We headed off for Palm Springs Saturday morning, and realized that we didn’t have any CDs in my mom’s car. Luckily, we soon arrived at The Wheel Inn. Bob ordered a hot turkey sandwich, I had a boring tuna sandwich again, and my mom ordered the much-touted corn chowder. She was not very impressed with it. The rest of the food was just what you would expect. But then – dessert! Bob and I split a slice of glorious (cue choir of angels) peanut-butter pie. My mom enjoyed the strawberry-rhubarb pie. I hit the gift shop to pick up some CDs...a Rat pack compilation and a 70s compilation. Score! A Roomful of Roses, Hey, Won’t You Play (Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song), Dolores. Take Your Girlie to the Movies... I love truck stop compilations!
We were able to soak in the hot springs before getting ready for dinner at my mom’s pick...Crazy Bones. I had been a little hesitant
when I saw their ad in the hotel restaurant guide, because they do Memphis, Texas, and St Louis-style BBQ, among others. It just seems
that no one can do that many styles right. The restaurant is owned by the Kaiser family. It is a father-son team, and they are kind of the Brennan or Fat family of Palm Springs. Besides Crazy Bones, they own the Kaiser Grill, Big Fish Grille, The Deck, and the Chop House downstairs. In fact, Crazy Bones is a “satellite kitchen” of the Chop House. Their happy hour bar food was getting so popular, they just made a new restaurant for it. Crazy Bone’s dining room and patio are spacious and comfortable, teetering between casual and elegant. You would feel at home in Levis or your Sunday best. Few BBQ joints would be such a good place for a business dinner. Attention was paid to detail – each table was outfitted with a roll of paper towels and a glass full of “Wet-naps”. The patio had a giant fireplace and fire pit, but we chose to sit inside in a comfortable booth.
As soon as we sat down, a female server passing by said, “I’ll be right with you.” A few minutes later, another woman asked, “Is someone helping you?” I said, “A woman just said she would be right back.” Two more men passed by, saying, “Someone will be right with you.” Finally a gentleman came up, and I asked him about one of the many microbrews on the menu. He whizzed off, and brought me a sample in a rocks glass, and whizzed off again before we could order beers. I couldn’t catch the first female server’s eye, even though she served the table right next to us. Busboys and servers kept gesturing towards our table. So finally I got up and went to the bar myself to order our beers. Quick as a wink, a gentleman was at my side like a restaurant genie, “Can I help you?”
“I just got thirsty. We’ve been here over 20 minutes, and we still haven’t been served, although there does seem to be some concern about it.” In a conversation I don’t think I was meant to hear, he asked the first female server, “What happened to that table?” She hissed, “I had it, then Jonathan took it!” The genie suddenly appeared at my elbow again. He was named David, and turned out to be the restaurant manager. He led me back to my seat and assured me someone would be right with us. And they were. Fast. The server said, “My name is Jonathan. Sorry. There was some confusion as to whose table this is.”
I laughed gaily, “Oh, people are always fighting over us, haha...now
bring us some catfish fingers.”
The catfish tasted straight out of New Orleans...perfectly fried, with that strange dusty flavor that characterizes catfish to me. The tartar sauce tasted of remoulade. But 3 long strips in a huge basket seemed kind of chintzy. They should cut the fingers into three pieces, and add a little more fish. Or get smaller baskets. For dinner, we split the rock shrimp sandwich, a perfect po’ boy. This chef had to be from New Orleans. We also split the Hogg Heaven
Sampler: Baby Back Ribs, St Louis Ribs, Pulled Pork, and a Memphis
Spare Rib. The baby backs were good, but the St Louis ribs, which were like baby backs but bigger, blew them away. The pulled pork was good, and I mixed it with some cole slaw, but it just cried out for a bun...and a little more BBQ sauce. In fact, everything came with a very light slather of sauce. I would recommend asking for additional sauce on the side. It is a nice tomato-y sauce with a slight kick. The Memphis rib was boneless, and tasted like a cross between a rib and a pork chop - exactly as the menu described. We enjoyed their beans, which were toothsome enough to be made from scratch, and the french fries were unbelievably good. They were coated in something like egg white or tempura batter. The dirty rice was restrained- probably a concession to the local palate. But the chef knew to make up for the light hand with organ meats by replacing it with thyme - very New Orleans.
David, our genie
Later we were chatting with our server, and he said, "I work here so seldom now I hardly get any tables. I have to pick them up where I can." He was confessing to stealing our table! Our restaurant genie, David, came over to check on us a number of times. And he came over to talk our gratis dessert order personally. He answered all of my questions about the kitchen and ingredients very patiently and charmingly. Yes, the chef is from New Orleans. They have a big smoker in the kitchen and use cedar wood. The fries come from the supplier pre-cut and coated. David was smooth. He was the tops in quality customer service. I got the impression that Crazy Bones usually runs like a well-oiled machine. But on this night there was a spanner in the works. And that spanner was named Jonathan.
(The name of the table-snatching waiter has been changed for his protection)
The next morning we ordered room service. I love their Eggs Benedict. We relaxed before meeting up with Lleechef (Lisa) to do the town. We got to Tyler’s Burgers and I realized I had not done my homework – they are closed on Sundays. Lisa was very nice about it, and luckily we were in restaurant row. Bob had been wanting to try the Kaiser Grill. Why not try all the Kaiser restaurants? Bob noticed that Hog’s Breath is also part of the Kaiser restaurant empire. We had a very nice lunch there in Carmel several years ago. We sat at a table on the lovely patio and ordered bellinis. They weren’t quite right. There was no nectar or pulp, as in the description and the champagne tasted rank. I looked to Lisa for validation, and she said, “It almost tastes like wine mixed with seltzer water.”
Lisa and Bob ordered Ahi tuna salads. My mom and I split the crab cake salad and a pork sandwich. The crab cakes had cooled down a bit on the cold plates. I think if they had been served hot, I would have loved them. The salad was fantastic, with bits of candied walnuts, dried cranberry, and Asian pear in a homemade vinagrette. The pork sandwich was sliced pork loin, cheddar cheese, and a smear of BBQ sauce. It was good, but the cheese seemed out of place. I think salads is where they really shine.
Lisa is so photogenic!
We went to check out the art museum. My mother was telling us how they used to make the baskets, and about the Navajo rugs. She said, “They always weave in one mistake. Nothing can be perfect.”
“Because only God can be perfect?”
There were teensy, tiny baskets, less that ½-inch wide. Lisa asked, “How do you think they made those?” I said, “Maybe they had a shrinking machine.” She said, “A shrinking machine? To put the baskets in?” I said, “Actually, I was thinking to put the people in so they could shrink them down small enough to weave those baskets, but your idea is much more practical.” We went up to the third floor, where the modern art is. Since I had recently been there, I was pointing out certain works to my mother. I guess she found it a little patronizing, because as I pointed out, “This one is really interesting,” she grumbled in an exhausted voice, “Of COURSE it is!” Like why else would they put it in a museum if it wasn’t interesting? I tried to recover, “I just meant I like how it looks 3-dimensional, but when you get close, you see it is actually flat.” She said, “Trompe l'oeil” If my mom talked like a gangster rapper, she would have said, “It’s CALLED Tromp l' oeil, Beeyotch!” I tried to repeat the phrase unsuccessfully, then turned to Lisa, and asked her how to pronounce it. She said, “Tromp – to fool...l' oleil – the eye.” I had been SERVED. By my mother.
We went back to the spa in time for our massage appointments, and bid farewell to Lisa. She was such a good sport, getting dragged all over the place. But she will be staying for awhile this time, so maybe we will visit her again, or perhaps we can convince her to come out to LA if we have a meet-and-greet here.
My massage was kind of weird. The male masseuse was criticizing me for my tight muscles, and then started criticizing the “minimum wage girls up front” for not bringing him enough towels. He said that life is hard when you are a perfectionist. Then he said, “Imagine how hard it would be if your were a genius – like Robin Williams...or Einstein?” And that was pure gold. It was worth listening to all the bitching, it was worth the price of the massage, just to hear that little pearl drop from someone’s mouth.
Sunday night we had reservations at Cuistot, perhaps the greatest French restaurant outside of Paris. I had brought a bottle of champagne with us, and thought, what’s a little corkage compared to buying a bottle off the menu? I was a little concerned that it was such a cheap bottle I would be laughed out of the place. But I soon discovered that Fred, the best sommeleir around, would never do such a thing. He looked at the label with interest, and when I offered him a glass, he complimented the mouth feel, and said, “This is such
a treat. I don’t usually buy expensive wines for myself.” What class! He really knew how to make you feel comfortable instead of intimidated. I had read in Ruth Reichl’s book that most sommeliers size you up for potential, then abandon you when it is clear you are not dropping big bucks on wine. Not Fred. He remained our friend all evening.
My mom started with the broccoli soup, which I declined to taste (broccoli - ick!), Bob had his usual Crab Gratin, and I had my usual foie gras. Each time I order it, I think, I must have been mistaken last time. I am exaggerating the memory. Nothing could possibly be so good. I prepare myself for a letdown. Then with my first bite, the flavor soars, and I fall in love all over again. I am not sure if the apple is just a seasonal accompaniment, but it is inspired. The sweet bits of caramelized apple mixes with the caramelized edges and creamy, fatty interior of the foie gras to make (oh to hell with it – I’m going to get clicheed) a symphony in your mouth. There. I said it. A symphony of flavors. Take me to the cliché police.
Perfect Foie Gras
For mains, my mother ordered the lobster pot pie, and Bob had short ribs. The chef recommended rack of lamb to me. But once, when I was about 10 years old, my mother had taken me to Scandia. Against my mother’s protestatons I had ordered rack of lamb because it looked so grand. Naturally, I couldn’t eat it, and my mother ended up having to trade dinners with me. So just the phrase, “rack of lamb" makes me mother exclaim, “Ohhhhhhhhh Noooooooo!” But I wanted something a little unusual. I daringly went with the rabbit. When I
was little my parents had a friend who raised rabbits. Turning on a spit, they looked like shaved cats, and I was never able to eat them back then. I tried my mom’s pot pie first – delicious puff pastry, rich cream sauce, and generous helpings of lobster. Bob’s short ribs made me immediately regret not ordering them. They were melting off the bone, and drenched in an intense mahogony-colored cabernet reduction. I could only hope that my rabbit would have a similar sauce. It turned out to be a similar reduction, but made with port to add a little sweetness. I was relieved that the rabbit was sectioned so it didn’t look like anybody’s pet. It sounds so trite, but it tasted like chicken. Maybe a little more like free-range dark meat chicken. There was a flavor I couldn’t quite place, then I realized stupidly that it was probably rabbit flavor. The meat rested on a nest of homemade fettucini that was really nice with the port reduction. I think out of the three, the short ribs won.
We were too full for dessert, but we didn’t want the magical evening to end. I thought, you can always eat ice, even when you are full, so I ordered the trio of sorbets to split. The Grand Marnier and pineapple sorbets were the pure essence of the ingredients reduced down to maximum intensity. But the lemongrass lightly danced on your tongue, with just a hint of mystical flavor. I asked if there was galangal root in it, but no, only pure lemongrass.
Everything was so perfect, for once I wanted someone to take our picture in the booth, to capture that moment. I asked the waitress to take our picture. She said that another diner had asked why I was taking pictures. I said, offhandedly “Tell them I’m with the CIA.” Then I grew concerned,. I asked, “Am I bothering people? Did they complain?” She said, “They just asked what you were doing and so I wouldn't say you should stop, but I probably shouldn’t participate.” She tried to lighten the mood, but I was mortified. I skulked out and worried excessively for the entire drive home...Am I behaving boorishly? All these years of photographing my meals, have I been being obnoxious? Who do I think I am, requesting menus, questioning what is in the sauce, asking servers to smile for the camera? Who died and made me Ruth Reichl? Certainly not Ruth Reichl. It's not as if anyone has hired me to do this. Have all of these reports just been testaments to my boorishness? I had to sleep on it.
The next morning we stopped in a drug store so I could burn photo CDs of my trip pictures to give me mom. I was standing at the self-serve machine, and a giant picture of foie gras filled the screen, glossy, detailed and inviting. I wanted to reach right into the screen and grab the plate. I realized, can I really be doing a disservice to these restaurants if I am making people want to eat their food?
Many a little nose has been pressed up against this glass
So we went off to Tyler’s for a quick bite before the long drive home. They share a parking lot with a See’s candy shop. I noticed an orange chocolate in the window for Halloween, and I got my hopes up –could it be a pumpkin pie truffle? We went inside the black-and-white mecca of every California child and picked up a Key Lime truffle for Bob, a California Brickle for my mom, and an orange-colored chocolate for myself. See’s always gives you a free sample, but we tucked those away for later. Unfortunately, the orange chocolate was just that – orange flavored, but still something wonderful.
We walked over to Tyler’s and sat at the counter. The bustling, cheerful buzz put me immediately at ease. Men flipped burgers, customers shouted orders, and the milkshake machine whirred away happily. I was at home and my crisis was over. We had sliders, and french fries, and coleslaw that were out of this world. My mother ordered a burger and chocolate milkshake.
We were sitting at the counter in front of the sink, and a busy, confident-looking woman came over and turned on a faucet and asked us how everything was. I asked, “Are you the owner?” She said, “That depends. I am if you liked it. If not, I’m just some lady washing my hands.” We watched the counterperson, Roxie, expertly handle the phones, the take-out orders, and the counter without missing a beat. She smiled genuinely as she refilled our drinks, and I knew that it was OK to ask her how long she’d been there, and what was in the chili, and to ask her to smile for this picture.