By Karen Villalpando, 7/19/2012
I have a recurring dream of being in a dark, smoky club, wearing long gloves and holding a long cigarette holder during the heyday of Hollywood. It could be the 1920s or 30s – the time frame changes depending on what I’m wearing. There’s jazz playing, and martinis being sipped and a jovial atmosphere. (I say “holding” a cigarette holder, because I’m not a smoker, never have been, or will be, but the prop adds a certain cachet to the time period.)
Sometimes, in this dream, I think I’m in Paris, other times, Hollywood, and every now and again, at some exclusive resort. Perhaps I’m at Morgan’s in the Desert at the La Quinta Resort and Spa.
In the 1920s, wealthy San Francisco business owner, Walter H. Morgan, purchased 1,400 acres from the Cahuilla Indians in the desert 120 miles from the City of Los Angeles. He and architect Gordon Kaufman designed and built a small grouping of casitas and a main lodge and called it “La Quinta”, which opened in 1926. Fast forward, and over the years the resort grew, adding more casitas, championship golf and tennis, and world-class dining.
Walking into the rustic yet elegant hacienda at Morgan’s, you immediately get a sense of the past. Comfy upholstered chairs and sofas invite you to relax and enjoy a vintage cocktail. The piano sings out with jazzy music, and the clinking of glasses and the sounds of banter fill the air. This place is homey, yet sophisticated, and I feel as if I’ve been here before. I order a French 75 from their cocktail menu, a sultry concoction of Cognac, Champagne, lemon juice and simple syrup. My husband orders another vintage drink – a French martini with vodka, Chambord and pineapple juice. A Manhattan, a gimlet and a whiskey sour are other classics on their list.
We are ushered to a nice round table for four near the fireplace, and the attentive staff is immediately at our service. Adam, our waiter, is a skilled and well-trained server, whose smile and wink go a long way with the young women at the table – my daughters.
Maître d extraordinaire, also the restaurant manager, John Healy, is a knowledgeable sommelier and personable host. When you have friendly and charming staff members, like John and Adam, it makes the evening all the better – and memorable. Add to that a remarkable chef, Jimmy Schmidt, and we anxiously awaited our first courses.
We began with Pacific oysters topped with papaya, ginger and kaffir lime granita, a cool and refreshing introduction to an exquisite meal. We also shared the heirloom tomato salad with arugula and basil, and the ahi tuna tartare with tangerines, Maui onions, Nicoise olives and endive. The crisp crackers in the bread basket were the perfect croutons for the tartare.
Warm appetizers, like a farmer’s market soup, Coachella artichokes and grilled shrimp are also on the menu. Knowing the portion sizes on the large plates, we opted for the lighter, cool dishes.
John brought a bottle of 2009 Robert Foley “Griffin” to the table, a blend of 50 percent Petite Sirah, 37 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 13 percent Merlot. The wine was sublime, and the meritage matched perfectly with our hearty entrées of porcini crusted filet and rack of smoked almond crusted lamb.
The filet, cooked to a flawless medium rare, was made even better by the grilled wild mushrooms and a celery root gratin. The lamb rack with baby artichokes and chanterelles was spiced up with a chorizo and tomato emulsion.
Seared diver scallops, Alaskan halibut and the hand cut pasta of the day are all excellent selections. Prime Angus beef – a filet, a New York Strip and a 24 oz. Porterhouse – can be grilled to your liking with a “crust” of your choice – crispy Parmesan, Maytag blue cheese, and Nueske smoked bacon. Sides dishes are available to accompany the steaks, like ginger scented Coachella sweet corn, smoked paprika fries, and the proverbial macaroni and cheese – only theirs is made with fives cheeses, and roasted. And yes – it is delicious!
I’m more of a “savory” selector, than a sweet, but John insisted we try the chef’s buttered popcorn ice cream parfait. Topped with bittersweet chocolate fudge and sea salted caramel, the ice cream amazingly tasted like buttered popcorn! We also sampled the orange blossom crème brulée, another outstanding dessert.
It is obvious the team at Morgan’s enjoys putting on a show every night, and it’s under the orchestral baton of Jimmy Schmidt. This acclaimed chef hails from the Rattlesnake Clubs in Denver and Detroit, and has been a successful chef for more than 30 years. His sensational cooking and John Healy’s ability to “work the room” make dinner at Morgan’s not just another night out, but a memory that lingers on both the soul and the palate.
Perhaps I didn’t live in the 1920s when Walter Morgan envisioned this place, but he made sure his guests would feel at home for decades to follow. I’ll be dreaming about this place again soon.
Morgan’s in the Desert at La Quinta Resort and Spa, 49499 Eisenhower Drive, La Quinta, CA 92253. (760)564-4111. www.laquinta resort.com. Dining reservations: (760)777-4835. Morgan’s: www.morgansinthedesert.com.