By Bill Gerdes
In the ’60s and ’70s snagging a meal in the desert meant a steak, a big, bloody, gin martini—three olive—Dean and Sammy on the jukebox-porterhouse. A place like Melvyn’s in Palm Springs comes to mind. Maybe a little dated, maybe a little dark; there’s a baked potato coming your way and it’s loaded with real butter, salt and sour cream. Fast forward to the ’80s and ’90s and it’s California cuisine overly done as to be a tad ridiculous, much like the leopard-print boots and tops many women wear in places like Palm Desert and Indio. Today though, when the desert comes to mind I think of innovative cooking, done by some creative new chefs. And after stopping by a week ago, I think of Ernie’s Bar and Grill.
I hate golf for all the usual clichéd reasons, but mainly because I’m no damn good at it. And the clothes. The clothes. So as I pull into the P.G.A. complex in La Quinta, there’s a bit of trepidation. Will they make me put on a golf shirt to eat Ernie’s? Will their new executive chef, Fernando Cruz know about my slice and that I’m banned on all public courses in New Jersey due to it?
Instantly I realize I needn’t have worried. Ernie’s sits perched as if on stilts above two of the more scenic 18th holes in North America and one can watch as golfers finish up their rounds. The mountains glimmer in the distance and the greens are almost violently emerald and it’s all quite beautiful.
And Chef Cruz and his staff are doing some awesome gastro pub cuisine. We start off with some crispy tuna bites as a bit of a nosh. The tuna (marinated in soy) is perfect, as is the slightly acidic slaw that sits underneath, while the homemade chips add a bit of salt for contrast. It’s the grapefruit emulsion that makes the dish though, providing a sour-sweet oomph to the tuna. Yet five minutes later the dish felt bland, blanched out, plain. Not that it still wasn’t great just that . . .
by then we had tried Chef Cruz’s take on oysters: the Signature Charred Oysters. Wow. Damn. I’m not big on oysters, but I want to run away to Aruba with these. Presented in the half shell, still piping hot and dripping in Indonesian lemon vinegar, these suckers teasingly allow themselves to be plunked onto delicate mini-baguettes. All is charred oyster, lemon, garlic and cheese, and all is well in the universe. My notes on the oysters say that they “make your mouth happy,” and that sounds about right.
Other dishes worthy of praise that we sampled include the Albatross Peruvian Marinated Grilled Chicken Salad and the Pear and Date Pizza. The pizza is tasty, but the Albatross, named after an obscure golf term, is a mouthful, name-wise and portion-wise as well. The ingredients, like sweet plantains and roasted squash, hold up under the keylime vinaigrette, as does the goat cheese which compliments but doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the salad. And the chicken is moist, tasty, I even got a leg. That’s awesome. The view is awesome. The food is awesome. I may have to try golf again.
Ernie’s Bar and Grill, 56-150 PGA Blvd., La Quinta, (760) 564-7125; www.laquintaresort.com/dining/ernies. Sun-Sat, 6AM-9PM. AE, D, MC, V.