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?
25 December 2017: 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.
25 December 2018: 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.
25 December 2017: 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.
25 December 2017: 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.
25 December 2017: 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.
25 December 2017: 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.
25 December 2017: 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.
25 December 2018: Lulu’s so impressed us during our Christmas meal in 2017 that we returned exactly a year later to enjoy another spectacular holiday celebration. As during our inaugural visit, the Christmas menu featured featured four courses of palate pleasing choices: soup, salad, entree and dessert. Several of the items we enjoyed so much in 2017 were available in 2018, but there were also items we didn’t recall being on last year’s menu.
Among them was a housemade Classic Corn Chowder (sweet corn, thyme and a touch of cream). You know it’s good when my Kim praises it. Though she loves corn on and off the cob, she loathes creamed corn except the way it’s prepared by Lawry’s: The Prime Rib. Lulu’s classic corn chowder was very much reminiscent of Lawry’s vaunted creamed corn–not texturally, but for its pronounced fresh corn flavor ameliorated by the gentle herbaceous properties of thyme and the savory richness of cream.
25 December 2018: Perhaps as a Christmas present for her devoted husband, my Kim ordered the Sonoma Mixed Greens salad we enjoyed in 2017. That allowed me to request the Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Tower. Roasted beets are one of her favorite indulgences in the world, while goat cheese is one of mine. The pairing is terrific on its own, but the addition of micro-greens and basil-infused oil elevates the salad even more. Surprisingly (and you’ll get no complaint from me) the goat cheese was sliced even more thickly than the beets. The tart, earthy flavor of the goat cheese and the earthy sweetness of beets makes for a wonderful salad.
25 December 2018: Short ribs braised in a red wine sauce served with fried onions, roasted Peruvian purple potatoes and haricot vert for Christmas? You’d better believe it. In fact, Lulu’s short ribs are one of the best, most delicious arguments for not having turkey or ham we’ve ever experienced. These short ribs are amazingly tender and moist with meaty tendrils pulling apart easily. I’ve often heard that braised short ribs taste like roast beef. While both do have a pronounced beefy flavor, short ribs are much more indulgent, combining the rich marbling of rib steaks and the deep, beefy flavor of chuck roast. They’re an exemplar of “stick to your ribs” (pun intended) comfort food, a true carnivore’s delight.
There are some 3,800 types of potatoes in Peru where they were domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago. My favorite are the Papa Purpura whose skin and flesh are a deep purple until cooked when they’re more bluish. These tubers are often referred to as the “Gem of the Andes” and were once reserved for Inca kings. In truth, they’re very similar in taste to other potatoes with perhaps a bit more butteriness. Frankly, we would have appreciated another dozen or so of these golfball-sized beauties. Lulu’s certainly roasts them well. The haricot vert (green beans for the English-speakers among us) and fried onions are also noteworthy.
25 December 2018: I once heard former colleague Matt Mauler refer to filet mignon as “that snooty French steak.” To be clear, filet mignon may have a French name (though the French call it filet de bœuf), but it’s not a French steak. It’s a cut beloved across the meat-eating world. Quite simply, it’s a very high quality cut of steak, an extra thick cut from the tenderloin. It’s very tasty, extremely lean and among the most tender of all steak cuts. Though some carnivores may consider other cuts more flavorful (more “meaty”), very few would kick a filet mignon off their table.
Lulu’s filet mignon is a melt-in-your-mouth exemplar of flavor and tenderness, one of the very best we’ve ever had. It’s covered in a wondrous gravy seasoned judiciously with peppercorns which impart a slightly piney flavor with both fruity and peppery qualities. Any more peppercorns and the gravy would have been acerbic. Fewer berries and their presence wouldn’t have been noticed. Fresh, earthy mushrooms, potatoes au gratin and asparagus round off an outstanding Christmas meal.
25 December 2018: It’s almost expected that New Mexicans are supposed to proudly proclaim the transcendent goodness of flan, however, in my 39 years on Planet Earth, I can count perhaps five memorable flans. For both my Kim and I, there are several traditional New Mexican desserts we enjoy much more (among them capirotada, panocha, biscochitos, sopaipillas with honey). Count the coconut flan at Lulu’s among the five memorable flans to have crossed my lips. Coconut was embedded into the flan while toasted coconut flakes crowed the caramel-topped, timbale-shaped mound.
For two years in a row, Lulu California Bistro has been 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–maybe someday even on a day other than Christmas.
LULU CALIFORNIA BISTRO
200 South Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, California
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LATEST VISIT: 25 December 2018
1st VISIT: 25 December 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Prime Rib, Roasted Turkey, Apple Crisp, Warm Bread Pudding, Carrot Curry Soup, Wild Mushroom Soup, Sonoma Mixed Greens, Petite Iceberg Wedge, Coconut Flan, Filet Mignon, Braised Short Ribs, Roasted Beets and Goat Cheese Tower, Classic Corn Chowder
RESTAURANT REVIEW #1013