May 29, 2014

  • Homecoming: It’s Not a Game

    Iowans Return for Tastes of Yesteryear

    Tom Jackson 001

    home·com·ing, noun 1 : a return home; 2 : the return of a group of people usually on a special occasion to a place formerly frequented or regarded as home.

    In America, the word “homecoming” has been kidnapped by football promoters. Fredda Rosen’s celebrated story “Pizza Love” told of a another kind of homecoming tradition, one that is truer to the dictionary definition and more prevalent. After all, not everyone likes football, but who doesn’t like pizza? The cosmopolitan New Yorker wrote about spending years vainly trying to convince her husband that the world presented culinary options equal to his memories of pizza at Marco’s in Dubuque, where he had attended college. Finally giving up, she surprised him, and herself, with a trip there for his 50th birthday dinner.

    Like Rosen’s husband, most of us keep youthful memories of foods firmly impressed in our minds, where they remain the best there ever was and the best there ever will be. That part of the human brain which stores long term memory rubs against the part that detects taste and aroma. Such physiology explains why some foods trigger intense feelings of nostalgia.

    Younkers fire 007

    After Younkers, which burned tragically this year, announced the closing of its downtown Des Moines department store in 2005, business soared in its 92 year old Tea Room. Pilgrims flocked from all over the world to experience a last communion with the holy ghosts of their childhoods. During those homecomings, nearly everyone ordered one of two heirloom dishes that had been as constant to the restaurant as the Georgian Revival décor. The Tea Room’s rarebit burgers and sticky rolls had become icons of another time and place, when lunch was served with live classical music, ladies powdered their noses and even children were held to dress codes. I still get long distance inquiries about those recipes, at least once a month.

    Beloved food icons similarly flourish in other parts of Iowa. Expatriated Siouxlanders plan trips home around food. Green Gables is a hybrid of tea room, deli, bridge club and diner. The place is designed to transport visitors to another era. Ladies still use compact mirrors to adjust their make-up, just as my grandmother did in the 1950‘s. Murals depict historical Sioux City and some customers appear to fit in with the art. Even the wallpaper in the restaurant replicates the original shown in the paintings. Local girls Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren surely learned their good manners at Green Gables. They might well have been rewarded with same famous “H Bomb” ice cream soda that is served today.

    In summer, it’s not unusual for returning Siouxlanders to get off an airplane and head directly to Old Milwaukee Weiner, a century old hot dog grill with a wall of photos that includes high school sports teams from every era. Owners Gus Demetroulis, John and Mike Eliades keep their coney island chili recipe in a vault, but promise it won’t change. Others in the Sioux City area have reunions at Tastee Inn & Out, where the diamond shaped petals called “onion chips” are still hand cut from fresh onions, hand-breaded, fried and served with the famous home made dip, exactly like owner Jean Calligan’s mom, Marie, made them six decades ago.

    Similarly, Iowans and former Iowans make pilgrimages to Marshalltown for the “Mile High Chiffon Pie” at Stone’s Restaurant. Its recipe is almost as old as the restaurant, which has been around since 1887. Others take haaj to Gunder, an unincorporated village between Elkader and Postville, for The Irish Shanti’s onion and pepper drenched “gunderburger.” Eight inches in diameter and an inch thick, that humongous icon was created in the early 1970’s “to keep Gunder on the map.” An “English Walnut Pie” at Breitbach’s, Iowa’s oldest restaurant, in Balltown has similar fans. As does the French toast at Cronk’s Cafe in Denison, where it was being made with Danish pastries and cinnamon rolls for decades before that practice became chic on the coasts.

    Yet when it comes to food-triggered memories of yesteryear, the homecoming queen of Iowa is Linn County, where history conspired to preserve some distinguished old time supper clubs. Because Interstate 80 was routed far enough away, neither the old Lincoln Highway nor Highway 151 came under economic pressure to tear old places down and build something more modern. Still, that doesn’t explain why they were built here in the first place.

    “Linn County has so many interesting places on the outskirts, in large part because we had Prohibition longer than the rest of the state. We had local Prohibition going back to 1915. So “supper clubs” sprouted up on the edges of towns,” historian Mark Stoffer Hunter explained.

    The Lighthouse also represents a career homecoming for current owner Theron Manson.

    “I worked here as a kid and never dreamed I’d be here today,” he said, before explaining how he had returned to Linn County to regroup after a divorce. Then I fell in love and married the widow who owned the restaurant,” he explained.

    “The Lighthouse began in 1912 as supper club with cabins in back. Highway 30 was the old “Farm to Market” road so places popped up to escape city taxes,” Manson said.

    Fitting a place that thrived as a tool to cheat Prohibition, The Lighthouse shines with gangster lore. In April of 1934, John Dillinger and Homer Van Meter spent a few nights in a Evening Star Tourist Camp outside Cedar Rapids. They tried to rent a cabin but were told the place was not yet open for business. So they broke in and made the place home for a few nights. That was in the midst of Dillinger’s infamous run as the FBI’s “Public Enemy #1.”

    During that period, they ate at The Lighthouse. Dillinger’s gun accidentally went off once at the supper club and a bullet stuck in the wall, like an icon. He then fled the place and escaped for three more months before he was killed. An even more famous gangster also stopped here.

    “Al Capone cooled off here for awhile too,” Manson said, pointing out a newspaper in which former Lighthouse bartender Theo “Mugsy” Davis talked about serving “Scarface“ in 1932. Manson said that in less infamous history, the matinee idol Don Ameche’s son Ron operated the club on lease for a year too. Today live music and dancing attract crowds of both golden agers and young kids on weekends, year round. Jazz trios come from the legendary Cotton Club in New York City. The building is original, but has been remodeled so many times only the bar is true to the old days. Manson says their “garlic cabbage” is too.
    West of Cedar Rapids on the old Lincoln Highway, the Ced-Rel Supper Club has been indulging travelers since 1927. Like many restaurants and supper clubs on that road, it began as a filling station and evolved into a motel and café. Jeff Selzer, whose family bought the place in 2002, says that old timers tell him that gangsters frequented the cabins during the Depression and that the place was a key club until liquor by the drink was legalized in Iowa in 1963.

    “It was a steakhouse until 1958, when it was upgraded to a supper club,” he said, adding that the latter represents the quality of food one expects at a country club. Selzer said his steaks are a claim to fame – filet mignon, beef tenderloin and jumbo shrimp have been on the menu “as long as anyone remembers.”

    Besides the food and nostalgia, people come home to these heirloom restaurants for a sense of history. Hunter says it’s gratifying how interested young people are in what they learn from the old joints. He also thinks it’s an incentive for economic development.

    “I think that not teaching local history in the schools is a big part of the reason kids leave as soon as they are old enough. They need to hear the stories, about what an interesting place it is where they live. If you don’t give them something to be proud of, than of course they will go look for it elsewhere,” he explained.

    Tea Room Sticky Rolls
    (for home ovens)

    For rolls
    4 and a third cups all-purpose flour
    1 pkg. active dry yeast
    1 cup milk
    a third cup sugar
    a third cup butter
    half tsp. sea salt
    2 eggs
    caramel smear (In a mixing bowl combine a third cup melted butter; 1 cup packed brown sugar; a fourth cup corn syrup; three fourths tsp. ground cinnamon; and a fourth tsp. sea salt. Stir until smooth)
    cinnamon spread (In a small mixing bowl stir together three fourths cup packed brown sugar, 1 tablespoon cooking oil, 1 tablespoon corn syrup, and a half teaspoon ground cinnamon.)

    1. In a large mixing bowl combine 2 cups of the four and the yeast; set aside.

    2. In a medium saucepan heat and stir milk, sugar, butter and salt just until warm (120F) and butter almost melts. Add milk mixture and eggs to dry mixture and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds, scraping bowl. Beat on high speed for 3 minutes. Stir in as much of the remaining flour as possible.

    3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead in enough remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough that is smooth and elastic (3 to 5 minutes). Shape dough into a ball and place in a lightly greased bowl; turn once to grease dough. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size (about 1 hour).

    4. Punch dough down. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide in half. Cover and let rest 10 min. Spread a 15 by 10 by 1 inch baking pan evenly with cinnamon spread.

    5. Roll each portion of dough into a 24 by 6 inch rectangle about an eighth inch thick. Spread half of the cinnamon spread over each rectangle to within 1 inch of the edges. Roll up, starting from a long side. Seal seam. Cut into 1 inch slices. Place about an inch apart in prepared pan. Cover and let rise in a warm
    place until nearly double (about half an hour).

    6. Bake in a 350 F oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden. Remove from oven and let cool 5 minutes. Turn the pan of rolls over onto another 15 by 10 inch pan so the caramel is on top. Serve warm.

    Tea Room Rarebit Sauce

    third cup cooking oil
    third cup all purpose flour
    1 teaspoon paprika
    fourth teaspoon salt
    fourth teaspoon dry mustard
    2 cups milk
    1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
    fourth teaspoon bottled hot pepper sauce
    1 cup shredded process American cheese

    Place oil in a medium saucepan. Stir together flour, paprika, salt and dry mustard. Add flour mixture to oil; cook and stir for 1 minute. Stir in milk all at once. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly. Cook and stir 1 minute more. Remove from heat; stir in Worcestershire sauce and hot pepper sauce. Add cheese and stir until melted. Pour over burgers with toasted bun on top. Makes 2 cups.

    Supper Clubs in Linn County

    Ced-Rel Supper Club 11909 16th Avenue Southwest, Cedar Rapids, 319-446-7300

    Lighthouse Inn 6905 Mount Vernon Road Southeast,
    Cedar Rapids, 319-362-3467

January 22, 2014

  • Dinner is the new lunch – Le Jardin

    Le Jardin 001

    At the turn of this decade, lunch was the new dinner. Flarah’s had just moved their lunch business into a larger spot in Beaverdale and opened the first of two downtown outlets. Proof was the hottest new café in town with weekday lunches and a single evening service. Flour became the first pizza joint in town to make it on lunch business alone. La Mie gave up on night time service. Baby Boomers was still riding the crest of their Obama connection, with nary a dinner under their customers’ belts. Downtown food courts were packed at lunch time.

    That wheel has turned. All Flarah’s stores have closed. Proof announced last week that they would be discontinuing lunch, at least until next spring, to concentrate on expanded dinner service. Flour and two successive lunch spots at the same address have moved on. Baby Boomers retired like so many of their namesakes. No one has trouble finding an open table in the downtown food courts these days. And night people Tag and Meg Grandgeorge have emerged from a sojourn that corresponded with lunch’s high times.

    They were responsible for talking La Mie owners into a dinner service with a space sharing experiment in which they operated Le Jardin evenings. They laid low after that while keeping the Le Jardin name alive with catering and special events, most notably partnering with Peace Tree Brewery. Last month, they reopened Le Jardin, in a Beaverdale space formerly home to Flarah’s. To transform the well known lunch spot into a dinner destination, the owners hired Chris Vance to paint the most prominent wall in the building, one beautifully lit so that it’s obvious from the parking lot and even to southbound traffic. Vance’s impressionist mural of a French cityscape brightens the bare trappings of an otherwise industrial style venue of concrete floors and bare boned furnishings.

    My dinner began with a versatile charcuterie plate ($12-18) of pork pate, rabbit liver mousse, garlic saucisson sec, bright pickled cauliflower, grainy mustard, cornichons and crackers.

    Le Jardin 002

    Cheese plates ($11 -21) featured choices of two local and three French selections with copious amounts of apple slices, walnuts, jam, grapes and crackers.

    Le Jardin 004

    An arugula salad ($7) delivered very little arugula but lots of less interesting greens, bacon, walnuts and soggy blackberries in a basil vinaigrette. That was topped with melted Brie on toast.

    Le Jardin 005

    Four thick cut sweet potato fries ($6) were served with a blue cheese dip and micro greens.

    Le Jardin 007

    Tri tip steak ($21) came with red potato “smash cake,” paprika onions, Burgundy butter and herbes de Provence.

    Le Jardin 008

    Grilled squash and gnocchis ($15) were paired with brown butter and a Parmigiano-Reggiano sauce.

    Le Jardin 009

    Truffled chicken ($20) brought two breasts in a truffled cream sauce with wilted kale, roasted potatoes and other wild mushrooms.

    Le Jardin 010

    Shrimp spaetzle ($18) delivered just three shrimp with zucchini in a creamy tomato sauce with basil and cheese shredded on top.

    Le Jardin 012

    Rabbit meatloaf ($18) brought hard-seared slices on parsnip mash with a medley of Brussels sprout leaves and apricot jam.

    Le Jardin 013

    A duck duet ($22), the nicest presentation of the evening, presented rare breast slices around a pile of juicy confit, with turnips, carrots and Chambord reduction.

    Sandwiches ($10 -13) and tomato bisque ($6 -11) rounded out the menu.

    Le Jardin 014

    Desserts disappointed with chewy, browned crepes in a saccharine berry sauce and a pot do crème that was too thick to be described as creamy. The all French wine list ranged $7 -9 by the glass and $34 -45 per bottle. European and domestic beers were available but no cocktails. Service was spotty, with empty water glass ignored and plates served from the wrong side of diners.

    Le Jardin
    2815 Beaver Ave., 255-5787
    Wed. – Sat. 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.

    Side Dishes

    Cyd Koehn (Catering by Cyd) won the March of Dimes’ Signature Chefs Auction competition… David Baruthio’s new scratch pasta and pizza café on 1st St. in West Des Moines is now shooting to open around December 1.

November 13, 2013

  • Papa Kern’s Nostalgic Vibe

    IMG_00000035

    The great story of Iowa in the 20th century was that of people migrating from the state’s small towns and rural areas to a few cities and suburbs. Small town’s lost their schools to the cult of consolidation, their farm hands to the industrialization of agriculture, their post offices to the inefficiency of bureaucracy, and their retail stores to the discounted prices in big city malls. A town’s café often became the last vestige of communal identity. People would gather for breakfast, lunch or dinner to keep in touch with their neighbors. Breakfast was served at all hours. Waitresses and cooks would chat up strangers as well as regulars. These cafés represented a gentler, nostalgic America.

    In cities, such places became as rare as an old John Deere in a restaurant parking lot. Papa Kerns Café is such a gem. A chrome bar leaves little doubt that the place aspires to diner status. Daily specials are offered. Pop music from the 60’s through the 80’s played on my visits. Breakfast was served all day, in massive portions. Omelets were made with three eggs and served with toast and hash browns. Pancakes covered entire plates, as did an order of hash browns – the largest order I have ever seen. Bacon was sliced thickly. Plates of cavatelli and spaghetti with meatballs were piled high.

    IMG_00000033
    Three different gravies were made in house – a pork gravy for sausage and biscuits, a white gravy for chicken fried steak, and a lovely light brown gravy for meat loaf, hot beef and roast beef. The latter items were shaved off giant lean roasts, as tender as hot beef sandwiches can be. Breaded tenderloins and chicken fried steak were golden brown in fresh breading. Burgers were extra thick. Mashed potatoes were slightly lumpy in an old fashioned way. Meat loaf dinners joined the ubiquitous grilled cheese, hot dog and chicken fingers on the Children’s Menu.

    Coffee and water glasses were constantly replenished, the latter always with fresh ice. Questions about the dishes were answered with samples rather the sentences. My waitress signed her first name on my check, with a thank you note. I didn’t mind once when I was told they were out of bacon only to see some served to other customers later on the same visit.

    The latest food specialist in the Shops at Roosevelt also supplies an old fashioned flavor. Remember the home made ice cream sandwich? Before that genre was industrialized into conformity, different shops offered unique varieties of the treat. Thelma’s has revived the practice with vanilla ice cream (AE) packed between a pair of superb home made cookies. Their ice cream sandwiches have been touted by some of the most famous chef-restaurateurs in town. My spicy chocolate chip sandwich ($3) featured cayenne, and pre-industrial ingredients like sugar, flour, butter, eggs and chocolate.

    Thelma’s is a rather well kept secret. It has a backdoor entrance in its strip mall with a sign reading “Pickups and deliveries only.” Don’t be put off, people inside were as friendly and welcoming as cookie makers should be.

    Side Dishes

    Chef Dominic Iannarelli of Splash Seafood Bar & Grill won both the professional panel and people’s choice culinary awards at the Iowa Restaurant Association’s Dine Iowa Grand Tasting Gala. Splash also won its fifth straight Distinguished Restaurants of North America award. The only other Iowa restaurant to ever win one is 801 Steak & Chop House… Bianchi Boys’ Pizza & Pasta and Classic Frozen Custard both moved into a new building on Adventureland Dr. in Altoona.

    Papa Kerns Café
    2905 E. Hubble Blvd., 262-7692
    Mon. – Sat. 7 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sun. 7 a.m. – 2 p.m.

    Thelma’s
    855 42nd St., 343-7388
    Mon. – Fri. 8a.m. – 4 p.m.

  • The more things change…

    Tacopop 003

    A hundred years ago, our civic leaders were debating a ban on food cart vendors in Des Moines. Arguments sounded much like those against food trucks today – they were eyesores and had an unfair advantage over property tax paying businesses with which they competed. A century later, I sympathize with restaurant owners who tell me how much their businesses have suffered after food trucks began parking nearby but I’ve also seen food carts and trucks act as entry level positions to entrepreneurship. Woody Wasson sold his barbecue out of truck before opening Woody’s Smoke Shack. Tony Lemmo started in a temporary stall at Metro Market before he launched Café di Scala, Hot Shots and Gusto. Years before opening La Rosa, Rosa Martinez sold her tamales in the parking lot of the original La Tapatia, and her fried chicken in industrial parking lots. I could go on and on.

    The latest jumper from temporary to permanent food business is Sam Auen. Over the last three years he developed his Tacopocalypse from a farmers market stall into a Tuesday night tavern service, a regular bar service, and finally a stand alone restaurant in the Northland Building. That location has seen a number of good restaurants come and go during the last five years. Long lines at this self service joint suggest the right fit might finally have been found.

    IMG_2631

    The opening menu was considerably upscale from what a temporary vendor could offer. I had some excellent shrimp ceviche, bacon parfait, and deep fried jalapenos with cream. Tacos, quesadillas and burritos were offered with eclectic choices of protein – bulgolgi, Korean chicken, lemongrass pork, wasabi brisket, bacon chorizo, braised shoulder, vegan chorizo, and poblano potato. The same proteins were available on sandwiches – banh mis rather than tortas. Brisket, bulgolgi and lemongrass pork tended to be dry when I tried them but the poblano potato and vegan chorizo were superb.

    Tacopop 002
    Also starring were soups – a spicy tomato and a not so spicy red pozole full of hominy, pork, cilantro and the flavors of mildly roasted chilies. Three excellent salsas were offered on a condiment table. A variety of fresh slaws topped all tacos.

    Another kind of transformation has been shaping Des Moines’ food scene too. Remember Don Hensley’s Danielle? We named it the best new restaurant of the glorious year 2000, which also brought us Sage. We visited Hensley last week at his latest venture – New Horizon where he is culinary director of marketing. Like La Quercia, this company is mass producing some of the best European classic foods made in America. Giant fork lifts raised veal bones into 2500 gallon tanks where they are cooked for at least 12 hours before being strained and reduced into glace de veau, or cooked into demi glace. Like all superior glaces de veau, there is no salt or flour in this product. Even New Horizon’s concentrated demiglaces were much less salty than considerably more expensive versions I have found at places like Williams & Sonoma. The company also makes glace and demiglace of beef, pork, chicken and viand (a mix of beef and veal). All are gluten free and certified natural. I also played with their concentrated vegetable, carrot, and red pepper extracts. All were reduced to less than 0.6 percent water activity, which gives them three months of shelf life and one month after being opened. I used them in gazpacho, hot soups, and sauces with sensational results. Several of the best restaurants in town are buying New Horizon products now. Whole Foods is in line for them too.

    Side Dishes

    Trostel’s Dish will host a Cline wine dinner Sept. 23, $60… The Dine Iowa Grand Tasting Gala will be held at Prairie Meadows Event Center Sept. 22 from 6 to 8 p.m., $50 includes food, wine, beer and spirits tastings, dessert, and live music. Reservations – 276-1454… Old Chicago Taproom’s Oktoberfest runs through September 29, with an expanded selection of German beers.

    Tacopocalypse
    621 Des Moines St., 556-0571
    Mon. – Sat.. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

  • Solo Dining, without shame

    nullWasabi Tao 010
    A new cafe in Amsterdam only provides small tables with single chairs, requiring customers to come solo. In America, dining alone is more awkward, particularly it seems for ladies. Female readers tell us that still, in the third millennium, they are scorned and shamed by some people when dining alone. One said that while eating at a restaurant bar, she overheard another woman, one she had never met, tell her husband “to give the slut her room.” Another told about a Gramercy Tap bartender who threw a group of male wrestling fans out of that place after he overheard them addressing her with sexually abusive language.

    Many singles choose to eat at a bar for a very unselfish reason: Waiters lose tip income when waiting on just one person at a four top table. In support of singles of all sexes, we asked several restaurant owners and bartenders how solo diners can become more comfortable. Their number one answer was to go to familiar places where you’re known, or to introduce yourself to your bartender at new places. Trostel’s Dish bartender Sean Giza thinks that singles are more comfortable dining alone at lunch and that bringing work, or a book, makes the solo experience less awkward.
    Several people suggested that solos are more comfortable at downtown restaurants where business travelers swell the ranks of single diners. Django, Zombie Burger + Drink Lab and Centro owner George Formaro said he sees so many singles eating at the bar these days that his staffs don’t give it a second thought anymore.

    Many downtown restaurants attract people into their barrooms with discounts. Alba sells superb burgers and martinis for $5 each on Monday evenings but only in their barroom. Also exclusive to their barroom are half priced appetizers, weekdays during happy hours. Django offers oysters on the half shell and jumbo cocktail shrimp for $1 each, every day during happy hour, along with sharp discounts on charcuterie and cheese plates. (Django recently became the first restaurant in Central Iowa to win state certification to prepare their on charcuterie.) Splash lets oysters go for half price and discounts charcuterie in their oyster bar at happy hour. Full dinners are served there too. Americana offers 14 appetizers for $6 each before 6 p.m. Dos Rios sells 11 appetizers for just $5 between 3 and 6 p.m. 801 Steak & Chop House offers discounted oysters, shrimp cocktails and burgers till 6 p.m.

    Barroom-only specials extend beyond downtown too. Christopher’s discounts their exceptional thin crust personal pizza and sells excellent steak and prime rib sandwiches, but only in their barroom. Fleming’s barroom-only menu presents five appetizers, five cocktails and five different glasses of wine for $6 each until 7 p.m. Their prime carpaccio is frequently on that menu. We’ve even seen their marvelous crab cakes there.

    Side Dishes

    Carl Blake’s Rustik Rooster Farm, creators of the sensational Iowa Swabian Hall pig, is planning to become a tourist food destination. Several episodes of a new reality series about Carl and his pigs have been shot and sold to a major cable network. The farm’s parent company has leased the historic Tripoli Opera House and built a bar and kitchen there. It opened last week for special events. Café hours are coming soon and their second Boucherie will be there August 31. Celebrated chefs Stephanie Izard (Chicago), Matt Steigerwald (Lincon Café), Jimmy Fiala and Kevin Nashan (both of St. Louis) are coming this fall. The company also took over two Iowa bakeries with 120 years of history between them – Johnson’s in Waterloo and Waverly Bakery. Isle of Capri Casino in Waterloo branded their buffet Farmers’ Pick (with Rustik Rooster’s logo) and signed the farm and Hudson’s superb Hansen Family Dairy as providers… The Trostel family sold their Chip’s restaurant in Ankeny to Denny Elwell and Todd Rueter who then sold the restaurant name and concept to current Chip’s chef at Chips Guillermo Cano, his brother and sister, and original Chip’s chef Javier Guzman.

October 24, 2013

  • Akebono 515 continues Des Moines’ sushi roll

    The last ten years brought a sushi renaissance to Des Moines. I realized the depth of our town’s craving for raw fish and rice at a food court this summer. A child who looked to be about 4 years old was throwing a full fledged tantrum, pushing things over and kicking other things while yelling “No, no, no. I want sushi!”

    Housed in a handsome corner bay of the Davis Brown Tower, Akebono 515 completes a chapter in local sushi history. Its owners were also the main players when Taki opened in 2002, bringing the metro its first full sushi bar. That previous endeavor, later sold to a Minnesotan, hedged its pioneering bet by attaching its sushi bar to a teppanyaki house. Like its minimalist urban ambiance, Akebono’s menu is concisely tailored for sushi lovers, period. Raw fish is the main course here.

    akebono 006

    Thirteen appetizer choices ($4-9) included: edamame, both buttered and salted; dumplings both pan fried and deep fried, agedashi tofu, which was fried and served in fish broth; scallops with cauliflower puree; shrimp, both tempura style and in cream sauce; one burger; chicken donburi (rice bowls); assorted mushrooms; and one ramen.

    akebono 009

    Skewers ($3 -5) were also offered with a choice of zucchini, two kinds of chicken, pork belly, shrimp and scallops. Bento boxes ($10 – 12) delivered chicken, shrimp or salmon with a choice of sushi rolls and of salads. That’s the entire non sushi menu.

    Among the opening choices, ramen starred. In a brown stock made with both chicken and pork bones, noodles and greens swam with marvelous pieces of pork belly, some braised shoulder, fish cakes and a perfectly poached egg. Salty, golden tempura, pan fried dumplings, and edamame were all by the book and well executed. Skewers were better, perfectly seared and still moist.

    akebono 013

    The serious eating here came from the sushi menu which included a section titled “Fresh from Hawaii.” Those carried only a slightly higher price than their counterparts from other sources and proved to be well worth it.

    akebono 011

    Hawaiian maguro for instance looked brighter and carried deeper flavors than other maguro. Similarly Tasmania shrimp and salmon tasted almost like different species. Sunfish, marlin and two kinds of mackerel were marvelous.

    akebono 004

    Those were presented with thinly sliced apple and seaweed as well as pickled ginger and wasabi. Japanese horse mackerel were served nigiri style, with a piece of nori rope tying a lemon slice to them, a sprig of clover laid on top of that.

    akebono 005

    We also tried these fish in a kitchen special in which they were filleted, grilled lightly and served on strings of daikon and scallions with a bowl of gingery soy and citrus sauce. Their heads were crisply fried. Uni nigiri included generous amounts of unctuous sea urchin eggs. Tasmanian shrimp nigiri were served raw on rice with deep fried heads attached, providing some crunch to complement the deep flavors of raw flesh.

    akebono 008

    An off menu special delivered scallop salad set in a wrapper of thinly sliced cucumber. An order of seaweed salad included a cooked, splayed shrimp and tobiko (flying fish roe).

    akebono 007

    Rolls were similarly stylish and mostly traditional. Among 20, I only spied one usage of cream cheese, or other condescensions to American tastes.

    akebono 014

    After sampling the best fish in the house, bento box sushi rolls were a relative disappointment. Sunomono (Korean style pickled cucumbers) was a delightful salad alternative in those though. Japanese ice creams were coated in sticky rice paste, giving them a contrast of textures.

    akebono 017

    Cinnamon and green tea syrups accompanied the ice creams. Eight sakes (10 -26 bottle) included an unfiltered choice. A short wine list ranged $26 – 70.

    Side Dishes

    La Pizza House opened last week in their new venue on Maury St., a block north and a block east of their home since the 1950’s.

    Akebono 555
    215 10th St., 244-5972
    Mon. – Fri. 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., Daily from 5 p.m.

August 22, 2013

  • Some New Summer Treats

    Summer, not spring, is the season of rebirth in Central Iowa especially in years like this when plantings are delayed by record setting rainfall. I spent last week gadding about various places looking for seasonal goodies. At Waterfront’s annual Door County Fish Boil, I not only found Wisconsin whitefish served with new potatoes, onions and cherry pie, but also that July brings wild halibut and salmon from Alaska plus Patagonian Toothfish from Argentina.

    So many thirsty fans of home brews packed 515 Brewing Company last Friday that conversation required yelling. Like so many brewing pubs here, 515 makes really good products – a spicy brown ale, a Belgian ale with subtle bite, and a hard cider from Sutliff in eastern Iowa all scored high marks. Each was served in a glass custom shaped to bring out the particular flavors on the brew, just as with high end wine service.

    Outside 515 was Local Yocals, a notable burger and fries tent. Owner Jeremy Jessen is a graduate of the kitchen of The Café, probably the grand daddy of farm-to-table service in Central Iowa. He is translating that concept to America’s favorite food combo with about 90 percent of his food from local sources. Burgers were nearly perfect with nicely seared patties of grass fed Iowa beef, garden greens and the first tomatoes of the season that looked ripe enough to want to eat. Fries were like Proustian memories of halcyon days when all fries were crisped on the outside without losing their golden color and their interiors were soft. Jessen uses Iowa rendered pig lard to finish his potatoes, a practice that has all but disappeared in America since the 1970’s. Ketchup was homemade from Iowa tomatoes and fries were offered with a choice of three dips, including fresh garlic mayonnaise.

    This was not a fast food stand. My burgers and fries required 40 minutes to prepare and serve, time spent in the noise of a bar room that lacked any outdoor furniture. It also required two different credit cards to open a bar tab and also order food.
    Irina’s also poured certain Russian Baltika family beers into special glasses, wine glasses in this case, to improve the tasting experience. That restaurant has added a superb creamed sweet corn dish to its summer menu. It was finished dramatically in their smoker. I also tried some pelmeni (Russian ravioli) that were stuffed with both beef and pork and served in a lovely broth of butter, chicken stock and beef stock, with caramelized onions and a dab of sour cream. Irina’s is the vodka scene setter in Iowa and I was told that Petergof is the summer’s hot spirit. It proved to be a smooth St. Petersburg vodka dispensed from gorgeous bottles hand painted on the inside.

    Crème Cupcake & Dessert Lounge’s new summer menu, by chef Hal Jasa, included six desserts and some savory plates – pizza, ratatouille, cheese and bread and butter. I stuck to desserts. A key lime pie was made with sea salt, Greek yogurt and lime zest. A marvelous “violet” paired fresh blueberry yogurt with soft chevre and a “butterfly soup” of lemon verbena, pea flour, anise, clove, and orange syrup. Panna cotta was presented with “basil caviar” (seeds), toasted macadamia nuts, strawberry semifreddo and pickled white strawberries.

    Mixologist Blake Brown’s summer cocktail menu included an Upper West Side of fresh mint and simple syrup with vodka, lemon juice and seco bubbles, plus a Blue Moon of gin, vermouth, crème de violette and orange bitters.

    Side Dishes

    July 14, the Mid-American Wine Institute will host An Affair of the Heart at Des Moines Area Community College in support of Go Red For Women and the American Heart Association.

    Local Yocals at 515 Brewing Co.
    7700 University, Clive
    Fri. 4 p.m. – 9 p.m.

  • The Sports Bar’s Wine Cellar

    Wine Spectator’s annual “The List” is out with mega star restaurateur Thomas Keller on the cover. It honors 3793 restaurants worldwide deemed worthy of its awards for wine excellence, including 14 Iowa cafés. For measuring purposes, 73 restaurants won the distinction in Las Vegas, 24 in New Mexico, 21 in Nebraska and 16 in Mississippi. Do Iowans just not care as much about fine wine as customers elsewhere?

    Maybe local restaurants don’t care as much about Wine Spectator awards. The latter were tainted in 2008 when Milan’s Osteria L’Intrepido restaurant won an award despite a wine list that featured one wine the magazine had likened to “paint thinner and nail varnish” and the inconvenient fact that Osteria L’Intrepido didn’t even exist, except as a website devised by wine critic Robin Goldstein. For one reason or another, several Iowa restaurants with outstanding wine cellars declined to submit their wine lists (and a $250 consideration fee) to the magazine’s judgment this year, including Centro, Django, Gateway Café, Gramercy Tap, Baru66, Lincoln Wine Bar, Café di Scala, and Proof.

    Is this indicative of Iowa character? Are the people of this state, which consistently elects both liberals and conservatives, so independently minded that they really don’t respect the aegis of so-called trend setters and experts? Proof partner Zach Mannheimer thinks so – “We don’t need Wine Spectator telling us we’re doing a good job.”

    Credit to those who did submit and win. In greater Des Moines 801 Steak & Chop House won a “best of award of excellence” for its 495 bottle cellar. It was also cited for its strength in California wines. “Awards of excellence” went to Tursi’s Latin King, Trostel’s Dish, Trostel’s Greenbriar, Splash, Mavericks, and Fleming’s. Tursi’s Latin King was also cited for featuring inexpensive wines. Mavericks was the only first time winner in Iowa. That raised some eyebrows because it’s a sports bar.

    Mavericks is the fourth restaurant in a little over five years occupying its venue across the street from Jordan Creek’s mall. St. Louis based sports bar chain Krieger’s was followed by Mugs’ Pub & Grub and Maddy’s Again. In that latter incarnation, walls had been built to separate the lounge from the dining room. The idea was to give children some distance from drinkers but on my visits it seemed that all the energy (and people) were crammed into one small area. Mavericks, a Kansas City based company that also operates two Saints, Beaver Tap and Tonic here, tore down that wall. The good vibe seems to fill the whole area now, including a large patio in a rear courtyard.

    The food menu is a bit of an upgrade compared to those at Saint’s. Cloth napkins and heavy flatware are atypical of sports bars too. Prime rib is available on Fridays and Saturdays.

    My 16 ounce rib eye steak ($22) included freshly chopped vegetables and creamy mashed potatoes. Fish tacos, deemed the most popular dish on the menu, delivered moist fish, fresh mango and red pepper salsa, chips and two home made salsas, one expertly made with smoked red chilies. Burgers, tenderloins, salads, sandwiches, large appetizers, and a complete weekend breakfast menu looked like those I have praised at Saint’s.

    The wine list is fully worthy of its award. That opinion was verified by a local wine pro who visited with me. A captain’s list of 14 wines were priced $80 – 225. All were Californian except for two from Champagne. A larger list kept in the $20 – 75 range and all those bottles were half priced on Thursdays. Glasses were available from 27 bottles, at $5 – 15.

    Side Dishes

    Two time James Beard Award semifinalist Andrew Meek is no longer part of Gramercy Tap… Papa Lacona’s opened on 63rd Street south of Grand Avenue.

    Mavericks Sports Pub
    165 S Jordan Creek Pkwy #120, West Des Moines, 226-8407
    Mon. – Fri. 11 a.m. – 2 a.m., Sat. – Sun. 8:30 a.m. – 2 a.m.

  • Big Night in Des Moines

    In Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s 1996 film “Big Night,” two passionate Italian restaurant owners on the Jersey Shore bank their future on serving a grand dinner for a famous jazz singer. Their guests relish the feast but the celebrity never shows. Last week, a modification of “Big Night” played in Windsor Heights. David Baruthio and Sarah Hill, Baru66’s Alsatian-American restaurant owners, nervously fussed for days to prepare a degustation for Thomas Keller and Sebastian Rouxel, America’s greatest chef and his pastry chef at The French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon respectively. Both famous guests showed up, on time.

     

    “This is bigger than “Big Night” because right now there is no restaurant critic in America who commands as much awe as Keller,” explained a nervous Baruthio several hours before game time.

     

    Keller and Rouxel were in Central Iowa to promote their book “Bouchon Baking.” They do very little such promotional traveling though. Keller is no “celebrity chef” seeking exposure and branding power while neglecting his restaurants. “I am always in the kitchen. Sebastian is always in the kitchen. That’s where the creativity is and that’s where we want to be,” Keller said.
    So why come to Central Iowa? “I wanted to see where Eric (Ziebolt, James Beard Award winning chef from Ames, who used to work at The French Laundry) came from. And also because when Eric was with us we learned that Iowans are both enthusiastic and savvy about great food. We served his mother’s recipe for corned beef tongue at French Laundry,” Keller explained while sipping double espressos in the late afternoon.

     

    Keller and Rouxel delievered several insights into superior baking. Both said they prefer electric equipment over gas or dual energy ranges and ovens. Rouxel touted confection ovens for baking superior madeleines, “to produce the essential bump.” He also said he loves to add pistachio paste to them for color. To use the bounty of a seasonal herb garden, they both touted pairing fresh herbs with fruits in ice creams. “Peach and rosemary are particularly marvelous together. Just keep the herb subtle,” Keller advised.

     

    Both suggested that home cooks calibrate their ovens frequently and throw away their measuring cups, tablespoons, et cetera, and use only all gram recipes and measures because they are far more exact. When baking breads, Rouxel said not to bother with measures at all, just percentages – “for instance, 20 percent flour, 78 percent water and 2 percent salt for baguettes.”

    While Keller and Rouxel were signing books at Williams & Sonoma, Baruthio and his staff prepped for their big night. They served a few practice dinners to regulars. For their amuse bouche, they laid an oyster on roasted eel with fennel, mint, and a duo of melon balls.

     

    Then they prepared baby leek salads with foie gras, Asiago wafers, pickled shallots, and an egg yolk that had been slow cooked at negative temperature. The egg complemented the leeks marvelously.

     

    Next came pan seared halibut on sweet corn pudding, with La Quercia salame and pop corn.

    Their main course delivered a Dalla Terra organic lamb duo – a rib and a medium rare meatball – served in a large splash of jus next to minted oil, mint yogurt, Kalamata olives, chick peas and arugula.

    Their cheese course was my favorite. It laid Reichert Dairy Aire Robiolina di Reba on toasted planks of cedar with divine chive blossoms, pickled cherries, blue vinaigrette and arugula.

    Dessert courses brought peaches poached in Sauternes with lemon verbena and a salty roasted pistachio ice cream. For a migniardises they laid strawberry espuma on top of vanilla panna cotta.
    Keller and Rouxel ate everything and also ordered steak and frites. Keller walked into the kitchen to thank the entire staff. Sometimes, big nights have happy endings.

     

July 18, 2013

  • Table 128 is an instant hit


    There is no cursed address in the restaurant business. People suspected that about a spot on Ingersoll when three cafés came and went around the beginning of the 1980‘s. Then Wellman’s Pub took up that challenge and remained a strong presence for 31 years. The trick is to fit the address with the right style of café. On early returns, Food Dude is projecting another such winner in the Clive district.

    Lynn and Sarah Pritchard have been involved with three projects in the same venue since August 2011. Shane’s Rib Shack met the same fate as every barbecue not named Jethro’s in the western burbs. Tartine was a French bakery that depended upon breakfast business but without coffee drinks offered at neighboring Caribou. In both cases the Pritchards were pushing someone else’s concept. For their try, they confided in the own considerable restaurant skills. Sarah is an old fashioned front room charmer who remembers customers and trains her multilingual waiters, one of the best staffs in town, to do the same. Lynn is a top chef. They remodeled, most significantly by removing large, uncomfortable booths that were memorials of barbecue days. A 14 seat patio was added. Fresh flowers and signature sprigs of rosemary grace tables. A bakery case that greeted visitors upon entering has been converted into a full bar.

    That’s a key to more positive changes in the menu and the business plan. Though weekend brunch remains, breakfast has been scrapped and dinner hours expanded. Wine offerings ($21-67 by the bottle, $6 – 12 by the glass) have been increased and cocktails added. Several excellent craft beers are available for just $3. Their menu relies on craft and restraint. T128’s mussels dish was as good as any in town, steamed in fish fumet and served with a magnificent sauce of roasted tomato, white wine and anchovy butter, with toast points on the side.

    Frites were served with truffle oil and fresh rosemary. They have been dubbed “crack fries” by a neighbor’s business staff because of their addictive powers. Home made potato chips came with a house made onion and garlic dip.

    Flatbread resembled a margarita pizza with artichokes added.

    Cheese plates stuck to proven favorites.

    Burgers and sandwiches ($9 -14 with a side) did not seem much changed from the excellent offerings of Tartine. Specialty salads ($9 -14) included: roasted beets and arugula with candied pecans and chevre; crab cakes with red quinoa, arugula and sweet corn; and pickled pears with cucumber, chevre and almonds.  Each entrée ($15-22) included soup, a house salad or a Caesar with blended kales.

    A pan roasted key lime chicken breast was well served on cous cous with caramelized onions and butter sauce.

    Flank steak was cut, and plated with asparagus, sunckokes and red wine reduction. Pork loin was paired with mashed potatoes, balsamic reduction, a charred scallion and foie gras mousse.

    Mac and cheese used truffle oil and Mornay sauce that blistered beautifully in the middle. Duck breast was served with chevre, French toast and raspberry sauce.

    The superstar though was a grilled river trout, boned but otherwise whole, stuffed with rosemary sprigs, and paired with roasted Marcona almonds, a potato pancake and divine saffron aioli. Nothing was overcooked, a rarity with most of these dishes. Free ranged, heirloom and farm to table offerings were common.

     

    Desserts covered familiar bistro favorites like caramel chocolate tarts, panna cotta, coconut cake, and crème brulee.

    Side Dishes

    Bobby Dean has been dumped by Kenmore which was sponsoring his appearance at the Iowa State Fair. George Fomarro will replace him.

    Table 128 Bistro
    12695 University Ave., Clive, 327-7427
    Mon – Thurs: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Fri: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sat: 8 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sun: 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.