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Looking Back and Looking Ahead at the Local Restaurant Scene

As we turn the calendar from 2015 to 2016, it’s worth examining the year gone by in the local food scene—and speculate about what’s coming up.

What did we learn about the local restaurant scene in 2015? A few top-of-the-mind thoughts:

• Intriguing restaurants can still create a buzz. Think for a moment: What was the last local restaurant that opened and created a buzz like Eight4Nine did? Unless I am forgetting something (which is entirely possible), it’s been years since a new place created such a fervor.

In some ways, Eight4Nine represents a perfect restaurant-buzz storm: It has an excellent pedigree, thanks to the team of co-owner Willie Rhine, the longtime general manager at Lulu California Bistro; renowned photographer John Paschal; and veteran executive chef Chuck Courtney. It has an exciting location, in the burgeoning uptown design district of Palm Springs. Finally, previews of the look and menu of the restaurant helped build excitement long before the doors finally opened.

I also think part of the buzz surrounding Eight4Nine can be attributed to a less-than-pleasant fact about the local dining scene: People are starving for great dining experiences here. There are a lot of good restaurants in the Coachella Valley. Tons of ’em. But there are just a few great ones.

• Having said that, there are nuggets of greatness to be found in the Coachella Valley food scene. Roman Blas is doing amazing things at Over the Rainbow, and just got a little love on Top Chef. Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhousewas named the 2015 Brewery of the Year at the California State Fair, and the two newer breweries in the valley are picking up medals at various beer competitions.

The stupid runs deep when it comes to some protesters. I totally understand why someone would be opposed to the concept of foie gras, or want to be vegetarian. There are some serious, serious problems with the corporatized food industry in this country regarding food safety and humane practices.

However, I don’t understand why local food protesters set their sights on Mindy Reed and Zin American Bistro.

In January, a California law banning foie gras—fatty duck or goose liver—was overturned, and Reed added several foie gras dishes back to the menu at Zin, located in downtown Palm Springs. Soon after, she was besieged with hate mail and protesters.

If the protesters had done their research, they would know that Reed is one of the area’s biggest proponents of local, free-range and humanely raised ingredients. That goes for foie gras, too.

“I serve foie gras that’s humanely raised,” she told the Independent earlier this year. “The geese are not caged. There’s no tube. There are no machines. The goose is hand-fed. There are a few farms doing this. Geese will gorge themselves naturally. People who like foie gras appreciate the fact that I buy humanely raised foie gras.”

Reed also had a question for her protesters.

“Why aren’t they picketing McDonald’s or other restaurants in town (that don’t seek out meat from humanely raised animals)?” she asked. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

She’s right. If you’re going to protest, think things out first, OK?

• Restaurants come and go. We lost a lot of great restaurants this year, including The Falls Steakhouse, Margarita’s, Twin Palms Bistro and Lounge, Michael’s Pizzeria, Wasabi, 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro, Dickie O’Neal’s Irish Pub and the Hacienda Cantina and Beach Club.

So what should we expect from the local restaurant scene in 2016? Whether you love what’s going on in downtown Palm Springs, or you hate it, restaurants will be part of the scene when all these new developments begin opening late this year. Here’s hoping they are good ones.

I also think (and hope) that the craft-cocktails trend continues to develop in the valley. While you’ll find more craft cocktails here now than you would have two or three years ago, the cocktails scene is still lacking.

Whatever 2016 may bring in the food and restaurants world, we’ll be reporting on it. Keep watching this space.

In Brief

Congratulations to the fine folks at Rio Azul Mexican Bar and Grill. The much-loved Mexican restaurant, located at 350 S. Indian Canyon Drive, in downtown Palm Springs, celebrated its fifth birthday in December. Get more details at rioazulpalmsprings.com. … Coming soon to downtown Palm Springs: Chicken Ranch, which is going into the old Jiao spot at 515 N. Palm Canyon Drive. Dave Morgan and Mike Smith are opening the place, which according to its Facebook page will offer free-range, farm-fresh, locally grown fare including rotisserie chicken, sides and salads. There’s a full bar as well. Keep your fingers crossed for a January opening date; watch www.facebook.com/EatChickenRanch for updates.

Published in Restaurant & Food News

Top Chef Comes to Palm Springs

During its 12 seasons, Bravo’s Top Chef has spent time in great food cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Las Vegas and, most recently, Boston.

Now we can add Palm Springs to the list … sort of.

For the show’s 13th season, producers decided to mix things up by returning to California—but hopping around, with stops in L.A., San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, Santa Barbara and the Coachella Valley.

While not a lot of details on the Palm Springs stop have been released, here’s what we do know: On Wednesday, May 20, the chef-testants were tasked with cooking for a mass same-sex wedding/renewal-of-vows ceremony. We also know that Over the Rainbow’s Roman Blas was asked to make a wedding cake for the show. (He shared that tidbit on Facebook.)

If any more Top Chef news makes its way to our desk, we’ll be sure to pass it along.

Johannes Stops Offering Tap Water in Favor of Bottles ... to ‘Preserve the Environment’?

OK, we’re confused here.

Johannes Restaurant—for my money, one of the top restaurants in the valley—has announced that as of June 15, it will no longer serve tap water, and will instead offer bottled water from New Zealand.

Why, you ask? It’s being done in an effort to “preserve the environment.” Yeah, we don’t get it, either.

Here’s the scoop, straight from the news release:

“The restaurant will offer Waiwera Organic Artesian Still Water, a New Zealand treasure for centuries, for $1. Waiwera water is carbon neutral and bottled at the source in BPA-free PET bottles. If a guest doesn’t finish the bottle of water, they can take it with them.

“Serving tap water with ice has become wasteful, and in order to conserve water, Johannes has made this decision to convert to a new concept. Restaurants in other cities are adopting this same concept. During the course of a year, the restaurant uses over 150,000 to 200,000 pounds of ice and 15,000 gallons of water, which converts to an average of over 75,000 glasses of water and ice per year.”

The news release goes on to say: “We hope more restaurants in the Coachella Valley will consider doing the same and that our guests will understand and support our concept.”

OK. We understand that less water will be coming out of California’s aquifers as a result of this move, perhaps … but shipping water all the way in from New Zealand!?

If we figure out how that works, we’ll let you know. For more information, visit www.johannesrestaurants.com.

Babe's Joins Forces With The Venue for a Special Dinner

It’s being touted as “the desert’s first five-course sushi and craft beer pairing dinner.”

It is taking place at The Venue Sushi Bar and Sake Lounge, 73111 El Paseo, in Palm Desert, at 6 p.m., Wednesday, June 3. The Venue’s sushi will be combined with the great beer—and a little bit of the barbecue—from Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse, in Rancho Mirage. The dinner starts with tempura-style stuffed zucchini blossoms (with spicy tuna!) being paired with Babe’s Honey Blond Ale—and it goes from there. As for the third course: We’re dying to find out what hickory-smoked tri-tip sashimi is! It’s being paired with Babe’s Bin 1214 Imperial Red Ale.

The dinner is $65 per person. For reservations or more details, call 760-346-1500.

In Brief

Twin Palms Bistro and Lounge is closed—again. After getting back on its figurative feet after two recent fires, the restaurant, at 1201 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, quite suddenly shut its doors on May 17. We’re told that serious maintenance issues within the building could not wait any longer to be fixed, so management decided to bite the bullet and address them, all while keeping fingers crossed for an Aug. 1 reopening. Here’s hoping that’s the case, as we’re already hankering for a bowl of Twin Palms’ amazing gumbo. Watch www.facebook.com/twinpalmsbistro for updates. ... Jersey Mike’s Subs is now open at 79174 Highway 111, in La Quinta. It’s the second Jersey Mike’s in the valley; there’s already one on Highway 111 in Palm Desert, and a third is supposedly coming to Palm Springs. … Wasabi, a Japanese/sushi joint that had for years been located at 333 S. Indian Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, has closed, and an Italian restaurant is taking its place. More details to come. … The Ace Hotel and Swim Club has again tweaked its menus with help from Five Leaves restaurant out of Brooklyn, N.Y. We recently joined other media folks at a tasting of the new fare at the Ace’s King’s Highway, and found the food to be quite tasty. In particular, we were blown away by the shepherd’s pie! We’re also intrigued by the fact that the Ace is now serving some special cocktails out of taps and bottles. We’ll share more boozy details when we get ’em; in the meantime, head to www.acehotel.com/palmsprings to check out the new menus.

Published in Restaurant & Food News