PART TWO – KICKIN’ IT OLD SCHOOL
Once upon a time in the 1970’s there was a chain of California steakhouses called the Velvet Turtle. Wally’s Desert Turtle, in Rancho Mirage, fifteen minutes up the road from downtown Palm Springs, was the flagship of those restaurants. That chain has faded, but Wally’s is as bright and vivid as it was back in its heyday, right down to its mirrored ceilings, chandeliers and gleaming brass.
This place is such an institution that ELV, hungry for memories of his heyday, was compelled to take a long left turn on his way to L.A. to stop in for a bite.
Old school in the best sense of the word, WDT looks every bit the part of a “gourmet” restaurant of that time, right down to the tuxedo’d waiters and the soliticous ministrations of Maitre ‘d Arturo Chardon. The (almost) lost art of impeccable service was constantly on display as we watched the Swiss-born Chardon attend to every single occupied table, every five minutes or so, in the large restaurant. Almost invisible but always there, his duties ranged from replacing a napkin to discussing the wine list to making everyone in a seat feel like they were in their own, private dining club.
In a sense they are, as the clientele looked to this aging boomer like they’re mostly on the far side of sixty — with lots of first names and air-kisses filling the room whenever a party arrived. Right about the time we were about to write off WDT as a relic of a bygone age — suitable only for the ex-leisure suit and Fleetwood Brougham set — in came three generations of one family to share a weeknight dinner. A whole family having a big deal meal in a special occasion restaurant they’ve been coming to for 30+ years warms even the cockles of the normally zero K ticker of ELV. Such rituals may seem quaint and dated to some, but they speak to a time when over-processed, over-promoted soulessness wasn’t at the heart of our meals.
Since kickin’ it old school was our dining theme of the day, we went for the Full Monty: escargot Bourgogne, calves’ liver, rack of lamb, baked Alaska and a Grand Marnier souffle — a meal straight from 1975 with not a foam or architecutural cartwheel or seaweed emulsifier in site. And everything was perfectly cooked. The salads were as well-dressed as the clientele (discarding the Sansabelts was a big step for this mid-century modern mecca), and the platings and reduction sauces and flavors took us back to a simpler, less contrived time in America’s gastronomic education.
Those meals are exactly what the well-heeled, desert-living set loves. Good ingredients, competent cooking and no surprises. The loud sportcoats and canoe-length cars may be gone, but If it was good enough for Bob and Bing back when this guy was Prez, there’s no reason to change a thing (except the length of your sideburns).
Wally’s may seem un-ironically outre and stuffy to some, but it’s a great place to go for a big whiff of nostalgia served with Chef Pascal Lallemand’s seriously solid food. The Food Gal remarked upon leaving that “(Wally’s) is exactly the kind of restaurant its clients want it to be.” and she was right. It fits them like an old, expensive, rich, Corinthian, white leather shoe, and we shan’t see its like again in our lifetimes.
WALLY’S DESERT TURTLE
71-775 Highway 111
Rancho Mirage, CA 92270