Monday, April 15, 2013

I Really Have To Be Careful How I Read Things

As I was thinking about the restaurants in Palm Springs that I wanted to tell you about, I saw this headline in a restaurant newsletter: 

Is competition driving a return to casual dining?

I scanned it quickly and all these things started going through my head. Why would COMPETITION DRIVING cause people to return to a more CASUAL WAY OF DINING?

Was it about Nascar and people going out to eat after they saw a race? Were towns with car races (i.e. “competition driving”) having more success with their Applebee-type restaurants than towns that have didn’t car races? Or maybe racetracks were opening casual restaurants and they were packed? I was really confused about how “competition driving” (which is a strange term all on its own) could be linked to “casual dining”.

Well, I’m sure you’re smarter than I am and realized immediately that the word “driving” was part of the verb. And it was really about COMPETITION spurring on (or driving) people to start eating in casual restaurants again. I hadn’t actually known they had left, but never mind.

That brings me to these three wonderful restaurants in Palm Springs, one of which was definitely casual; one was pretty nice (but the customers dress casually); and one was a slightly fancier place.  

The Cork and Fork is a wine bar attached to a cooking school. It’s a good way to get folks into both businesses, I think. They serve small plates, which is definitely the current new thing. Being a huge fan of tapas, I love the idea. The only time it’s a bit tricky is when you’re in a large group and you have to order lots of duplicates, but we didn’t have that problem. There were three of us, which was perfect!

The food was great, but even better was the service. I LOVED our server. I had checked out the menu in advance and told her I was really looking forward to the duck tacos. She said they always had pork tacos, but never duck. I was really confused until I realized that I had been thinking of another restaurant I’m going to tell you about called The Cork Tree. Both had cork in the name, so I don’t think I was totally crazy. When we figured the whole thing out and laughingly said, “Well then, good bye, we’re off to the Cork Tree for duck tacos,” she was appropriately amused.

She might not have been so jolly a little later when I pulled her aside and said, “I’m SO sorry, but I HATE my cocktail. It’s really the worst thing I’ve ever had.” I’m so dumb that I didn’t realize that “a wine bar” wouldn’t have real liquor. And when I saw a group of cocktails on the menu, I thought they would be normal. 

My savvy daughter explained to me (after the fact) that my Cosmo was made with SOJU (distilled rice wine liqueur) and not vodka. It DID say “Soju Cocktails” on the menu, but I thought a Cosmo was a Cosmo. Anyway, the server was sooo nice. There was no problem. She brought me the Pomegranate Sangria instead, (which was also pretty awful, but my limit is ONE on the number of things I send back per meal). She didn’t hate me and I just loved her. 

Pomegranate Sangria
There was so much to choose from that it was really fun. Thai Shrimp Cakes were a delicious way to start. The shrimp cakes were good, but the sauces were outstanding. I LOVED the Japanese 5 spice aioli, which is interesting because I usually can’t stand 5 spice powder. 
Thai Shrimp Cakes
I hadn’t really wanted to order the Handcut Sweet Potato Fries, but I’m really glad D(aughter) talked me into it.  We in the No’th call the orange ones “yams” and the white, not so sweet ones, “sweet potatoes”.  That's what these were and they were a revelation. They had the best attributes of both regular potatoes AND yams - crisp and slightly floury like a white potato with a hint of the sweetness of a yam. Perfect. And the sauces were really well done. The chipotle lime was my favorite. There was also a super fresh pesto and a honey Dijon. 
Handcut Sweet Potato Fries
The Farmer’s Market Salad had good things in it like sliced Brussels Sprouts, Kale, Gorgonzola and Candied Pecans and it had a white balsamic dressing (which I love). I liked it, but, actually, I’ve never has a better Brussels sprouts salad than this one.

Farmer's Market Salad
The Pork Tacos were sooo good. They were little open-faced, 2 bites worth of juicy pork on a round baby taco shell. It was a good thing that there were only two of them (and D wasn’t eating pork). I could have eaten 20. 

Pork Tacos
The little bowl of Mac and Cheese was just the right size. It was cheesy and rich, flavored with chipotle and topped with crunchy crumbs.

Mac and Cheese
What else? Oh, a Rustic Pizza. It had wild mushrooms, Parm, Gorgonzola and mozzarella. I usually like a thinner crust, but this was so crisp and charred (in a good way) that it was irresistible. 
Rustic Pizza

The gelato was wonderful. They feature different flavors every night. I can’t remember which one we had (mango, I think), but I do remember we didn’t have any problem finishing it. 

Last was the Pistachio Ice cream Sandwich. It was served open-faced, (like the tacos). If I liked pistachio ice cream, I would have liked it more. (Oh, what we sacrifice for our kids!)

Pistachio Ice Cream Sandwich
But overall The Cork and The Fork was wonderful with really friendly service, whic hmeans as much to me as the quality of the food. 

Roy’s is one of my favorite restaurants on the planet. It’s hard to believe that it’s a chain. Unfortunately, the Roy’s in Philadelphia closed (I guess there wasn’t enough of the Aloha spirit there), but we always try to go to the one in Rancho Mirage when we’re out there.

I don’t usually order the prix fixe menu anywhere, unless it has at least two out of three dishes on it that I would have ordered anyway. This time I did.
The Duck Confit Dim Sum was not as good as I would have hoped. The duck filling was a little dry and sparse. I think it was actually the first time I’ve ever been disappointed by a dish at Roy’s.
Duck Confit Dim Sum
The Teppanyaki Shrimp was flavorful with all the bits and pieces on the plate - Farro, Edamame, Braised Pearl Onion & Ginger Miso Cream – complementing it nicely.

Teppanyaki Shrimp
The signature dish at Roy’s is the Miso Butterfish and it’s always wonderful. H had it and the next week, I saw Roy himself on The Talk making that very dish. (By the way, I ONLY watched because of him and I only watched that segment.) 

Miso Butterfish
I was excited to see that dish, but, unfortunately, it seemed really complicated and the ladies cooking with him were so confused and confusing that it did not come off as that easy to make at home. But the recipe itself doesn’t look that hard, except that finding the ingredients might present a challenge.

The last night we were in Palm Springs we went to The Cork Tree. It was lovely...after we left our table (in one of those kind of charmless ancillary rooms that restaurants have for putting the overflow) and found seats outside on the absolutely beautiful terrace. If I don’t like my table, I don’t like the restaurant, so I’m glad there was no problem switching.

My Raspberry Lemondrop was lipsmacking good, except for one tiny thing. (I AM a pain, I admit.) The stem and the glass were incredibly sticky, which was a little annoying every time I picked it up. My strategy then became to drink it in as few gulps as possible!

Raspberry Lemondrop

And I finally got to have my Duck Tacos! They were worth waiting for. Flaky shells held the tender duck with frisée, feta, grape tomatoes and a yummy chipotle sauce. I had only one complaint. There were too many! H was happy to take two off my hands, though.

Duck Tacos
H had the Kale Salad, which was a tasty version. The best part, though, was the cool angled bowl it was served in. 

Kale Salad
Actually, they served many of the dishes separated out into equal portions in small, very striking angled bowls. My Scallops were surprisingly served like that. 

Seared Jumbo Scallops with Creamy Himalayan Black Rice

They were sitting on black rice (my fav) with smoky bacon in a rich blood orange beurre blanc. SO good and three huge scallops were more than enough. I think having it served in separate bowls may have made the portion seem bigger than it was. That’s a good tactic to use at home.

H had the Duck Breast with Smoked Mushroom Risotto, which was also presented in an interesting way. It was deconstructed with each element lined up on a long thin platter. Really rich and really well cooked. My picture really doesn’t do it justice. I got its bad side. 

Duck Breast with Smoked Mushroom Risotto
The gelato and sorbet were just fine, but here the three separate bowls of two scoops each were too much. I’m so bad that I didn’t write down the three flavors, but I think the gelato (vanilla?) was the best. 

It was a gorgeous night outside on the terrace, our server was really amiable (he asked how we liked the unusual serving dishes) and the food was luxurious and beautifully presented. When we got back from California, I was greeted by a lovely message from the restaurant saying they were happy to confirm our reservation and they were sure we would love the duck tacos!

How did they know I was looking forward to having the tacos? It’s a little trick I use on OpenTable. (Have I told you this before?) As you make the reservation, they ask if you have any special comments or questions for them. I usually fill in something as a little test. The best reaction I ever had was from Roy’s during another Palm Springs visit. I said I was really excited to have their 1988 cocktail and right after we were seated, the waiter came to the table and said, “Are you ready for your 1988?” BEFORE I had had a chance to say a word.

The worst reaction to my OpenTable comments was at Amis in Philadelphia. I had noted that it was our anniversary and we were “really excited” (my key OpenTable phrase) to go there for the first time. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. That set the stage for a place that was uncomfortably crowded, had lackluster service and was SO noisy that it felt like we were at a high school basketball game (on the losing side).

So those were my favorite Palm Spring restaurants on this trip. Next time I’ll have to do another in-depth study to find others that stack up. It’s a really hard job, but someone’s got to do it. 


Sheila said...

Haha! I loved what you said to the waitress about your drink! I recently went to a gastro pub and wanted a fruity fizzy drink. I was just in the mood. Well, it was also the worst drink I ever had. Apparently, beer was the way to go there!

Sue said...

Hi Sheila,
I know just what you mean about being in the mood for something specific. That's not a good sign that they can't make a good cocktail, even if they do have good beer.

Emily said...

Oh my gosh. All of the food looks amazing. I want it all! The cork and the fork looks really, really good! Pizza and mac and cheese and ice cream sandwiches?! Yes.

I've never had black rice before. Does it taste like wild rice?

Sue said...

Hi Em,
Black rice is about 100 times BETTER than wild rice! It's usually short or medium grained, so it's more starchy. What I love best about is the color. It turns the cooking water a gorgeous purple. It's wild!