Story & Photographs by Pamela Bieri, Special to The Desert
Melon gazpacho with chilled shrimp, marinated sweet peppers, and cilantro.
The seasons seem to change gradually in the desert with barely perceptible differences in the temperature, and the direction and quality of sunlight. Perhaps the most beautiful month is April when morning and evening are cool; flowers, cacti and shrubs bloom almost furiously; and even an otherwise hot afternoon is fanned by soft breezes.
Sensuous spring also brings about a change in our palate as we seek out ripe sweet strawberries, the crisp moist crunch of fresh grapes, tender baby carrots, artichokes, zucchini blossoms, and lettuces. Our bodies prepare for summer’s heat, eating lighter to (hopefully) shed unnecessary winter weight.
Taking a cue from the changing climate, many local chefs are now transitioning to lighter fare, such as Executive Chef Kitt Fraser of Europa at the historic Villa Royale, a secluded Tuscan-inspired inn in Palm Springs.
“This is my second menu at Europa,” said Fraser, who came on board last year at the beginning of season. “We have been offering specials every night and asking for feedback as a way for guests to help determine the new spring/summer menu.”
Europa is known for modern continental dishes, taking inspiration from France, Italy and Spain. Fraser’s regular menu has some nine to 12 regular items.
Fresh produce, in-house stocks
Fraser sources from Produce Hunters, a company that focuses on promoting locally grown produce from Ventura County throughout Southern California. In addition to Fraser’s regular weekly orders, the company also will occasionally ship a box of sample produce such as fava beans or baby fennel to encourage clients to experiment with them.
Most recently, Fraser has been featuring braised fava beans, baby fennel, and a dish of fresh baby artichokes sautéed in lemon-rosemary with garlic aioli served over fettuccini.
“You trim off some of the outer leaves before sautéing the baby artichokes,” he said. “You don’t have to remove the inner choke leaves because they are so young and tender you can eat them whole.”
Likewise, baby fennel is tender, yet packed with flavor and doesn’t have the woodiness that mature fennel has, said Fraser.
Because Europa is an intimate restaurant with a relatively slower pace, Fraser has the enviable freedom to create his stocks from scratch, using scraps of tenderloin for beef stock, and as he orders shell-on shrimp, retains the shells for seafood stock.
“This way, I can control the final quality,” he said. “I spend a lot of time by myself in the kitchen preparing stocks, broths and sauces.”
New menu items
Baby artichokes in lemon – rosemary butter with garlic aioli.
Replacing the onion soup gratinee on the menu, Fraser is currently developing cold soups such as a melon gazpacho with marinated sweet peppers and shrimp topped with cilantro; and chilled tomato soup using yellow and red varieties.
Further transition to the spring menu is a lamb rack roasted with a honey/mint glaze; a marinated pork loin that is cut like a New York strip; and Scottish salmon wrapped in filo, Wellington style.
On a bed of rocket lettuce, strawberries and scallions are tossed with a honey and lime vinaigrette.
Although his focus has been on the main menu, desserts are equally delightful. His lemon crepe cake is filled with pastry cream and powered on top with sugar. A mixed berry cobbler has hints of lime and cinnamon. And Villa Royale’s signature light, fluffy cheesecake is served with a berry compote.
“I’ve been experimenting with this new menu so far, and will offer small plates so that people can come in and have multiple dishes,” said Fraser. “We have some great wines and have spent time pairing dishes with them.”
Open all summer
Europa has consistently achieved four-diamond AAA ratings, multiple Wine Spectator awards for its cellar, and high endorsements from Zagat.
Villa Royale owner David Shahriari said, “Chef and I have worked on Europa’s food concept to be as fresh and local as possible.”
The restaurant will remain open all summer “to give locals the opportunity to come and enjoy the place and the food,” said Shahriari. “Local residents matter to us.”