PALM SPRINGS, Calif.
When the weather is nice and warm here, there’s nothing better than dining al fresco. And there’s no better place to do it than at the SO.PA restaurant at the L’Horizon Hotel and Spa.
The hotel went through a two-year renovation after hotel developer Steve Hermann purchased the property, originally designed by architect William Cody. To top off the redesign, Hermann turned former badminton courts into an enchanting dining space equipped with Lindsey Adelman lights.
I dined at SO.PA (which is short for South Palm) on my first night in Palm Springs, which also happened to be the warmest day of my five days here. (That actually isn’t saying much since most of the days were in the low 60s.) It’s still winter, so nights can be cold here so the space is helped by heat lamps and fire pits.
SO.PA is an unusual restaurant in that every table is outdoors, mostly covered by the shade of large trees. This being Palm Springs, 99 percent of the time they do all right with al fresco dining. But I was counting my lucky stars that I had a beautiful night because just the next night Palm Springs had a downpour with gusting wind, so I’m sure my dinner would have been canceled if I had made reservations just one day later.
Instead, I had the most magical night. Not just enjoying sitting under the stars, but because of the excellent service where you’re constantly checked on from the hostess to the server to the general manager who visits each table at the end of your meal. And of course by the exquisite food of Chef Giacomo Pettinari, an Italian who worked early in his career at the famed El Bulli in Spain and later Valentino’s in Los Angeles where he earned his first Michelin star.
Pettinari has created a menu that touches on various flavors from the Mediterranean, from Turkey to Spain. You can start with some hummus with naan bread or fresh kumamoto oysters or caviar, and move on to several starter plates and ending with a selection of entrees. I started with blistered sea scallops carpaccio ($24), which was my favorite dish of the night because of the mixture of flavors.
The sweet scallops are thinly sliced and then blistered (by the looks of it, I’m guessing they were torched) to caramelize their natural sweetness, and then balanced with fermented cream and pickled blackberries. Baby chioggia beets add some color, so does salmon caviar, and then touched off with smoked sea salt dust. The only off taste on the plate might be the overuse of preserved lemons, which was chopped into bits and tasted almost like mint stems when I bit into them. Still, the dish was an enjoyable experience for the eyes and the mouth.
I ordered the compressed melon salad ($15) as a light transition to my entree. The beautiful plate of colorful watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew was garnished with French feta cheese and red onion relish and mint. My server added a drizzle of melon syrup for a bit more sweetness. Although the melons were imported since it isn’t summer, I can see how this would be a perfect dish for the Palm Springs heat.
For my entree, I had the braised veal cheeks from Marcho Farm in Pennsylvania ($28), served on top of vegetarian couscous and golden raisins. Between the slices of cheeks were aged ricotta and micro cilantro, and for texture a sprinkling of smoked almonds. The veal cheeks were tender and tasty, but I was craving more of the braising liquid or a sauce because the couscous made the overall dish seem dry.
My meal ended with a dessert called Maddalena ($12), which was described as a cake similar to a madeleine (the French pastry), served with cheesy and lemony curd with berries and matcha green tea sorbet, along with crystalized mint and pistachio sable. The cake was nice and I loved the curd. The green tea sorbet provided a nice burst of color to the overall dish but I didn’t get a strong matcha flavor.
But really, these are just nitpicky points to what are always composed and beautiful dishes with interesting new tastes and quality ingredients.
BTW, I went all out with the drinks. I started with a cocktail called the Perfect Gentlemen ($12) made with bourbon, housemade raspberry cordial, muddled mint, simple syrup and sparkling wine. The selection of wine by the glass made it easy for me to find pairings for my dishes, starting with a chenin blanc for my scallops and salad, followed with a Spanish blend of red wine for my veal cheeks.
The last bite
I couldn’t think this on the night of my SO.PA dinner since it was my first meal in town, but after dining my way through several Palm Springs restaurants ranging from hipster diners to edgy Asian fusion, I feel comfortable saying SO.PA may be the best restaurant in Palm Springs. With its unique environment, first-class service and world-class menu, this can be a destination restaurant that will leave people satisfied and impressed. I was.
The rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: SO.PA inside the L’Horizon Hotel and Spa, 1050 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, Calif. PH: 760.323.1858. Opened weekdays for breakfast, lunch and dinner; weekends for brunch and dinner. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. Website
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