CVIndependent

Sat11282020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Andrew Smith

“Have a cup of coffee. Relax, and enjoy the sculpture garden,” suggests Art Vasquez as he opens his arms toward the spacious patio.

It’s the beautiful home of Persimmon Bistro and Wine Bar, located on the lower level of the Palm Springs Art Museum. For most restaurants, outdoor dining has become necessary, if not ideal—but it’s always been an intrinsic element of Persimmon.

“I’ve always considered this my main dining room,” says Vasquez as he gestures toward the courtyard. The tables are spread out around two large fountains, interspersed around a collection of sculptures and the neatly curated landscape. With ambient jazz playing in the background, Persimmon’s patio offers an immersive, cultural experience, set below ground in seclusion from the bustle of the outside world. You could forget you’re in Palm Springs—well, except for the overhead sunshine, towering palm trees and mountain backdrop.

Vasquez assumed ownership of Persimmon in the spring of 2019. A successful local valley restaurateur—he spent years operating Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse—he saw Persimmon as something of a passion project.

“Prior to taking over here, my wife and I would make three or four trips a year to the California Central Coast, exploring the restaurants, the wineries and the breweries,” Vasquez says. “This is my way of bringing a piece of that back here so I don’t have to miss it so much.”

He researched restaurants located at some of the country’s larger museums. The result: Persimmon is an eclectic lunch spot (it currently closes at 6 p.m.) that’s part wine bar, part coffee shop and part French bistro. Pre-pandemic, you could get a sense of that from the vibrant Parisian décor inside. Mid-pandemic, we’re out in the courtyard, and the vibe is almost entirely wine country, with the addition of museum artwork.

That wine-country concept is evident in the Mediterranean-themed menu, which offers a vibrant potpourri of fresh, local, artisan flavor. Vasquez frequents local farmers’ markets, bringing in hand-selected heirloom tomatoes, basil, romaine lettuce, arugula and citrus. He’s also an advocate of small and local, with offerings including fare from CV Microgreens, Fulvio’s Italian Sausage (owned by TV-meteorologist Patrick Evans), local dates and local honey.

That dedication to freshness is woven into dishes like the panini margherita and the heirloom tomato salad, as well as housemade signatures like the pesto, hummus and tapenade. The spicy pozole rojo is a can’t-miss chicken soup, topped with avocado, radishes and cabbage. The charcuterie and cheese boards come in a variety of options, featuring products including Spanish chorizo, soppressata, prosciutto, Maytag blue cheese, Humboldt Fog goat cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano and aged gouda, garnished with accoutrements like European olives, dried and fresh fruit, figs, caper berries and watermelon radishes. Every board is its own unique creation.

“It’s like painting a picture,” Vasquez says. “I love doing it.”

Vasquez admits to kicking his heels quite a bit during the lockdown. Persimmon got hit a little earlier than everyone else, as the museum was one of the first notable closures in California. A couple of months of “quality family time” soon became the “sleepless nights” of summer. When Persimmon finally reopened in late October with the cooler weather, Vasquez set about various internal renovations and also invested in new equipment. Most notably, you’ll see the addition of an outdoor pizza oven. Actually, you might smell it first, as the soft aromas of hard red oak waft subtly across the patio—and conveniently to the sidewalk above.

“Red oak is indigenous to the Central Coast,” Vasquez says, “It’s a high temperature, slow-burning wood. I get a lot of compliments about the aroma and the flavor it imparts on the pizza.”

Not only have the pizzas been an instant hit; they’ve also been a recent vice, Vasquez says as he jokingly pats his “COVID belly.” Vasquez makes the sauce from scratch with authentic Italian San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic and oregano. Most of the toppings are sliced to order.

Such personal selection extends to the bar, which features an array of craft beers, California and international wines, wine cocktails and Madeira. Beer is my first passion, and I have always been impressed by Persimmon’s array of craft beer—even more so with the new addition of a six-tap draft system. It’s likely the only place in the valley you’ll find beers like Lost Abbey Lost and Found and WestBrew Mosaic Surfer on tap.

“I drove down to San Diego and picked that one up myself,” Vasquez says about the Mosaic Surfer.

Standouts among the California and Belgian bottle selections include Monk’s Café Flemish Sour and The Bruery 12 Drummers Drumming.

There’s also plenty of diversity on the wine menu, including a variety of California and international wines. Sparkling wines are popular, with ample choices including Italian prosecco, French crémant and brut rosé, as well as a tantalizing orange-infused wine from Wiens in Temecula.

“I’m trying to have fun and keep things interesting,” Vasquez says. “I try to offer something different while keeping it approachable and well-priced.”

The museum has yet to reopen, and given the recent COVID-19 spike, it’s unclear when it will; after all, the only thing certain in 2020 is the uncertainty. That fact has reduced foot traffic around the bistro, although Persimmon does draw in a good number of locals and hikers from the adjacent trails.

In the meantime, consider Persimmon Bistro and Wine Bar one of Palm Springs’ best little secrets. It’s a secluded escape from the bustle and noise of Palm Canyon Drive—and a perfect spot for socializing or reflective sipping amidst culturally enlightened surroundings.

For more information, visit www.persimmonbistro.com.

For more than a half-century, Lord Fletcher’s has stood as a landmark on Highway 111—so it was with great sadness that we learned in August that the restaurant would not reopen.

It was especially sad for me—because I worked there, and I had grown rather fond of the place.

Lord Fletcher’s had always closed for summer, but COVID-19 meant the closure happened extra-early this year, in March. The scheduled reopening in September seemed more and more unlikely the closer it got, but the expectation was still when rather than if.

Michael Fletcher, the owner, reached out to the staff a few days before the story hit the news. Around the restaurant, we’d heard quiet rumors that the family was open to offers. That made sense; Michael is in his 60s, and there was no apparent succession in place. He did mention a couple of factors privately, but I’ll just say that although the family could have weathered the financial effects of the pandemic, COVID-19 accelerated a decision which was likely imminent.

Opened by Michael’s father, Ron Fletcher, in 1966, the restaurant established itself as an intrinsic piece of local history. It was inspired by the countryside inns of his English homeland. At the time of its opening, it was a bold project, isolated and far from Palm Springs. However, it thrived, quickly attracting a wealthy and star-studded clientele.

The iconic exterior might seem a little dated, like a good, old English pub—and therein lies the charm. Inside, with its central fireplace, exposed brickwork, carpets and thick wooden tables, Lord Fletcher’s portrays warmth, comfort and authenticity. It is supplemented by a treasure trove of memorabilia that includes a grandfather clock, swords, lances, tapestries and centuries-old etchings. The expansive collections of Toby jugs and horse brass leave barely an inch of wall space uncovered. It’s a literal museum that brings a new discovery to even the most-frequent visitors.

Ironically, the portrait of Frank Sinatra, framed and mounted behind his favorite table, always attracted the most attention. Michael Fletcher has hundreds of stories to tell, but the most notable is about the night that Sinatra and Alan Shepard jumped behind the bar to perform a duet of “Fly Me to the Moon.” You get a sense of how deep the relationship ran when you learn that Ron and Michael were gifted front-row seats to a Sinatra show in London. Sinatra arrived onstage, halted the applause and then took a knee, telling the Fletchers that on this night, they were his guests. Frank was a regular for more than 30 years. Barbara Sinatra continued to return for many years with friends to reminisce.

Lord Fletcher’s golden era boasts an extensive list of celebrities. Lucille Ball had her own table, and other regulars included Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Walter Annenberg, George Hamilton, Steve McQueen and Gerald Ford. More recently, Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode at the restaurant, accompanied by Josh Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age. We got the occasional celebrity in the restaurant during my time, but the golden era had faded to nostalgia.

While several remaining customers had been regulars since the opening, much of the clientele had passed away. There was revitalization and new life thanks to the modernism movement; as younger tourists flocked to the desert to witness its midcentury architecture, they also sought out the Sinatra experience. Therefore, the restaurant always remained profitable, but it wasn’t at the bustling levels of its heyday.

Just like the décor, the menu changed very little over the years. The salad, which was tossed tableside, got one small tweak about 40 years ago: The regular bacon bits were replaced by soy bacon bits. It was always amusing to hear newcomers convinced by their senior hosts when trying to modify the salad: “You take the salad the way it comes! It’s delicious!” There was Sinatra’s favorite, the delectable braised beef short ribs, as well as harder-to-find items like the chicken and dumplings, cooked in and served from the pot.

The main attraction, even more than Sinatra, was the prime rib. It was widely acknowledged as the best in the valley. I remember one party of late-night diners showing up unannounced. They’d told their cab driver they were going out for prime rib; the cab driver insisted on making a detour and brought them to Lord Fletcher’s. On another occasion, I waited on a couple in their 20s. They stood out, as it was rare that I had to ID someone for a drink. During our conversation, they informed me that they were prime rib afficionados. They made all their travel arrangements around prime rib restaurants, and they were in the Coachella Valley for the sole purpose of visiting Lord Fletcher’s. They left with the highest praise, putting Lord Fletcher’s ahead of renowned spots like Lawry’s and House of Prime Rib.

The bartender, “Sir” Andrew, had worked at Lord Fletcher’s for 17 years. He was only the third bartender in 54 years. He was noted for his skills and his ability to remember everyone’s regular libations. Such was the generosity of his pours that you never ordered a double, and rarely ordered a second. The signature Royal Brandy Ice had been the creation of the first bartender—a mixture of brandy, creme de cacao and praline ice cream. Sinatra had the recipe pinned on his fridge. If he couldn’t make it to the restaurant, his driver would swing by to pick up a tub of the ice cream.

Andy’s longevity behind the bar was exceeded by Chef Terry, who had worked in the kitchen since 1977. I also had the pleasure of working with an English waitress, Sam, who’d been at Lord Fletcher’s since 1972. Although officially retired, Sam still came in to help during the busiest shifts. Sam sadly passed away in 2019, making Sonny the longest-serving waitress. Sam trained Sonny when she first started in 1983.

While we employees could share his generosity and hospitality, Michael’s stories and memories were the real soul of the restaurant. That’s something that could never be replaced.

Modernization is inevitable. We’ve seen it with the passing of ownership at places like Mr. Lyon’s. At Lord Fletcher’s, the building has its own quirks and limitations that will necessitate a little renovation. Regardless, I hope that it sees a swift resumption of affairs, with a respect for its history and endearing charm. I’m sure that the rest of the Coachella Valley wishes the same.

COVID-19 has created a great deal of pessimism in the restaurant industry, for good reason—but Andie Hubka has a positive attitude, and is finding a purpose for every proverbial lemon that life gives.

Hubka has opened four food concepts since 2008, conveniently divided between two sets of adjoining units, in La Quinta and Indio. It started with Cooking With Class, a recreational cooking school, before expanding to Cork and Fork, Heirloom Craft Kitchen, and Tu Madres Cantina and Grill. All of her concepts center around fresh, local ingredients with modern, creative flair. They’ve established Hubka as one the valley’s most reputable and recognizable chefs.

She’s been going virtually non-stop for 12 years, and Hubka planned to take a break after opening Tu Madres in December. Unfortunately, COVID-19 had other ideas.

She limited her restaurants to takeout a week before the governor’s official orders. “Some restaurants had to close suddenly, then were left reassessing and scrambling amidst constant changes,” Hubka said.

Each of her restaurants had their own challenges. Heirloom was reasonably well set, with takeout already accounting for half the sales—and it’s actually doing better this year than last. Cork and Fork, however, is known for a social and intimate setting.

“That whole model doesn’t lend itself well to COVID,” Hubka joked.

Tu Madres is half-bar and has no patio. “We hadn't established ourselves, so we literally had to start over,” she said.

And Cooking With Class? “We have no idea when we’re going to be able to reopen that. It could be a long time.”

Hubka is accustomed to adversity; Cooking With Class opened in the midst of the 2008 downturn, after all. She claims to have more than 100 concepts in her head, and she’s been investing in new equipment at a time when others are cutting back. In fact, she’s decided to take advantage of this takeout- and delivery-centered restaurant era by introducing yet another restaurant concept.

“When life gives you lemons, eat Citrine!” That’s the tagline for her latest concept, one focused on fresh Mediterranean cuisine. However, you can’t dine at Citrine, because in the traditional restaurant sense, it doesn’t exist. It’s part of a modern trend of “ghost” or “shadow” kitchens, which operate in a shared space and sell through delivery apps. Hubka was inspired by a Los Angeles restaurateur who was running five virtual restaurants out of one location; Citrine takes advantage of unused capacity at Cooking With Class.

“With shadow kitchens, most consumers don’t realize that they're not an actual restaurant,” Hubka said. “But we made it completely transparent, and our customers can physically come pick up in-person.”

While patio dining is now permitted, the transition hasn’t been easy at Hubka’s restaurants, in part due to the desert heat. Heirloom always had a few outside tables, but the other concepts needed help. Tu Madres borrows the patio from the coffee shop next door in the evenings, and as the weather cools, Hubka plans to extend a shared patio for Heirloom and Tu Madres into the parking lot.

“You can make it feel really nice if you dress it up with plants and umbrellas,” she joked.

They’ve had strong support in that regard. “The city of Indio has allowed us to do whatever we can to survive, while La Quinta gave us grants to extend the Cork and Fork patio and make it more hospitable,” Hubka said. The city even paid for the misters—except there was a problem: “It turned out there was a mister shortage, and every company was booked for months. Another interesting side effect of the pandemic!”

Traditionally a source of supplemental revenue, takeout is now at the forefront. In addition to the third-party apps, all of Hubka’s restaurant websites offer online ordering. She’s also worked on packaging and presentation.

“We really wanted to focus on how people would eat and reheat the food,” she said. “In the past, I might revisit a restaurant because of great service or their wine list, but now it’s how well the food was packaged.” It was part of the mindset behind Citrine, because Mediterranean and Italian food “travel well.”

While Hubka has removed a few menu items due to poor transportability, she’s resisted the urge to streamline and cut costs, she said.

“We wanted to make sure our customers could still get the food they expected,” Hubka said. “We’ve actually expanded our offerings with daily specials. They keep our customers coming back, and also give us reason to post on social media.”

She’s also added affordable family meals, enhancing offerings with a brand-new smoker. The first weekend’s barbecue offerings sold out fast, generating great feedback—and a waiting list. “We rotate the smoker around all four restaurants, so they all get to be creative and have fun with it,” she said.

While Cooking With Class is currently not operating, Hubka remains dedicated to teaching. She’s heavily involved with La Quinta High School and has published three cookbooks. Because quarantine has spawned a wave of aspiring home chefs, she took to social media with free, live cooking shows.

“The cooking school started my career and was behind everything we’ve done,” she said. “It means a lot to a lot of people, myself included.”

She is exploring options to convert Cooking With Class into a virtual model. “There’s no comparison to physical cooking classes where you get to taste everything, but going forward, people might want the comfort of cooking classes from their own home,” she said.

Hubka has also embarked on a series of virtual happy hours, co-hosted with a local real estate agent. With guests and giveaways, the happy hours have developed a strong following.

“We wanted to do something fun, invite other local business owners, and talk about what we’re doing to survive,” Hubka said. “It’s been a cool, communal thing. It’s allowed us to touch base with people, see how they’re doing, and show them what we’ve been up to.”

COVID-19 will likely reshape social behaviors indefinitely. Consumers may be slow to return to packed dining rooms, and many of us have gotten used to new technologies and remote experiences. Hubka is embracing rather than fighting that change.

“It was time to get creative, reinvent and find new ways to connect with our base,” she said.