There’s something very exciting happening at Rancho Mirage’s Wally’s Desert Turtle—that fabled gastronomic institution that is not only the most highly awarded fine dining establishment in the Palm Springs Valley (Mobil Travel’s Four Star Award, AAA’s Four Diamond Award, etc.) but one that boasts a dazzling vintage (in the very best possible way) interior design courtesy of the late, great Steve Chase and design partner Randy Patton. Yes, it may have been some 36 seasons ago that owner Wally Botello and original chef Jean-Louis Jalouneix opened their doors. But that doesn’t mean that Wally’s son, Michael—who carries on the family tradition alongside his lovely wife, Nicole—is stuck in the past. Determined to keep Wally’s au courant and ahead of the game, Michael recently hired the very talented and trendsetting Richard Pelz as executive chef.
Pelz, 41, was trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York (the Harvard of all things epicurean), and has headed kitchens in restaurants in Europe, and in both Chicago and Napa Valley. He also hung his own shingle in Manhattan. His and Botello’s goal at Wally’s is not so much for him to throw out all the old and usher in nothing but the new. Rather, Pelz is making small changes both in and out of the kitchen. For instance, gone are the dark chargers and champagne-colored tablecloths, which have been replaced by all-white linen that brightens up the stunningly romantic dining room considerably. On the menu, Pelz’ deft hand has touched virtually every dish—again, not so much changing each but reinvigorating it with a delectable Pelz spin.
On the night I was introduced to Pelz and his new cuisine, my dinner mate and I chose to start with the Pacific Northwest Oysters (served with “faux” caviar and green apple-wasabi “granite”) and Honolulu Tuna “Tartare” (served with wasabi tobiko, chives, a ponzu emulsion and “nori dust.” Before segueing to Superior Farms Roasted Lamb (served with Japanese eggplant, Moroccan “couscous”, a saffron-tomato confit, mint pesto, and Pelz’ signature chickpea fries) and the Pan-Roasted Aspen Ridge Filet of Beef (topped with a bone marrow-radish crust, and served alongside carrots, Brussels sprouts, a celery root puree, and a red wine sauce), we sampled the most succulent duck confit risotto as a middle course. We shared the famous soufflé (Bananas Foster, this time) for dessert. To say we were in heaven is an understatement.
If you are in the growing minority who still believe that Wally’s is too-this, too-that, not-enough-this, not-enough-that—or that the place should be reserved only to celebrate special occasions—think again. Pelz and Botello have great things planned for 2014 and beyond. With a menu that not only dares but succeeds in giving any other carte in the desert a run for its culinary money, Wally’s won’t disappoint. And maybe, just maybe, if you’re lucky, Chef Pelz will stop by your table to say hello. As amiable and handsome as he is gifted, a few words from him are the perfect end to any solid gold soiree. www.wallysdesertturtle.com