. For instance, just a block away is Hopalong Cassidy’s old house (officially called the William Boyd House but known to locals as “Hoppy House.”).

Boyd, who always dressed in black and rode a pure white horse named Topper, decided when he built the house in the early ‘50s to stick with the black-and-white color scheme. So just about everything inside and out was either black or white. Wild, huh?

I got to see the house a few years back when the then-owner, a local contractor, had rehabbed the home before putting it up for auction. He’d repainted both the interior and exterior in Hoppy’s trademark black and white colors. There wasn’t much inside in the way of furniture since Hernandez had already cleared out a lot of the memorabilia—like the old saddles that Hoppy had turned into bar stools—for a memorabilia auction in the Bay Area.

Boyd and his wife, Grace, lived in the house until 1971. He died a year later at age 77. And what happened to the house? Well, it was sold at auction to a direct mail executive for $467,000. Stan Fedderly, who bought it, said after the auction, “I’m just a lucky guy. I didn’t think I was going to get it.”

Lucky indeed.


« Older entries