Laure Joliet

The chef is foraging for juniper and driving two hours to pick up seafood 

Andy Wang
December 19, 2017

Chef Stephen Wambach moved from Chicago to Palm Springs in June, and the ingredients available to him in California have been blowing his mind.

Wambach, who opened 4Saints on the roof of the new Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs hotel in November, has woken up at 4 a.m. some mornings and headed to Newport Beach’s Dory Fleet fish market, about two hours away. He’s found an uni diver there, Pierre Charest, who sells him beautiful sea urchin at $4 a pop.

At 4Saints, Wambach makes a lovely uni custard with parsnip juice and parsnip cream. It’s served alongside a green apple salad with toasted Marcona almonds and segmented grapefruit. The dish is also topped with crisps made from jasmine rice and squid ink.

“People here are really hungry for something contemporary,” says Wambach, who admits he was worried that he might end up serving dishes like hanger steak frites with béarnaise sauce in Palm Springs. “I’ve had locals come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much for pushing ahead. We’re going to support the restaurant as much as we can, so you don’t have to change the menu.’ The only thing I’ve had to change is I’ve put bread on the menu.”

Kristin Teig

Wambach has been pleasantly surprised, for example, that he’s been selling a lot of sunchokes with black truffles and miso. The wonderful layers of umami in that dish have been a crowd-pleaser.

“We really took a chance on the menu, not really playing it safe,” Wambach says. “We’re not really trying to challenge people, but we’re trying to do something unique that’s not in the valley yet.”

This means serving foie gras “butter.” It means a wild boar entrée with boudin noir.

“The whole thing kind of scared me to be honest,” Wambach says of opening an ambitious restaurant like this in downtown Palm Springs.

So he’s truly relieved that his menu has been well-received. Wambach has been having a lot of fun making dishes that would be impossible in colder climates. It’s nearly 80 degrees in mid-December when we do this interview. He’s been serving heirloom tomatoes in December. He’s taking Dungeness crab he gets from Santa Monica Seafood and serving it with December snap peas.

“We need to play to the weather,” Wambach says. “A braised short rib with bone marrow butter is not going to be on the menu.”

But there’s plenty of luxurious comfort at 4Saints, especially in the showstopping lobster ravioli with lobster Bolognese. Made with big chunks of lobster, this is available as an appetizer or an entrée. A full order means you’ll get a dish made with a whole one-pound lobster.

Wambach previously ran the kitchen at Chicago’s Four Seasons hotel. He’s worked with Claude Troisgros, Marc Forgione and Laurent Tourondel. His new gig in Palm Springs, where he also runs all-day counter-service restaurant Juniper Table at the Rowan, gives him an opportunity to put a decidedly California twist on his classical training and experiences.

Kristin Teig

So he’s been foraging for Idyllwild juniper, which he uses in a kampachi dish he likes to call fish in a forest. He crushes juniper berries that he roasts and puts into a Champagne vinegar. He then combines that vinegar with fish stock, shallots, butter and white wine. The sauce is also infused with the essence of juniper branches. That’s just part of the process for a dish that also involves a sesame/poppy seed/coriander/chamomile spice mix as well as soaking cedar paper overnight in Scotch and then soaking it overnight again in olive oil. The spice-rubbed fish goes into the cedar paper and onto a grill. And then the dish is finished in the oven.

For dessert, there’s what Wambach calls crepe passion Claude Troisgros. Troisgros is Wambach’s longtime mentor. Wambach’s worked with him in New York, Miami and Rio. Wambach first tasted this crepe in 1999 at New York’s Royalton hotel. Troisgros based it on a dessert that involved stacking crepes, but he made the dessert his own by creating one big fluffy pastry that he filled with pastry cream and served with a passion-fruit sauce.

At 4Saints, this dessert is a delightful nod to the past in a place that’s smartly balancing classic and modern. Wambach’s got a glamorous rooftop perch at 4Saints, which includes a big four-sided bar with rustic liquor shelving that might remind you of The Grill in New York. Meanwhile, 4Saints is right next to Palm Springs’ only rooftop pool and a chic poolside lounge, High Bar, that buzzes with both locals and hotel guests.

Fortified by the early success of 4Saints, Wambach has been putting specials on his menu and thinking of ways to serve more seafood from Dory Fleet, where he’s seen “all kinds of black cod and incredible snapper,” not to mention spot prawns, spiny lobsters, rock crabs, golden king crabs and much more. One thing he’s working on: “I’m trying to set up a courier, so I don’t have to wake up at 4 a.m. to get the fish.”

4Saints, 100 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs, 760-392-202