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Going on vacation is always a pleasure, but finding mediocre food dampens my joy, and unfortunately the food on my latest trip to Palm Springs/Indian Wells was so mediocre I had to go back to my old favorite Zini Cafe to eat something that made me smile (see my previous post here).

When I lived in Palm Springs, one of my favorite places to eat was Al Dente. Their pasta and seafood were always fresh, deftly prepared, and well presented. I decided to stop there for lunch and was heartened when their tapenade arrived and was a perfect rendition of pungent olives, garlic, spicy red pepper flakes and a luxurious olive oil. I didn’t want to spoil my meal by eating just tapenade and bread, so I controlled myself and only ate two servings. I would have been happier of I had made a meal of tapenade instead of my salad.

I ordered the Caesar salad with grilled shrimp. Looks can be deceiving; the shrimp were over cooked and the salad was over dressed with a bland sauce. It was sad to eat alone (I was the ONLY diner in the entire restaurant at 12:30pm), but it was even sadder to realize that one of my favorite places had changed for the worse. The glass of Pinot Grigio I had was as refreshing as the service from my waiter, who was in remarkably good humor despite the 118F weather and having only one diner. Considering lunch was under $20, I left a healthy 30% tip, hoping that would show the waiter I appreciated his work, and hoping the lunchtime chef was just having a bad day.

Upon arriving at the Esmeralda in Indian Wells, the last thing I wanted to do was drive anywhere for food, so I had their bar menu of four tacos for $10, ordering two shrimp tacos and two carne asada tacos. My server suggested the Luna Pinot Grigio ($8) from Cava restaurant, and then he went out in the 118F heat to get me a glass from the restaurant! I wish the food was as good as the service. The shrimp were nicely done (thankfully not overcooked), crispy and tasty, but the carne asada tasted as if it was boiled in water, and the tortillas were obviously industrially made tasteless discs.

My friend Cindy wanted sushi, so we got a platter of Spicy tuna roll with avocado, yellowtail, white tuna, albacore, and mackerel for $40. Cindy liked it, but I thought the fish was not quite fresh enough for the price.

Our final meal in the hotel was lunch at Cava. We both chose the chopped salad with turkey, avocado, tomatoes, corn, and mixed greens for $12. It was fresh and lightly dressed, but I was disappointed that the turkey was cubes of sliced turkey and the waitress disappeared after we were served (we had to ask the hostess for our check and paid at the hostess stand because our waitress never reappeared).

Sometimes old favorites change for the worse, and new finds are mediocre, but great places like Zini Cafe that continue to excel are the reasons I love to eat in the Palm Springs area.

Cava Restaurant on Urbanspoon

When I lived in Palm Springs, the Esmeralda in Indian Wells was always one of my favorite places to go out for drinks and music (Melvyns was my other favorite nightspot). Since the Esmeralda is now owned by the Marriott hotel chain, there are spectacular deals in the summer which include a daily $50 resort credit and a free breakfast for 2 night stays. I HATE resort fees, but their $25 daily resort fee actually pays for daily fitness classes, two bottles of water in the room, free in-room coffee and tea, and wifi (ask them how to access it) so our entire stay for two nights only cost us about $120 each! They offer Valet parking for $12 a day, but you can self park for free (in a covered lot).

They are in the middle of a renovation, but the lobby is already remodeled and very comfortable.

The only element in the lobby and terrace that remains from the former resort is the magnificent staircase connecting the two levels.

As I walked to the front desk to check in I saw these complimentary containers of cool water infused with pineapple, cucumber, and strawberry. A wonderful thoughtful touch anywhere, but especially here in the desert where outside temperatures were hovering around 118F.

The spacious rooms were clean and modern with great beds and linens.

The bathroom was spacious and had a separate toilet area. Spa robes, soft fluffy towels, and Aveda products gave the resort an upscale feel. Thoughtful touches meant a lot, like a clothesline attached to the wall of the bathtub so you could dry your swimsuits over the tub, and the bathroom had a door to the closet so you could get dressed in the bathroom.

Rates for the summer are so low that the hotel was full of families enjoying the three pool areas; although the kids were well behaved, I still longed for an adult pool area. The poolside servers impressed me more than any other pool I have ever been to, including all the five star pools in Las Vegas; no matter what area I was seated in, someone always came by (more than once) to ask if I wanted either food or drinks! The menu is simple and the selections were reasonably priced, but it was too hot to stay outside for long or I would have ordered and enjoyed lunch by the pool. As with the in room touches, the pool area also had thoughtful touches like water containers and cups at several locations so you could serve yourself water.

The sandy “beach” area was full of small kids and fairly quiet.

The waterfall area was the loudest with screaming kids jumping in and out .

The view from the balcony of our room was tranquil and beautiful.

This view was also from out balcony but looking down instead of out. The small “river” with waterspouts alongside our building snaked around the side of the resort and is the view from the Stir Lounge as well.

Next post will be on the food, which was not as spectacular as the hotel, but the service was impeccable:)

Two Bunch Palms is truly an oasis hidden in the dessert. As a former hideout for Al Capone, this retreat for the famous and the infamous offers naturally heated odorless mineral water in two pools. It is one of the few resorts in Southern California to offer body treatments that range from traditional massage to water therapy.

Even though the summer temperature in the desert may reach 115, it is a dry heat, and most of us who have lived in 80 degree heat with 80% humidity would choose the higher temperature and lower humidity any day.

They are renovating the resort from August 14-25th and offering a special summer rate of only $99 (plus $15 resort fee & taxes) for select dates throughout the summer when rooms and studios usually go for upwards of $200 a night. The $99 special also extends to select 60 and 90 minute body treatments as well, so you can have a spa mini-cation only two hours from LA for the regular price of just a room.

Nights in the desert are wonderfully balmy and starry, and with a rate like this they can be magically restorative.

My friends used to drive in from the Valley to come eat here, but for some reason I was a virgin to neighborhood favorite Sawtelle Kitchen.  The menu is an eclectic mix of Asian curry, katsu dishes, Italian pasta, salads, and appetizers that incorporate ingredients as diverse as lotus roots, kabocha, mussels, and lamb shanks (not all in one dish)!

I had to try one of the hot appetizer/side dishes, so I chose the Japanese mushrooms with wild vegetables sauteed in a soy butter sauce for $7.95. It was a decadently rich rendition of vegetables whose silky sauce begged for bread to soak up the sauce (and I used my dinner roll to do just that).

I had a very nice bowl of Miso with lots of tofu and a huge piece of wakame (seaweed) with my dinner.

I ordered the Chilean Sea Bass with the ginger sauce and a salad instead of rice for $22.45 (it’s $19.95 with rice instead of salad). Sadly my fish was slightly overcooked and the ginger sauce was a bit too salty, but the salad was very good. I would definitely order another dish next time.

The Pasta Carbonara with ham, onion, cream and black pepper for $11.95 was absolutely perfect (as my Italian dinner partner said, he would have made this dish exactly the same way at home). This dish was the epitome of sublime decadence; not too rich to eat but luxurious enough to make you want to eat the entire bowl.

Perhaps the best thing about the place was that we went during happy hour which is from 3pm-10pm Monday-Thursday, 3-7pm Fridays, and 11:30-6pm on Sundays which means all our food and drinks were HALF PRICE (so take 50% off the prices I posted)! They serve French and Tahitian beers, espresso, and French lemonade, but if you want wine (they only serve two), bring your own and pay only a $5 corkage fee for each 750ml bottle.

Who would have thought that a neighborhood place in Little Osaka would have pasta an Italian would love? Not me, but that just means I will be going back for salad and a pasta soon.

Sawtelle Kitchen on Urbanspoon

An unplanned trip to Palm Springs this week meant that I got a chance to revisit Zini Cafe Med for their delectable tapas (see my previous post here).

Since the temperature was about 108 Farenheit, I wanted something cool, so I decided to order the chilled baby octopus salad, with cherry tomato, cucumber, red onion, and a mustard vinaigrette ($5) instead of the hot octopus I had last time. I liked this version nearly as much as the hot version except I would have ordered the salad dressing on the side since the strong mustard vinaigrette was a bit strong on the tender organic greens.

The spicy lime drizzled shrimp were my favorite of all the tapas I tasted. For $6, the four medium sized shrimp were perfectly cooked and the garlic infused spicy lime sauce was good enough to drink; thankfully there was yeasty and warm sourdough bread to soak up the sauce.

If I go back for a meal twice in the same day (as I did for La Petite Creperie in June), you know I love a place, and I did that here. For my second round of food I started with one of the same plates I chose last time, the Tuna Carpaccio, served with Citrus, Balsamic Pomegranate Drizzle, Spanish Olive Oil & Caper. The $6 plate was every bit as delightful as the one I ate last year.

The grilled calamari stuffed with Spanish chorizo, fried parsley and capers was a bit rich and salty, but a very hearty bite for $6. This was my least favorite of all the tapas I tasted, but even so, it was still good enough to recommend to people who like rich, salty sausage bites.

I don’t know if I was really hungry or simply intrigued when I ordered the grilled artichoke, asparagus, fried egg egg, Serrano ham, and Machego cheese plate for $6. It was like a mini-breakfast and my idea of comfort food. The perfectly fried egg was done to perfection with enough runny yolk, yet no runny white, the Serrano and asparagus were great complimentary flavors, and the artichoke and cheese were nice highlights.

Finding places that are still wonderful a year later makes my stomach and face smile with delight. To add yet another surprise, wines average only $6 for a good selection of red, white, rose or bubbly, by the glass, and their happy hours, which begin at 4pm and go until 7pm most nights, offer specials like a pitcher of Sangria with a platter of snacks for only $21. It may be 108 outside, but it’s cool inside Zini.

Zini Cafe Med on Urbanspoon




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