The Coachella Valley is a rare bird. I should know; I lived there for nearly 40 years. Palm Springs through Indio run vast miles along Highway 111 through the enigmatic desert cities where many stars in the 1950s though 70s escaped a more classic Hollywood for a little R&R. One of these celebrities was the iconic Frank Sinatra whose home in the desert compelled him to lend his fame to many community endeavors, including a fundraising concert for a local Jewish temple needing to beef up its membership!
Frank’s famous song, “I Did It My Way” reminds me of the attitude of the desert. It is a place notorious for breaking all the rules. Citizens fly by their own sense of time, which is why trying to stick anyone to a deadline, is useless. Perhaps the taffy-like heat waves cause the strange sense of malaise. People are known to wear shorts and Polo shirts to five-course dinners without anyone blinking an eye. And restaurants close at whim without updating their websites for seasonal vacations or renovations just because. There is beauty and madness in these occasional aberrations to the norm.
Many restaurants don’t stand the test of time. They swoop in with high ambitions during winter’s high season and are gone before the temperature hits 100 come summer. But a few classics have remained and they seem to carry a theme of being survivors from the days when notables came to play: Lyon’s English Grille (now Mr. Lyons), Wally’s Desert Turtle, Le Vallauris, Melvyn’s and the grand Cuistot.
Cuistot, a looming French estate on a prominent corner in Palm Desert has been serving upscale bistro food to a rich clientele since 1987. Chef Bernard Dervieux commandeers a glass enclosed kitchen central to the space and serves up traditional favorite dishes. Of course, while I lived in the area I was a single career mom who couldn’t quite afford the steep prices. I spent a few occasions there with more well-to-do clients who treated me to luncheon poached salmon and cold chopped beet towers and my favorite non-creamed mushroom soup with price tags akin to my average dinners for two with my daughter elsewhere.
Recently the Cute Gardener and I visited the area on occasion of my brother’s wedding. Without reservations, we randomly stormed the door asking the host if there was a seat for us in the bar. There was something saucily contemporary and slightly under the radar glam about sitting side-by-side in a plush booth in the packed bar sharing a bowl of steaming Lyon-style quenelles in a savory lobster sauce and washing it down with an out-of-character sparkling rose. Or stabbing tangy scallops topped with tiny phyllo dough berets. Or pulling apart nicely caramelized and sticky legs of a roasted quail stuffed with sweetbreads on top of creamy black rice in a Chablis wine sauce while servers bustled to and fro gathering cocktails for a large party of conventioneers in the main dining room. Just like those times we order lima beans with truffles for dessert in a fancy steakhouse; or enjoy a whole meal and then stop by a bar somewhere else for a bowl of agnolotti; or fancy Chinese food on the 4th of July; or stake out cheese puffs in WeHo lesbian bars post-Thai food birthday dinners, our little slice of Cuistot old school came wrapped in the style we’ve come to know as “doing it our way”.