March 2010

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Jell-o shots at The Mod

As I mentioned, when I last stayed at Laura Slipak’s The Mod Resort, she made me a martini upon check-in. Actually, she called it a Mod-tini and when I asked her if she did that for all her guests, she shrugged and said, No. “I have to get a vibe about someone. If I like them, I’ll make it.”

Well, she’s not making the Mod-tini anymore. She’s moved on. Now she makes a Jell-o-tini although she says, “That’s not a very good name for it, is it? I need to come up with something with a retro twist.”

In any case, if she’s got time in the afternoon (and often she doesn’t), she’ll make Jell-o shooters from vodka and Sour Apple Pucker schnapps, put the cubes in a cute little martini glass, top with a little whip cream, and take them out to guests lounging around the pool in the late afternoon.

“It’s just a fun thing,” she says. “And I’m all about fun.”

Okay, yes, Jell-o shots are fun. But I don’t know. I kind of miss the Mod-tini.


Laura Slipak at The Mod Resort in Palm Desert. Yeah, baby!

Laura Slipak at The Mod Resort in Palm Desert. Yeah, baby!

One of the fun things about the desert is that it attracts a lot of interesting people. Like Laura Slipak. I met Laura, an Argentinean fashion designer who owns The Mod Resort in Palm Desert, a couple of years ago. I dragged my sorry ass into her Austin Powers-chic hotel after a long, hot drive from Los Angeles and she took one look at me and, before I’d even registered, offered me a martini. So, yeah, you go to a nice resort in Hawaii and they bring you a cold washcloth and some tropical punch while you’re signing in, but when was the last time someone offered to make you a martini while you registered? Never.

I knew immediately that Laura and I were going to hit it off, and we did. Here’s another thing I liked: Laura told me I could have my pick of rooms. So while I sipped my martini, she took me on a little tour of the vacant rooms, which were all very stylish, very well done (as you’d imagine they would be since she designed them), giving me little bits and pieces of her life and the history of The Mod which, before she bought it five years ago this month was called the Desert Patch Inn and was, she says as she sashays past the pool, “every bit as tacky as its name.”

I asked Laura how she came to own a hotel, and this is what she told me: One night, while she was living in Malibu, she went to the Viceroy, a very hip Santa Monica hotel known for their retro-chic design (dog-shaped lamps, lime-green accents, lots of black, white, and gray), and “I thought to myself, I can do this.”

So first Laura bought a house out here, two doors down, “and I’d walk by the Desert Patch Inn and think about what I’d do to it if I owned it. So I bought it. But then I had to decorate it.”

“I had a yard sale to get rid of all the crappy old furniture they had and by the 4th day, I was actually paying people to haul away the junk that hadn’t sold,” she told me. Then she started buying vintage furniture at estate sales and on eBay. “God, what a process.”

The result, she says, is not really authentic mid-century. “I call it Mod-century. It’s more late 60s and early 70s. If Frank Sinatra and Austin Powers picked a place to stay, this would be it. Because it’s retro, but it’s not kitschy. Does that make sense?”

Yeah, baby!


The Spanish Revival style is evident at the La Quinta Spa building. Photo by David Lansing.

The Spanish Revival style is evident at the La Quinta Spa building. Photo by David Lansing.

I mentioned that La Quinta was designed in the ‘20s by an unknown architect from Pasadena named Gordon Kaufmann. Actually, Kaufmann was relatively unknown when he was hired by Walter H. Morgan to design the resort, but he later went on to fame designing such California icons as the Los Angeles Times building, the Hollywood Palladium, and the infamous Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills where Ned Doheny, the son of Edward Doheny, the oil tycoon, died in his bedroom of a murder-suicide with his secretary, Hugh Plunket (parts of the movie There Will Be Blood, with Daniel Day-Lewis, were not only based on the Doheny family drama but the finale, where the Daniel Day-Lewis character bludgeons the ersatz preacher, Eli Sunday, to death with a bowling pin was shot in the basement bowling alley of Greystone Mansion).

Anyway, Kaufmann designed the cottages and offices of La Quinta Hotel (as it was called then) in Spanish Revival, though I don’t know that the style was actually called that back then. According to an architectural guide I have, Spanish Revival “refers to the architectural style that was popular from about 1915 to about 1940” and caught hold after the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. It also says that the growth of California and the film industry during the 1920s and 1930s facilitated the dissemination of this style.

“Spanish Revival,” it goes on, “is an extremely eclectic style. Many Mediterranean touches are combined to create an exotic, but harmonious appearance. Tile roofs and stucco exteriors are characteristic with half rounded doors and windows. Elaborate tilework, applied relief ornamentation, and wrought iron grillwork is used to create frames around doorways and windows, and is used widely as decorative accents throughout the house. Front entrances were often highly ornamented and many were balanced by a commanding triple-arched focal window.”

Well, that just about sums up the architectural style of La Quinta. It may, indeed, be a little eclectic looking but I find that, as I walk around, the buildings around the resort, from my little casita to the spa, are all quite pleasing to the eye—and charming. By the way, Kaufmann died in 1949 and while his obituary in the Los Angeles Times goes on and on about his design of an aircraft plant and the grandstand at Santa Anita Park, it makes no mention of one of his earliest and most indelible designs, La Quinta. Pity, that.


I’ve been a bit obsessed with Audrey Saunders ever since she opened the Pegu Club in SoHo five years ago. Saunders took the name of her bar from the original Pegu Club, a famous British Colonial Officers’ club in Burma that, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “was always filled with lots of people either on their way up or on their way down.” Perhaps what the club was most famous for was their house cocktail which, not too surprisingly, was called the Pegu Club Cocktail, a marvelous libation that pretty much disappeared from the scene along with the British in Burma (and Burma itself, for that matter). Until Audrey Saunders revived it.

Now before Saunders opened The Pegu Club she was working at The Carlyle Hotel where she fine-tuned a number of vintage cocktails for the legendary Bemelmans Bar. I mention all this because Morgan’s in the Desert, where I had dinner Saturday, has “borrowed” the recipes for many of the vintage cocktails from Bemelmans, including the Pegu Club and an Audrey Saunders original called the Gin-Gin Mule which I am convinced will one day join the pantheon of such classic cocktails as the Manhattan and Negroni. Thanks to my discovery of Saunders’ libation, the Gin-Gin Mule is my new summer drink (summer, for me, officially begins the day we move our clocks ahead an hour, which was last Sunday).

The other thing I love about Audrey Saunders is that, like me, she’s a big fan of Charles H. Baker, author of the 1939 cocktail guide called The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol. II (to read more about Mr. Baker, go here). She often talks about how she takes Baker to bed with her (not literally, of course) and just flips through the pages until she finds a section heading that just jumps off the page and grabs her. Like this one: “FIVE DELICIOUS CHAMPAGNE OPPORTUNITIES, which Are not to be Ignored.”

“When you read that, how can you not dive in?” Saunders says. “And when you see the first one is called the Maharaja’s Burra-Peg, that’s like putting cheese in front of a mouse.”

It does sound rather enticing, doesn’t it? But let’s save that story (and recipe) for another Friday. For now, let’s stick with Audrey Saunders’ Gin-Gin Mule as mixed in the bar at Morgan’s in the Desert at La Quinta Resort.


Morgan’s in the Desert

Jimmy Schmidt at Morgan's. Photo by David Lansing.

Jimmy Schmidt at Morgan's. Photo by David Lansing.

God I get distracted easily. One minute I’m telling you about this dinner I had last Saturday night (or, at least, that’s what I meant to do) and the next I’m going on and on about Frank Capra. How’d that happen? I think I know. I was talking about the guy that built La Quinta, Walter Morgan, and that somehow led to Frank Capra.

Anyway, the reason I was talking about Walter Morgan is because I had dinner in La Quinta’s new restaurant, Morgan’s in the Desert, which is named, of course, after the founder of the resort. (And not to get distracted again, but just to tidy up some business: I mentioned that Walter Morgan opened La Quinta in December 1926 but I never told you what happened to him. It wasn’t good. After the stock market crashed in 1929, business went south. In April of 1931, Morgan committed suicide. His ashes were spread over the date groves and flower gardens, and the hotel was closed.)

So back to Morgan’s in the Desert (not Morgan’s ashes in the desert). I was walking around Saturday afternoon, looking for Frank Capra’s old casita, and ended up at Morgan’s. They weren’t really open but the front door was unlocked so I decided to have a peek inside. I hadn’t got three feet inside the dining room when this guy comes out of nowhere wondering if he can help me. I explained to him that I was going to have dinner that evening and just wanted a quick look around, sorry for the intrusion, etc., etc.

“Not a problem,” he says. “Let me give you a tour.”

Well, the guy turns out to be the executive chef, Jimmy Schmidt and I have to say he’s got to be one of the most personable chefs I’ve ever met (frankly, my observation is that most chefs don’t have much personality, although there are exceptions).

He told me how the old La Quinta restaurant, Azure, was closed in 2008 after a kitchen fire (“Just as well; the place needed a major overhaul”) and how he was brought over from the Rattlesnake restaurant at the Classic Club in Palm Desert “to do things right.”

Later that night, I came back for dinner. The place was jumping. So much so that I had to elbow my way in at the bar to get a drink while waiting for my table. But, man, what a meal. I told my waiter to just bring me whatever Jimmy thought was best and I was not disappointed.

Schmidt, who is a big proponent of using local products whenever possible, served me a series of small plates beginning with some wedges of heirloom tomatoes from the Coachella Valley (yes, tomatoes are in season; at least they are out here in the desert) served with baby arugula and sweet basil, also local, followed by an ahi tuna and tangerine salad whose signature is a dressing made with Aleppo chile pepper sea salt and a cold-pressed citrus-infused olive oil made locally. The olive oil was amazing. So much so that I popped for the $20 to buy a 12-oz. bottle of the stuff in the gift shop the next day. It’ll be worth it, I’m sure.

The ahi tartare was followed by a roasted spiny Santa Barbara lobster and a porcini crusted Angus filet (I know I didn’t need both, but I wanted to sample them, so what the hell). And then an artisan cheese plate with some yummy California goodies like Mt Tam, a buttery triple cream from Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, and Humboldt Fog, a tangy goat cheese with a flat line of blue through the middle, from Cypress Grove Chevre.

As I was finishing up the cheese, Jimmy came out from the kitchen and asked me what I thought. I had to tell him the truth: It was the best damn meal I’ve ever had in the desert.


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