Saturday, 20 December 2008
Five words over the threshold to the Hotel Fort Des Moines’ new restaurant tip off the equivocal character of the 150-seat brasserie: “Django — All French, no attitude.” This is not Julia Child’s persnickety French cuisine, but that of the new polyglot France, which is perfectly comfortable being represented by Django Reinhardt, a Belgian gypsy who played American jazz. This French place features beers on tap, burgers and Las Vegas style seafood pyramids. Like its namesake, it’s synthesizing a style from imported tradition and local culture. That’s even evident in the interior design, an archeological excavation of its 80-year-old building — part Deco (ceiling moldings), part wood and brass (wainscoting and bar) and part European import (a Berkel meat slicer and copper pot wall).
(Chef Place has moved on to Proof)
Owner George Formaro is a brilliant chef and workaholic who researched Django’s menu for three years. Discussing its development, he used a rare phrase — “French comfort food.” That is the essence of Django, and it begins with comfortable pricing. Though it’s possible to spend $250 on champagne, $60 on a raw bar pyramid and $32 on a rack of lamb, none of that is what Django is about. The restaurant has three different menus, for lunch, dinner and late nights. All keep prices under family-friendly thresholds. The wine list begins at $20 with the majority of bottles under $40; two thirds of the entrees come in under $20; all hors d-oeuvres are under $12; lunches range from $8 to $16 and include a side dish.
The late night menu provided the most defining dishes. A Django dog ($11) delivered a house made boudin blanc (blood-free pork sausage) on a bed of slaw on a brioche, topped with melted Gruyere and a generous piece of foie gras. It was served with duck fries that re-set standards for the perfect French-fry. (It takes a $100 of duck fat to fill a fryer.) Even without the duck fat, the fries were extraordinary — twice cooked in the French manner at two different temperatures. Mine came heavily salted, so if you watch your sodium, advise your server. A generous portion came with “steak frites.” From five steaks offered, I tried a hanger steak ($14) that was a revelation of flavor if not texture. From four classic sauces, I chose a perfectly executed Béarnaise (lemon, tarragon, butter).
From the dinner menu, I tried an $18 cassoulet, the paragon of comfort food. My mom used to call Van Camp beans and franks “cassoulet,” but Chef Chris Place ups the ante. For purists, this is the Castelnaudary version, which means a generous hindquarter of duck confit was included instead of goat meat, in a stew of white beans, saucisson (French salami), house cured (with fennel) bacon, walnut oil and croutons. A plate of mussels ($16) in house special Pernod sauce (with leeks and cream) starred. Sides of lentils with spinach and scalloped potatoes were worth their $4 surcharges.
Lunch delivers Formaro’s latest burger recipe, a coarse grind of brisket and shoulder. It produced perfect sear and came with exotic choices of cheese. A tartine of roast beef and cheese was not up to burger standards. The daily pan bagnat offering was confused — one day it was served as advertised on a baquette. Another day I was surprised by a soft-crusted focaccia, making me wish I had ordered another burger. Soups (French onion, asparagus and pickled mushroom) and salads were excellent and a charcuterie plate was even better, mainly because of a homemade pate of rillettes (pork).
Desserts may trip up purists. Profiteroles came with ice cream instead of whipped cream filling. The cocktail menu was extraordinary — even Sazerac was offered. That’s called the original cocktail and, because it requires an absinthe-coated glass, it almost became extinct. Other absinthe and patis drinks are also featured.