RANCHO MIRAGE - The explosion of tribal casinos in Inland Southern California in the past decade has also sparked a burst of splendid steakhouses.
The Steakhouse at Agua Caliente Casino is no exception. Even without the blur-and-whir of gaming machines lining its walkway, this place would have an allure that would rival the best desert nightspots.
We'll steer clear of the superlative-charged clichés, lavish and elegant and posh and all that. But it's all those things. The décor isn't decadent or over-top-top, it's handsome and understated, lit and modulated to allow real conversation. The staff is attentive and engaging, the scene serene.
The menu doesn't waste much energy on pages and pages of variations on the same themes. The selection is simple and spare -- but every selection is choice.
Mind you, don't expect to find coupons or a hidden steal here. Unless you're a retired industrialist or just cleaned up at the tables, it's a special-event destination.
It's all high end. But if you can afford it, it's worth it.
Starters range from fresh raw oysters ($14) and steamed mussels ($15) to marinated "Kal-bi" tenderloin skewers ($15).
Towering over them all is the "Fire & Ice' Seafood Tower for two, featuring lobster, shrimp and scallop brochettes, ahi poke marinated with wonton chips, fresh oysters and king crab with four different dipping sauces. Whew.
Steaks see the name of the place, folks -- are the stars, including a precisely prepared Filet Mignon at $34 for the 7-ounce portion to $39 a 16-ounce New York for $42 to a Rib Eye at $48. You risk gilding the lily, but you can enhance that cut by ordering it Oscar-style for $8 or adding a Stilton Bleu cheese crust for $50. You can add grilled shrimp for $16, seared scallops for $12, King Crab legs for $20 or miniature Maine lobster tails for $20.
The Prime Chateaubriand for two is $80, with the Surf and Turf -- a 10-ounce Filet Mignon and Australian Lobster tail weighing in at $80.
Not craving steak? Entrees include hickory roasted prime rib for $36, free-range chicken breast served in pesto cream with pine nuts, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes for $26, pistachio-crusted rack of lamb for $40 and veal scallopini served pounded thin with wild mushrooms, sage and Swiss chard for $36.
Or check the catch of the day. We tried a halibut served on asparagus and mushrooms in a creamy Béarnaise sauce for $36. Other seafood choices include twin lobster tails for $80, King Crab legs for $62 or organic Loch Duart salmon for $28.
The "add-ons", at $7 per, are billed as "Interesting Sides." That's an understatement. Among the most interesting: a baked potato dressed decadently at your table, creamed spinach, caramelized onions and wild mushrooms and braised Swiss chard with bacon and onions. We opted for the intriguing white truffle mac & cheese. This is not the stuff in the blue box from Mr. Kraft! It was beyond interesting.
The serving team at The Steakhouse is particularly engaging and knowledgeable. Ask how it's prepared? They'll know. Ask for a menu recommendation, they'll base it on your tastes.
We asked our tour guide for a dessert pick. Surprisingly, he steered us away from a couple of elaborate chocolate choices toward the Amaretto crème brulee, served with strawberries, raspberries and blackberries poised on a stained-glass perfect scorched-sugar crust.
What: The Steakhouse at Agua Caliente
Where: 32-250 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage
Drinks: Full bar, wide selection of beers and wines, soft drinks, coffees
Hours: 5- 10 p.m. Sun-Thurs; 5-11 p.m. Fri. and Sat.
Reservations: Strongly recommended, 888-999-1995