Workshop Kitchen + Bar – Palm Springs, California
“Good restaurant design is about achieving equilibrium between the food, service and design
– in effect telling a complete story.”
~ David Rockwell, American Architect
Andy Rooney, the curmudgeonly commentator on television’s 60 Minutes didn’t like food that’s “too carefully arranged;” declaring “it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking,” adding “If I wanted a picture I’d buy a painting.” Those of us who write about food not only notice, we enjoy eye-pleasing artful plating, especially when everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, balance and appearance. We like plate syzygy. The balance of color, texture and appearance gives us pause to reflect on how great everything looks before our taste buds confirm what our eyes already know.
Admittedly not all of us pay much attention to restaurant design (form, function and space utilization) though we do appreciate “ambiance” which isn’t exactly the same thing. “What’s the difference?,” you ask. Design as a whole is a reflection of the owner, the menu and all operational aspects of the restaurant. Ambiance is a subset of design, encompassing five critical experiential elements: light quality, noise level, space and scale, touch (tactile elements such as natural wood grains, soft leather and fabric slick, polished metal, stone and glass) and smell.
When it comes to modern design, Mayfair, the world’s largest online-only retailer for home decor and furnishings, proclaims Palm Springs as one of the most stylish cities in America, ranking it ahead of such fashionably elegant and chic cities as Beverly Hills and Miami. Architectural Digest calls Palm Springs “Mod Mecca.” It hasn’t always been that way, especially for the heavily trafficked Uptown area’s southern flank. Downtrodden and timeworn, the area was in danger of becoming a blight on the city until the city purchased and spent more than half a million dollars upgrading historic a 3.5 acre historic property in the area. Restorations included the historic El Paseo Building, a circa 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival-style complex.
The El Paseo Building was built around a courtyard and once served as home to the El Paseo Theatre. In 2011, the Workshop Kitchen + Bar moved into the building. Three years later, the restaurant earned a James Beard Foundation award for best restaurant design. Vestiges of the edifice’s former life as a theater are few save for 27 foot high ceilings. Architect, a highly-respected trade journal describes the space’s transformation using such terms as “Brutalist, ecclesiastic design approach, monolithic concrete booths, monolithic altarpiece.” And you thought your humble blogger uses sesquipedalian terms.
Admittedly neither my Kim or I understand monochromatic concretious design elements, preferring brighter colors, woods and fabrics. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t appreciate the interior design which we (or at least me) didn’t find cold or impersonal at all. James Beard Award not withstanding, we would have preferred dining in the courtyard even had our debonair dachshund The Dude not been accompanying us. The Dude, as always, was in his element, flirting with the women and drawing admiring looks from every gender.
Shortly after being seated, we experienced a sense of deja vu upon espying Levy, the perpetually smiling server who had taken such good care of us at Cheeky’s during our 2017 visit. He was thrilled to see his smiling countenance on my review of Cheeky’s and happily posed for another photo, the 2018 edition so to speak. Levy indulged my preference for speaking Spanish while graciously keeping my Kim abreast of what we were saying (though she understands much more than she lets on). Levy still works at Cheeky’s, but helps out at the Workshop during Sunday brunch.
Chef-owner Michael Beckman wants his restaurant to be a communal and cozy gathering place in which diners can enjoy a market-driven menu comprised of fresh, seasonal food highlights harvested from local farms. Workshop’s design includes “large monolithic booths” flanking a 35-foot-long communal table that runs down the center of the restaurant. Custom lighting fixtures hang down from the 27-foot ceilings. It’s a minimalist approach to restaurant design, but it’s an approach that seems to appeal to a younger crowd, at least on the pleasant Sunday morning in which we enjoyed brunch.
Under spacious skies, the patio offers a contrasting experience to the dramatic indoor space. Verdant shrubs and trees offer shade for some tables, but more of them rely on umbrellas. As has oft been our experience in the Coachella Valley, locals were conspicuous by their attire. Locals were the ones wearing jackets and sweaters for the unseasonably cool 65-degree morning. Visitors like us wore short-sleeved shirts and open-toed sandals while reveling in the much better weather that we’d left behind. Regardless of tolerance, many were enjoying Stumptown Coffee, a Portland roasted blend. It’s a good, strong coffee, very enjoyable while perusing the menu.
Every section of the brunch menu is a joy to peruse and a challenge to decide what to have. Egg dishes ranging from the simple (eggs any style, choice of black pepper bacon or homemade breakfast pork sausage) to the sublime (blue crab eggs Benedict) lead off the menu followed by “plates,” eight entree-sized dishes. Plates garnered much of our attention and provided the greatest challenge as to what we should order. Would it be the house pastrami reuben, duck egg huevos rancheros or something equally intriguing? Three items, including Belgian waffles and whole grain pancakes are listed in the “Sweet Side” section of the menu. Raw veggies, sides and breads fill out a very interesting and inviting menu.
We got excellent recommendations from Levy, including the proper pronunciation for levain bread (it’s not pronounced like Elton John’s song Levon as I’d told my Kim). Levain, he explained, is a bread starter, a leavening agent used in place of yeast to make dough rise. As with all starters, once it’s mixed into bread dough, a portion of the bread dough can be removed, put back in the starter receptacle, and remixed with flour and water to maintain the starter so it is readily available for the next batch of bread. Forget the scientific properties of levain bread. All you knead…er, need to know is that it’s delicious. Workshop serves mesquite grilled slices with butter and an apricot compote that’ll blow your mind. This is the type of toast worth getting up for.
Real Simple, an “online go-to site for those who are looking to make life easier” calls avocados a “breakfast superhero,” explaining “packed with healthy fats and fiber, this delicious fruit is a healthy breakfast choice dressed up in an irresistibly creamy package.” Sounds good to me. So did Workshop Kitchen’s half avocado side dish baked with Drake (and I had thought they only made coffee cakes) farm’s goat cheese, drizzled with honey and chopped almonds. The earthy, tart goat cheese filled the cavity where the avocado pit once was with more spread atop the lusciously rich, creamy, buttery avocado. Shaved onions (perhaps Marcona) offered a textural contrast as did the arugula and micro greens. The honey was a sweet counterbalance to the other flavors. If avocados are a breakfast superhero, their secret identities should be immediately and widely divulged.
My Kim surprised me with her choice of pulled pork belly tostaditas (market radish salad, iceberg, chipotle crema, grilled pineapple salsa), a dish she probably would not have ordered in New Mexico. This was one of those dishes in which every element comes together magnificently and every ingredient contributes either texture or flavor (or both). Three corn tostadas about the size of most Mexican sopes are blanketed by the colorful melange of toppings. Pick up an individual toastadita and you risk copious spillage. Employ a fork and there’ll be less mess, but you’ll crack the crispy corn tortillas (a capital offense for me). Save for the flavorless iceberg lettuce, you’ll discern every component of this dish with several flavor profiles really standing out–the smoky, invigorating chipotle crema, the sweet, juicy pineapple salsa and the “pulled” pork belly which was actually cubed.
Three of the eight “plates” dishes were Mexican-inspired. Levy told us they’re very popular. He recommended the Maine lobster breakfast burrito (breakfast potatoes, eggs, avocado, prosciutto, cannellini beans, smoky fresh salsa), a good idea conceptually and one executed especially well by the Workshop Kitchen team. Because of its sweet, delicate flavor, I had feared the lobster would get lost among other stronger flavors, especially the breakfast potatoes and cannellini beans, but there was just enough claw and knuckle meat that the lobster made its presence felt. Though it could be eaten as a handheld burrito, there’s just something about lobster that elevates even the way you eat burritos. Besides that, they tend to last longer if you use a fork. This was another dish in which excellent parts made for an even better whole, an outstanding breakfast burrito.
The Workshop Kitchen + Bar is one of Eater’s 18 essential Palm Springs restaurants for Winter, 2018, signifying it as “a restaurant which defines dining.” Eater’s essential restaurants “don’t just exemplify culinary excellence — they foster hospitality and pleasure and purpose in their communities.” Yeah, yeah, kumbaya and all that. It’s a terrific restaurant in a great setting where the food is every bit as good as the milieu in which it’s enjoyed. It’s at the forefront of the Palm Springs continuing ascendency as a dining destination.
The Workshop Kitchen + Bar is so much more than a well designed, architectural and esthetic masterpiece. It’s a great dining destination for Sunday brunch.
Workshop Kitchen + Bar
800 N Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, California
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LATEST VISIT: 23 December 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Maine Lobster Breakfast Burrito, Pulled Pork Belly Tostaditas, Mesquite Grilled Levain Bread with Apricot Compote and Butter, Half Avocado