Lulu California Bistro – Palm Springs, California
How many times have you heard a transplant to the Land of Enchantment say it just doesn’t feel like Christmas without snow? Some of you expats dream of a white Christmas, just like the ones you used to know back when you lived in Siberia, the North Pole, Greenland and other similarly snowed-in states that aren’t as beautifully balmy in winter as is New Mexico. It’s not enough for you that winter temperatures across the Land of Enchantment occasionally drop into the forties and you sometimes have to wear long pants outdoors. You hardy, masochistic northerners are accustomed to mountains of snow being one of the defining elements of the Christmas season. You want to wash your hands, your face and hair with snow, snow, snow…
In the immortal words of Thor, the Norse god of thunder, “I say thee nay!” Any more than the one- or two-inches it takes for the city of Albuquerque to declare a “snow day” is too much snow. Who needs it! My dear friend Becky Mercuri who lives just south of Buffalo in the lake-effect-snow-belt traumatizes me with reports of storms dumping two- to three-feet of snow at a time. The Buffalo area averages some 94-inches of snow a year. That’s 94 glorious snow days (no work or school) for those of us in Albuquerque, but for Becky it means digging herself out from under snow drifts taller than she is in temperatures twenty degrees colder than her freezer.
The more geriatrically advanced my Kim and I get, the more our blood thins. We’re avowed wimps who don’t like driving in snow, walking in snow or even thinking about snow. Brrrr! So, why such antipathy for snow? Well, my Kim grew up in Chicago whose lake-effect snows are legendary. I grew up in Peñasco where I once walked six miles in two feet of snow to return a penny after being undercharged for a Snickers candy bar. Yes, we’ve shoveled snow. We’ve felt snow’s insidious presence and have shivered at its icy touch. Snow is no friend of ours.
In past years, the threat of some malevolent snowstorm potentially ruining our travel plans has kept us home over the Christmas holidays. All our favorite “get away from snow” travel destinations require traveling through potential snow magnets such as Flagstaff to reach the warm climes of our dreams. Then came 2017. With consistent 50-degree forecasts between Christmas and New Years, 2018 (thank you, Kristen Currie), we decided to give each other a shared Christmas present and spend a week in Palm Springs, California. Yes, that Palm Springs–the one where you can swim outdoors in December and snow is just ground-up Styrofoam used in movies.
For the first time since we lived in Mississippi, we were able to enjoy al fresco dining, albeit on an “unseasonably cool” Palm Springs day when temperatures dropped to 72-degrees. Never once did we complain “it doesn’t feel like Christmas.” Never once did we lament about how much we missed doing the dishes. Our host was Lulu’s, a downtown eatery often described online in such glowing terms as “Palm Springs hippest restaurant,” “funky and modern,” and “vibe that embodies the spirit of Palm Springs.” OpenTable has named Lulu’s one of the “Top 100 Dining Hot Spots in the U.S.” and has repeatedly honored Lulu with their “Diners Choice Award.” Next to the hostess station, you’ll espy a veritable tower of plaques naming Lulu the “best” in the valley in virtually every conceivable category–from best breakfast, Sunday brunch and outdoor dining to best margarita and martini (to name a few).
The uniquely architected restaurant boasts of two floors of indoor seating and the best people-watching-patio in the city. That patio is where we spent Christmas, 2017 with our debonair dachshund The Dude. Imprinted on the sidewalk next to our table were several stars honoring the many Hollywood luminaries who have lived, loved and played in this beautiful desert oasis.” You’d think The Dude was the biggest celebrity of them all considering all the attention he garnered. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to pet our little boy. Hmm, wasn’t this the way Marilyn Monroe was discovered?
The 2017 Christmas menu featured four courses of palate pleasing choices we would have enjoyed any time of year. As with Christmas feasts at home, an after-lunch comatose state was assured. The first course was our choice from four superb soups: curry carrot soup, classic corn chowder, wild mushroom soup and minestrone. Predictably, my choice was the curry carrot soup, the best I’ve ever had. Served hot so that its fragrant emanations wafted upward to my very happy nostrils, this pureed elixir is rich, creamy and satisfying, a perfect blend of sweet, earthy carrots and floral curry.
January is national soup month. While that makes sense for most of the fruited plain, we wondered if perhaps cold soups would be a better bet for places such as Palm Springs and Phoenix where January feels like May almost everywhere else. That notion was quickly dismissed when we reviewed the soup options. Hot soup is wonderful all year long! For my Kim, the gluten-free wild mushroom soup beckoned. It’s a rich and hearty blend with a pronounced earthiness and an invigorating freshness you don’t find with domesticated mushroom soups, especially those from a can.
Our second course was salad with my choice being Sonoma Mixed Greens (with toasted walnuts, raspberry vinaigrette and goat cheese). It’s long been our experience that salad greens just taste better and fresher in California than anywhere else. They seem to have a recently picked freshness and flavor (not the out-of-a-bag staleness of some salads). Such was the case with these mixed greens lightly drizzled with a raspberry vinaigrette. Predictably, we split the single wedge of mild goat cheese instead of crumbling it onto the salad.
For my Kim who turned up her nose at the notion of blue cheese just twenty years ago, the petite iceberg wedge (with hickory-smoked bacon, red onions, tomato slices and Roquefort cheese dressing) is indicative of how far she’s come. Roquefort cheese is sour, strong, ripe, sharp, pungent and absolutely delicious who love our fromage as fetid as it can be. This blue-veiny cheese goes so well with the hickory-smoked bacon, the best Palm Springs pairing since Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Perhaps because technically it’s a roast, not a steak, prime rib is one of my very favorite cuts of beef. In the past few years, my Kim and I have eschewed more traditional Christmas dinners in favor of prime rib, cut into a slab Fred Flintstone would appreciate. While not cut as thick as either Fred or I like, Lulu’s version was a good fourteen-ounces of rich, juicy prime rib prepared at medium rare. An accompanying horseradish cream provided a great counterbalance, imparting an eye-watering contrast to the beef. Horseradish on prime rib isn’t for everyone, but it is for me. Red skin potatoes, baby carrots and beans are nice sides, but it’s the prime rib that steals the show.
My Kim is much more of a traditionalist in every way. Plus she’s from the Midwest which means she was weaned on meat and potatoes. For her, Christmas (and Thanksgiving, Halloween, Independence Day, Mothers’ Day and of course Guy Fawkes Day) is all about oven-roasted turkey and all the trimmings. Ironically, she doesn’t like one of those trimmings and always shovels the stuffing into my plate. This was some of the very best chestnut stuffing I’ve ever had. Chestnuts have a very distinctive flavor (plus Northerners use them to warm their hands) and they’re so much better on stuffing than boring old cornbread. A generous amount of turkey with cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes were terrific, too.
Legend has it that a fourth “wise man” brought the gift of fruitcake to the infant Jesus. Had it been more warmly received by the Holy Family, perhaps it would be more beloved today. As it is, the best fruitcake takes a distant backseat to warm bread pudding, a timeless dessert and very much a Christmas favorite. Lulu’s version is rich, sweet and decadent–three characteristics which make it such an endearing and beloved dessert. If I may offer a small criticism, it’s that the lightest touch of salt would have made it even better.
Lulu California Bistro was a holiday haven for us, a home away from home. It’s about as far away from snow as we could find, but even in warm weather, this is a happening place to which we hope very much to return.
Lulu California Bistro
200 South Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, California
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LATEST VISIT: 25 December 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Prime Rib, Roasted Turkey, Apple Crisp, Warm Bread Pudding, Carrot Curry Soup, Wild Mushroom Soup, Sonoma Mixed Greens, Petite Iceberg Wedge