I don’t usually care for beef, and rarely order steaks in restaurants (and I hate rare gobs of meat with blood seeping out of them, which is how most chefs insist on serving their gushy sushi-like steaks). But years of restaurant reviews taught me that if the new Workshop Kitchen + Bar in Palm Springs’ Uptown Design District could pull this steak off correctly, then they could pretty much do anything right.
Served on a large wooden cutting board, the thirty-ounce cut of rib eye was nearly big enough to feed an entire family. (Even after my friend and I filled our bellies with it, there were enough leftovers for two more meals at home!) Though the beef was grass-fed (which oftentimes translates as tougher), the meat was so tender you could nearly cut it with a fork. The true test of a good steak is if it can remain supple and dry simultaneously and cooked medium or more, and thankfully for a non-steak person like me, this piece of meat was devoid of bloody juices oozing out of it like the horror-movie version I’m used to being served. As I placed a bite in my mouth, I quickly realized it is worth every red cent of its hefty $77. The steak’s robust outer seasoning underscored the meat’s natural flavors rather than overwhelm them, and the mushroom conserva on the side was an ideal compliment.
In other words, they pulled it off, and pulled it off magnificently.
Workshop Restaurant + Bar finally opened in late September after many delays, mainly due to the months-long refurbishment of its unique space. And what a space it is. Constructed in 1926 at the high point of Spanish Colonial Revival Style architecture, the restaurant is housed in the back of the Class 1 Historic El Paseo Building on North Palm Canyon Drive at Tamarisk. Intimate two-person tables dot its front courtyard, festooned with vintage tile wall fountain. Inside, 27-foot cathedral-like ceilings soar above the diners, with the original painted wood beams visible. The structure’s walls include 17-foot high barn-like windows high above. The unique space was home to the Palm Springs City Council in the 1940s, a movie theatre in the 1950s, various art galleries over the decades, and up until recently a showroom for Design Within Reach. The atmosphere is rich with good karmic history.
Peter Mahler, managing partner of El Paseo Holdings, carefully restored the building in 2007 in partnership with the L.A.-based architecture and design firm Rios Clementi Hale. For the Workshop renovation, New York City-based Soma Architects added a Modernist-style addition to the space that flows well with the original building’s trusses and pillars. The interior design at first sounds out of step with Palm Springs: Urban Industrial Chic. But the Brutalist-like decor of black steel, monolithic cement frames towering over the tables, and monotone stone tableware (from Heath Ceramics) somehow works well within the historic edifice. Black leather booths lit by spotlights line the walls while a long communal cement table fills the center of the rectangular restaurant, fostering conservation with fellow diners. The whole place feels like Berlin landed smack dab in Palm Springs, but then quickly warmed up in the casual California desert.
On the weeknight I visited, Workshop had been barely opened for two weeks, but was packed to the gills. Everyone seemed elated to encounter this hidden eatery with its well-earned trendiness, like the city had hungered for it. Unlike most new restaurants, the waitstaff exuded a wealth of experience and easily handled the deluge of customers, and the almost overly-attentive service went off without a hitch.
Workshop’s two owners are chef Michael Beckman and Joseph Mourani, who met in culinary school. Beckman, an English Lit grad who speaks four languages, brings his world travels to the America-meets-the-Continent menu. He studied at the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon and worked at the Ritz-Carlton in Berlin before becoming a private chef in Los Angeles. Co-owner Mourani began his career as a civil engineer in Montreal before apprenticing at Laperouse (Paris’ oldest restaurant) and opening two much-heralded restaurants in newly-chic Beirut. If Workshop is as successful as it seems destined to be, the owners have a series of similar eateries in the works.
The owners worldliness shines through the offerings: Fries are cooked in duck fat and seasoned with sea salt and herbes de Provence, and the Hercules Ranch Burger consists partially of oxtail meat and includes truffle pecorino. My dinner companion Richard, who resided in Spain, for many years proclaimed the yellow-hued heirloom tomato gazpacho with marinière de legumes was the best he had every tasted. The menu changes frequently to keep up with the freshest local ingredients and includes a long list of what’s in season. The kitchen has a wood-fired pizza oven and wood-fired meat grill, and the earthy, smoky flavors come through the dishes with glory. I hate wine lists that try to impress with quantity rather than quality, but Workshop’s expertly targeted a selection up-and-coming (if pricey) artesian labels. And when I see a list of 1800s-era cocktails made with things like rye and brandy, it usually gives me pause, but their updated drinks were delicious and avoided knowing cleverness.
I’m all for food experimentation, but the unpleasant, jarring desserts - like cake soaked in olive oil, or panna cotta on a bed of arugula leaves – were a confounding note to end on compared to rest of the otherwise flawless Workshop experience. But no matter. The genuine well wishes and smiles on the staff’s faces on my way out felt like leaving family, and even though Workshop’s world-class caliber could lead to a too-cool-for-school attitude, the true warmth of the desert shined through the entire evening.
Workshop Restaurant + Bar is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, with brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. Reservations recommended – book at www.WorkshopPalmSprings.com or call (760) 459-3451.