Des Moines Restaurants

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Vern's

15970 Hickman Road
Clive, Iowa

Lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Dinner 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Bar 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Breakfast Sat. & Sun. 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.


"A" and "D" found Vern's to be a surprise.

The Clive location on Hickman is almost in Waukee and it shares a building with Tuffy's, a quick change oil and auto service business, so the expectation level was not too high. And then you walk through the plain outer door and . . . Wow! Vern's is a visual feast.

You enter either the non-smoking restaurant portion to the left or the lounge and smoking area to the right. Vern's is spacious! The bar is unique in our experience. It has a frozen ice insert running the entire length of the bar to keep drinks cold. This replaces the usual lip where you put your glass for a refill or where you leave the bartender your tip. This is a long bar and it was already filled at 4:30 p.m.

The entire bar and restaurant is designed in dark, elegant wood with very stylish and comfortable furniture, chairs and booths--even the requisite fireplace--giving it a private club-like feeling. Beautiful multi-hued granite is used for the table tops and the bar, highlighting the overall design. The owner, Brett Anderson, (a lawyer, but we won't hold that against him) has done an excellent job of designing and furnishing the restaurant and has obviously spared no expense. The name Vern's is a tribute to his late brother. Anderson also owns the Ducktail Lounge in Clive.

The wine list is extensive, with wines in keeping with the theme of surprise and the upscale nature of the restaurant. The sophistication of the wine offerings, by the glass or the bottle, is interesting. Some attention and knowledge has gone into the wine list. An extensive wine inventory is displayed as you enter the restaurant and in the bar.

Next in the surprise area was the number of people already frequenting a restaurant that had only opened three days previously. The place was jumping. The owner either has a lot of friends or a lot of family.

As elegant as this restaurant is, the table setting and amenities are minimal. Silverware is wrapped in the cloth napkin, a shortcut that is out of keeping with the ambiance of the restaurant. The granite table top, sans tablecloth or placemat, is a bit too austere, too informal for the upscale positioning. High design and modern sleekness are great, but some amenities are also welcomed, especially when the prices are north of average, as Vern's has positioned itself. Flemings understands this important value-added element of market positioning.

Vern's features different menus: one for lunch, one for dinner. These have a varied selection of starters, entrees, lunch features, and side dishes. Chef Burmeister, an alumni of 43 Restaurant at the Hotel Fort Des Moines and other local restaurants, is talented and solid. The menu is as well-designed as the restaurant and presents choices for all tastes and preferrences. Dinner features prime and choice steaks, pasta selections, several seafood selections, a number of chicken and pork offerings, and an innovative salad selection. "A" had an excellent chicken dish that was exceptionally well-prepared with robust flavors and carefully executed saucing. "D" had red snapper filets filled with flavor, if a bit over cooked. Vegetables were excellent and presentation perfect. As the kitchen and the processes come together, "A" and "D" expect the food will attain a high degree of consistentcy making Vern's the newest entry in the Des Moines constellation of stellar restaurants.

The wait staff are professionals from other upscale venues and service is friendly, appropriate and well-executed. These are enthusiastic people that actually want to have you return and make you feel welcome. One off-putting surprise is the hostess' habit of continual smoking at the bar; not a good image for this type of restaurant. But, unfortunately, many of the bar customers are smokers. The trend to non-smoking restaurants has not yet appealed to this owner. Time will tell.

For a new restaurant, there were remarkably few kinks on this first visit. The decor, bar service and selection, wait staff, menu offerings, and the culinary skill are all very good. Vern's will be successful with strong operational discipline and after fine-tuning the amenities to the market position and price class it is attempting to occupy.

Another surprise: Vern's is open for Saturday and Sunday breakfast from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. What a perfect place for a leisurely Eggs Benedict and champagne! "A" and "D" rate Vern's a 3, Yes.

Rating: 3, Yes
Quality: 3
Service: 3
Value: 3

Friday, April 07, 2006

J. Benjamin’s
5800 Franklin Avenue
Des Moines IA
(515) 255 3725
4:30 pm for dinner
Live Music evenings


J. Benjamin's has had several lives, but under the present owner, Simon Goheen, it is reaching its potential. This is an intimate neighborhood restaurant. Its charm is signaled immediately by Simon. Simon greets you at the door; seats customers; provides wine service; sometimes helps out serving; cooks; makes pizza; checks on satisfaction; talks with his customers; and bids you "Thanks and come back soon" at the door as you leave after a pleasant experience. The restaurant is infused with Simon in the same way a great dish can be infused with truffles or ginger creating an enjoyment and delight for the customer that keeps you coming back. And Simon is rare. He is 22 years old and the owner of his first restaurant. He gives more satisfaction and customer care in five minutes than many of our leading lights of the Des Moines restaurant scene give in five years of loyal customer patronage. Simon was born to be a restaurateur. Let's hope that he keeps his enthusiasm, his joy, his concern for the customer and his success, especially in the grueling grind that is the reality of running a good restaurant.

The interior is a charming eclectic decor that has been improved greatly since Simon took over from the prior owner. It is soft lit, pleasing tones and comfortable, as a neighborhood restaurant should be. There are booths on both sides with tables that move, a great detail for those couples with a small and a large person. Being able to move a booth table so both are comfortable is considerate. Restaurants with fixed booth tables are often avoided by many of our more ample diners. Simon features live music on Wednesday nights (perhaps other nights as well), most recently a jazz guitarist. A nice touch in an intimate, friendly neighborhood restaurant.

The amenities are a dichotomy. Fresh roses, carnations and daisies in the vases, candles on the tables, but a haphazard approach to table setting and ware. Cloth napkins but not tablecloths; glass over cloth; silverware rolled in the napkin, a too often used shortcut to good table serving practice. And, the single knife and fork had to be used for all four courses. A small detail, but an opportunity to stretch for restaurateur greatness. Overlay the art of restaurant service and you will have something very special in J. Benjamin's.

And let's consider the name of the restaurant. Under the previous owner the name was a tribute to his father. "A" and "D" went from loyal customers to "let's see if it's as bad as always" under that ownership over a period of three years. We saw the descent into mediocrity that made us ignore this old restaurant and to ignore the name J. Benjamin's. But after three visits to Simon's incredible re-incarnation, "A" and "D" fondly refer to this as "Simon's Restaurant." Why not make the change? One of the smartest restaurateurs "D" ever knew, a millionaire several times over and a steakhouse king in New York City, said, "Always name a restaurant after yourself. You become your own walking billboard and television ad--and it's free!" With Simon's charming personality, he deserves to have a restaurant proudly named "Simon's."

Now to the food . . .

The first visit, Simon was getting the kinks out. The food was unremarkable. Months later, he is serving imaginative dishes and what "A" believes to be Des Moines' best pizza (with Graziano's sausage, too--smart!) This is a work of culinary art in progress. The specials are often exciting, such as the pork loin and chutney with red cabbage several weeks ago. The chicken dishes are excellent, full of surprising flavors. There is a fish dish, but the fish is not the star of the menu; in fact seafood is under-represented. One steak dish is offered, New York Strip. A beef tenderloin dish is also featured.

The work in progress--while quite good--will fully mature when consistency and total attention to detail are learned in the kitchen. String beans cannot be allowed to go gray; baked potatoes cannot be allowed to come to the table steamed in aluminum foil. Sauces cannot be thin one week and superbly wrought the next. Garnishes are afterthoughts. On three spaced visits, the cuisine has become enhanced and it is good, but it will become even better if Simon is The Natural "A" and "D" believe he is.

The menu is the old J. Benjamin menu and he is doing it better than the old J. Benjamin. But, should not the menu be "Simon's?" Should these be his signature dishes? And should there be weekly variety and several specials to choose from. This is the stuff of repeat visits and the making of 'regular' customers. It is about interest and variety; one tires of the same choices quickly. Of course, the other approach is to have thirty choices on a fixed menu, but that can only be supported by volume restaurants like The Latin King. For intimate restaurants, a constantly revolving kaleidoscope of imaginative, well-prepared, mastered dishes prepared with the freshest and best ingredients infallibly produces legends, and Simon has the heart, mind and maturity to be a legend in the Des Moines restaurant milieu.

A nice selection of starters will please most everyone, but the onion rings are as good as you will find anywhere. The bread course features an herbed butter that is excellent and so much more interesting than the foil-wrapped pats. The bread itself is unremarkable and no variety. The house salad is crisp, varied and ample; dressings are good but not yet works of kitchen-made art.

For desert, the chocolate cake served on an elegantly drizzled plate is perfect for two--and delicious.

The wine list is selected with care. The Salmon Creek cabernet is an adventure and--as are all the wines--priced attractively. By the bottle or by the glass, these are interesting, seldom seen wines.

Prices are very reasonable, whether for four courses or for a pizza.

The wait staff is very attentive, even if they are not as infused with as much passion as the owner. A bit inexperienced on the art and lore of the table and on the processes of tableware, but genuinely caring, interested and pleasant. When you get Simon, you get a smile that worries about your satisfaction. But he's busy trying to be everything to everyone. One of the keys to a great neighborhood restaurant is a great and stable wait staff. This restaurant is a delight. It is refreshing to see this much passion and involvement. It is rewarding to know that yet another generation of restaurateur will continue Des Moines' culinary achievements. Simon's Restaurant does not pretend to be Trostel's Dish, but there will be a day when he gives several first tier restaurants a challenge. For now, relax in this intimate place; enjoy this evolving repertoire of dishes, let this enthusiastic host provide you with value and his gifts as a cook and the captain of his destiny. Above all, support a good restaurant that believes it should earn your respect and patronage.

Rating: 3 = Yes
Value: 3
Quality: 3
Recommended: Yes. Keep your eye on this one for future greatness

Riverwalk Cafe
Des Moines Botanical Center
Open for Lunch


Perhaps the best lunch secret in Des Moines. The Riverwalk Cafe is located inside the Des Moines Botanical Center and it is a wonderful place to have lunch looking out over the lush tropical collection of trees, plants, ferns and orchids. On the interior wall is a glass mural of the Des Moines skyline taken in the early 2oth Century. The decor and the furnishings are elegant. This is a whole new creation replacing the old 'cafeteria' that used to be there.

The Riverwalk Cafe is operted by a long-time Des Moines restaurateur and he has created a jewel of a place for lunch. Open for dinner only for special events, it is the exciting and varied daily lunch menu and quality of food that put this treasure on the map.

Creative sandwiches and salads feature prominently on the menu, but full luncheon entrees are offered along with daily features. This is one of the few restaurants where a blanket endorsement of the dishes can be made with no reservations: everything is excellent. Fresh ingredients and hand-preparation of each dish as an individual event are the hallmarks. A selection of wines and beer is available. Prices are very reasonable.

Service is superb. The wait staff are professionals with experience, not kids. They know the dishes and they care about their customers. We watched them work a full restaurant with a bus tour group and everyone was given thorough, courteous and good service.

If lunch and a tropical escape sound good, you can't do better than Riverwalk Cafe and the Botanical Center. For a business lunch, or for an office group lunch--even a board meeting--the Riverwalk Cafe is different, high quality, great atmosphere, good service, and reasonable. Treat yourself to something fresh and different, and support the Botanical Center at the same time.

Overall Rating: 4
Quality: 4
Service: 4
Value: 4
Recommended: Absolutely!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Dolce Vita Grill & Vineyard

13435 University Avenue
Clive, Iowa 50325
(515) 224 7477
Open for Lunch and Dinner
Closed Sunday and Monday


This new restaurant claims it is “A Taste of the Sweet Life” and it delivers on its promise. Located on University between Abella Day Spa and The Club Car, Dolce Vita Grill & Vineyard is an amazing and satisfying experience.

The moment you walk through the door, this small, intimate restaurant opens its arms and its heart and offers everyone the warm, family welcome of the hospitable Greek Islands. The interior décor and mural transports you to the hillside town of Oai, atop the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea. You are looking down on the azure waters, past the ancient blue-domed buildings of the sun-baked, seaside villages of this magic island.

Immediately on entering the restaurant, you are greeted by what can only be described as the Dolce Vita ‘family’—Georgio, the welcoming, exuberant host, with a handshake and a personal introduction and fascinating explanations of the cuisines, the culture and the pleasures of the Greek table for all; Shelley, the pleasant, laughing hostess with perfect suggestions for adventures in dining; Carolina (kar-o-leen-a), who had to have walked in straight from the volcanic beaches of the Aegean and who, five minutes into her first night, extended as warm and gracious a welcome as if she had been there for years; John, the owner and all-around keeper of the culture and the cuisine; and “Chef,” with his insights into the dishes and obvious pride in his suggestions of delights to sample.

Seated, with white tablecloths and burgundy napkins, fresh flowers and glowing candles, Georgio and the rest of the Dolce Vita family begin their magic. It’s as if you have been invited to the islands for a family dinner at an intimate ‘locals only’ restaurant like Perissa in the village of Megalochori or Kamari in picturesque, out-of-the-way Emborio. Georgio approaches with a smile, wine glasses and four bottles of Greek wine, enthusiastic to sample and explain the wonders of each; Shelley hints of Greek lamb chops, large and perfumed with mint, orgegano, lemon and fresh pepper; and suddenly there is bread, fresh-baked from the kitchen, rope-twisted in the Santorini fashion, luscious in texture and perfectly balanced with the taste of cinnamon and sesame.

Santorini is famous for its cherry tomatoes, so flavorful due to the ‘terroir’ of the volcanic soils of the island that they are considered the best in the world; in fact, the International Cherry Tomato Conference is held there each year. The Santorini soil also produces flinty, flavor-packed wines: brusko, a hearty red; nichtiri, the intense white; and vissando, the sweet, powerful red. The grapevines all over the island are grown in woven baskets on the ground and watered only by the dew, owing to the dryness of the Aegean climate.

Dolce Vita offers an interesting selection of wines, including Greek varietals, California, and Italian wines. The prices, by the glass or by the bottle, are extremely reasonable. The house red wine is a California cabernet at $4.50 and is from Barefoot Cellars. Barefoot is a high production winery, but actually produces good, balanced wines at a very reasonable cost. They also produce a sparkling wine that is as good as many higher-priced champagnes. Most wine lovers pass over Barefoot because of its low cost, but “A” and “D” would suggest a blind tasting of the cabernet, and be prepared for a surprise! On this evening, “A” and “D” chose a DiVinci Chianti at $23 a bottle, an excellent Italian from the great producer, Antinori of Tuscany, and representative of the values to be found on Dolce Vita’s intriguing and affordable wine list. At retail, DiVinci is about $20 a bottle, so the very modest mark-up by Dolce Vita says a lot about their hospitable views towards the customer. Georgio’s wine service is smooth, polished and, yet, friendly and always engaging.

“A” and “D” shared a generous Greek salad as an appetizer. This was a crisp, absolutely fresh arrangement of romaine and iceberg lettuce, tomato, cucumber cubes, and plump calamata olives, perfectly dressed with a Greek olive-oil and lemon vinaigrette producing dancing flavors and aromas. Fresh, ground pepper accented the salad perfectly.

Appetizers include classic dolmades, stuffed grape leaves with seasoned beef and rice served with lemon sauce. Whole calamari, stuffed with crab meat, broiled and served with lemon sauce is another alluring appetizer not found on Des Moines menus. Spanakopita is amazing and rewarding, a traditional spinach and feta cheese wrapped in phyllo dough and served with the zesty and mouth-exciting tzatkiki sauce. A seafood dip with baby shrimp, scallops, spinach and toasted peppers in a rich cheese sauce is also an appetizer specialty. Prices range from $5.99 to $8.99, and the servings are large. Three of these wonderful appetizers per person could be a delightful and interesting ‘tapas’ approach to Greek dining.

“A” followed Shelley’s lead and ordered the Greek lamb chops, fresh broccoli with butter, lemon and toasted walnuts, and homemade fries (which really are homemade and good). The lamb was requested medium and came hot and perfect from the kitchen. Holding forth in the kitchen is an experienced chef from New York, and his talents are in evidence. This is exceptionally good food, especially for $14.95.

“D” followed Georgio’s suggestion and ordered the Spartan’s Platter, a three-dish combination of spanakopita, moussaka and pastitio, a layered pasta and cheese similar to lasagna, but with a much more subtle and interesting medley of spices. Portions are very ample and are accompanied by a perfectly prepared rice pilaf. This superb dish was high value at $13.95.

The extensive menu also includes Italian dishes. Choices range from linguini carbonara to penne pasta and linguini Caruso, a shrimp and clams sauté with olive oil, garlic and Italian spices. Veal parmigiana, eggplant parmigiana and lasagna round out the favorites.

For lunch, sandwiches, salads, soups are available, featuring Italian meatball, sausage and an authentic and delicious gyros made in the classic tradition and served in fresh pita bread.

The dinner menu also features savory chicken dishes, seafood dishes, including orange roughy, Mediterranean style salmon, and flounder stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. Steaks include Romanian steak, a bone-in strip steak, steak Diane, medallions of beef tenderloin, and—the evening “A” and “D” were there—an off-the-menu special, bacon- wrapped filet mignon for $14.95. Dinner entrees range from $9.99 to $15.95.

“A” and “D” were visited at each step of dinner by the entire Dolce Vita family. They are not the least bit intrusive; they are fun, interesting, excited and above all, natural-born hosts; they actually care about how you like the dishes and the wine and the service. They all want you to be happy and want you to become a regular member of the ‘family.’ For “D,” this was the closest dining experience to the legendary welcome of being a ‘regular’ at an east coast Italian restaurant. There, you are made to feel a part of the family and are often invited to weddings, graduations and special gatherings. That is exactly how the staff of Dolce Vita makes you feel the first time you dine at the restaurant. Extraordinary!

Even though “A” and “D” really had no room for dessert, Shelley and Georgio painted such word pictures of pastries and cakes that we relented and shared two masterpieces of the sweet life: karidopita, a dense, walnut cake with a honey-rum sauce; and galactoboureko, a silken-creamy, dense custard covered with layers of phyllo, spiced with hints of cinnamon, and drizzled with honey and, perhaps, a hint of lemon. Both of these are one-of-a-kind, Academy Award-winning desserts and not to be missed, especially at a stunning value of $2.99 each. These are huge portions!

And, the ever-vigilant Shelley suggested a unique and gracious addition to the dessert course. For only $1.00 each, they pour a generous sample of dessert ports. You can choose from an excellent and unusual California Zinfandel ruby port, or a classic Australian tawny port. We had one of each, and the entire meal was capped off to perfection, leaving a glow of pleasure not unlike a day in the Aegean sun.

The total bill was $62.00, a very reasonable $31.00 each, and this included a bottle of good wine. You will have to search Des Moines high and low to find a better value, a better dining experience, better warmth and friendliness, and better food than you will find at Dolce Vita Grill & Vineyard. And with service this good, a generous tip is indicated.

This is a restaurant created and operated by experienced restaurant professionals. After the initial delightful décor and ambience, you have the engaging and refreshing personal warmth and service as a pleasant backdrop for the absolutely excellent food. This restaurant will be successful because of its outgoing, friendly, hospitable attitude, its nice people, as well as its great food and excellent value. This is the authentic cuisine of the Greek islands. This is a moment in time, a moment in the sun with the joy and happiness of the Greek culture and history, a moment in Des Moines where you can—truly—willingly escape to enjoy two hours of “A Taste of the Sweet Life.” It just doesn’t get any better than this!

Quality: Superb! 4
Service: Superb! 4
Ambience: Superb! 4
Value: Superb! 4
Recommended: Absolutely! Often and with Friends!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Mojo’s on 86th

6163 NW 86th Street
Johnston, Iowa 50131
(515) 334-3609
Lunch and Dinner


Chef Robert Beasley is a transplanted Louisiana chef, a semi-fixture on the Des Moines restaurant scene. He has a following of loyal customers, many of whom make the switch with him as he moves from restaurant to restaurant. The reason is clear: he’s an excellent chef. Beasley is creative and has that certain, undefined ‘touch’ that sets his cuisine and style apart from others. His latest creation, Mojo’s on 86th, has some of that renowned ‘Beasley touch.’

“A” and “D” joined an already impressive group of diners at 5:30 PM on a Saturday. The restaurant has two sections, the bar and booths in the front room and tables in the larger rear dining room. We were seated at a table in a corner and would suggest asking for a ‘center-of-the-room’ table as the speakers are mounted in the room’s corners and tend to be overly-loud for the corner and adjacent tables. The jazz selections ranged from quiet jazz to dissonant, atonal jazz with little volume consistency, a small detail when overlooked, but important for a dining atmosphere focused on the diners.

Two glasses of Avalon cabernet were ordered. This is an excellent wine that we have enjoyed for years, and at $6 a glass, it is an excellent value. The wine list is interesting, not pretentious and reasonably priced. The stemware is large and adds to the wine service.

“A” and “D” began with Louisiana Spiced Shrimp for the appetizer. The spicy shrimp were arranged on baguette bread slices and bathed in a New Orleans-style sauce. The shrimp were very fresh, done perfectly, dense and resistant to the bite, not the often-encountered limpness of frozen shrimp. If there is a value comment, it is that the shrimp are medium size, maybe 16-20 count, but not large—two tiny bites. The sauce is pure Beasley—full of flavors and intriguing. “A” thought it was quite spicy; “D” thought it only moderate in heat; a perfect blending that appeals to a range of heat tolerances.

For the salad course, “A” ordered the Dinner Salad with mixed greens, spiced candied pecans, Niman Ranch bacon, and Asiago cream dressing. The dish was excellent, fresh, crisp and interesting. “D” ordered the Fresh Spinach Salad with a warm Niman Ranch bacon vinaigrette combined with grilled pears, toasted walnuts and feta cheese. The vinaigrette, while not warm, was superb. The pears were perfection, firm and lightly grilled with a burst of flavor in each bite. The fresh spinach was a baby-like leaf, tender and earthy, adding a pleasant green top-note to the well-balanced overall flavor of the salad.

The entrees were Steak de Burgo with herbs and spices, butter-sautéed, accompanied by potato cakes for “A,” and the special Grilled Tasmanian Salmon for “D.” The Steak de Burgo was prepared to perfection, medium rare as requested, moist and properly rested. The sauce was an intriguing and unusual de Burgo sauce with an herb and spice combination creating a subtle pairing with the butter and the beef. There was obvious care and creativity in the de Burgo flavor elements in the construction of the dish. The potato cake had a crispy exterior and a creamy interior, but lacked flavor and expected punch and, thereby, served only as a foil for the de Burgo sauce.

The Tasmanian Salmon was a treat. This was “D’s” first experience of this Australian, farm-raised salmon prized for being organic and free of all the unpleasant contemplations of northern hemisphere farm-raised salmon. The preparation featured a Beasley sauce that was both sweet and heady with deft handling of the herbs and spices. The salmon was a beautiful pink, perfectly grilled with precise grill marks, and as flaky and sumptuous as one could wish for. Even more gratifying, the sautéed fresh vegetables were even more flavor-filled and done to perfection.

For “A” a second glass of Avalon served as dessert, and “D” enjoyed the coffee. Desserts appear to be the Beasley stand-bys which have always been good. The check totaled $95.00; a $20 tip for service brought it to $115 and change. A bit high in comparison to other Des Moines top restaurants, such as Dish, Greenbriar, Mosaix, Sage and Bistro Montage. Entrees range from $14 to $24; salads from $5 to $9 (often included in the entrée at other restaurants); and appetizers $7 to $11.

And here, “A” and “D” find an interesting comparative element. If you expect Mojo’s on 86th to be among Des Moines’ top restaurants for its food, you won’t be disappointed. Beasley delivers on quality, cooking, flavor and presentation. If, however, you expect it to be among Des Moines’ top restaurants for fine dining, it hasn’t begun to reach its potential yet. It is casual dining and has many of the ‘casual’ ear marks.

The wait staff is adequate, but does not have the fine dining edge. They are a somewhat motley crew dressed in their skate-boarding pants, silver motorcycle chain, and whatever shirt they happened to throw on. Pens stuck behind the ear lend a ‘New Jersey diner’ element, but not a professional waiter impression. The prevailing approach is a “Hi, guys” level of communication appropriate for the sports bar rather than one of well-trained, unobtrusive, professionalism.

The second difference between casual and fine dining is amenities. At Sage, Mosaix, Café on 35th, Bistro Montage, 43, Trostel’s Dish and others competing for the $120 plus for two, there are tablecloths, fresh flowers, silverware not pre-rolled in napkins and replaced appropriately based on courses, controlled music, gracious welcomes and good-byes, and much greater professional service levels. Interestingly, as a restaurant open only a few weeks, no manager came to the table and asked how we enjoyed Mojo’s food, service and the restaurant. No one said good-by or thank you on the way out. No one asked us to return. It’s as if they are unconcerned. The kitchen has the mojo, but the restaurant is searching for the magic.

Whether casual or fine dining, every diner appreciates attention to the details. Fresh off a review at the 5-star The Restaurant in West Palm Beach’s Four Seasons Hotel, “D” was struck by the flawless service of The Restaurant wait staff. The chef is the symphony conductor, but the waiters are the Concert Masters. They direct the orchestration in The Restaurant dining room. Servers, often three or four to a table, bring the entrees at the same moment, and they know exactly who ordered what cocktail, wine, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert, cheese selection, port, coffee, and espresso.

At Mojo’s, “A” and “D” experienced and observed—at our table and most other tables—food runners placing the wrong dish in front of the wrong diner. There’s no ‘guessing’ in fine dining. In almost every service, they had to ask who ordered what, and all over the room one could observe diners raising their hand to say, “No, I had the Seafood Pasta; my wife gets the Filet.” That’s casual dining, but it is decidedly not fine dining.

On balance: excellent food, average service, adequate amenities. For casual dining at Des Moines fine dining prices and great food, Mojo’s on 86th will meet your expectations.

Rating: 3
Quality: Top quality food
Service: Average
Value: Fair
Recommended: Yes
Alternative’s: Trostel’s Dish, Mosaix, Bistro Montage, Sage

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Big Steer

1715 Adventureland Dr
Altoona
515-967-6933
5-9:30 Monday thorough Thursday
5-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

“A” and “D” stopped in at The Big Steer about 5:45 p.m. on a Saturday evening. After managing a salmon-like swim upstream through the throngs of assembled waiting diners, we got our name on the wait list and headed to the bar. The bar was jammed with people, but everybody seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to visit and have a drink while waiting for their table to be called. The bar offers a nice selection of beer and wines by the glass as well as mixed drinks.

We waited about forty minutes for our table and again, managed to weave our way through the now really packed bar and waiting area. While we were waiting for the hostess to show us to our table, a lady came in to add her party to the reservation list and was told the wait was about 1 ½ hours. She didn’t even flinch which was a clear indication to us that the food was well-worth any wait. This is a restaurant frequented by regulars, and they obviously enjoy the experience.

Watching the wait staff at The Big Steer is fascinating. They are a well-oiled group of superb wait staff without an ounce of wasted motion. As soon as a table empties, the bus boys are on it and, if a hostess happens to be passing by, she grabs empty glasses for the bar and deposits them on the way back to the front of the house. Wait staff does not make you feel you are being rushed in any respect and, despite the huge crowds, they are efficient and attentive. Nothing fancy, just great service and efficiency. The restaurant seems to do about 400 people on a Saturday night.

Of course, the big item on The Big Steer menu is beef so we ordered accordingly. “A” got the 16 oz prime rib and “D” tried the special for the evening of a 6 ounce filet mignon and 4 ounce lobster tail. While we waited for dinner, we ordered a half basket of onion rings which were delicious. They are thinly sliced, lightly battered, crisply fried and almost impossible to stop eating. A half order would comfortably serve four people but the two of us put a pretty decent dent in it.

We both ordered the house creamy garlic for our tossed salads. Both salads were comprised of a nice assortment of glistening, crisp, cold greens. “A”’s was beautifully tossed with just the perfect amount of dressing and the surprise of garlic melba bits in lieu of the usual croutons. “D” asked for his dressing on the side and the melba croutons were also provided on the side, making the addition of carbohydrates the diner’s preference.

Each meal is accompanied by a loaf of fresh and hot from the oven bread. The bread is soft and yeasty bringing back memories of loaves lovingly made at home in days of yore.

“A’s” prime rib arrived perfectly prepared – a huge cut of beautifully marbled beef cooked to a rosy medium rare, as requested. A steak knife was provided for the meat but it was unnecessary as the prime rib was absolutely fork tender with a flavor rarely found in restaurants in recent years. The beef was accompanied by a side of pasta with red sauce which was very good, but the beef was the main event.

“D’s” filet and lobster entrée were also fork tender and loaded with rich flavors. The lobster was so sweet and flavorful it scarcely needed to be dipped in the butter sauce that accompanied the plate. “D” opted for the vegetable du jour which was fresh green beans cooked with bacon, adding a great flavor to the usual offerings in many restaurants.

The Big Steer offers cheesecake and ice cream sundaes for dessert but the dinner portions are so generous, we didn’t even attempt a selection.

The Big Steer’s menu includes several fish and seafood offerings along with fried chicken, chicken livers and/or gizzards and a smattering of Italian dishes. We observed several of those dishes being served at other tables and they all looked worthy of a try on a future visit, especially the fried chicken which is a large portion of beautifully dark, crisp and not greasy pieces.

This is a well-rehearsed restaurant that delivers quality and value without being overly fancy. The customers have packed the place for years and they keep coming back. We rate it a 4 within its type of restaurant. The Big Steer is “THE” place to go for Beef in Iowa – no doubt about it!

Rating 4 Absolutely
Quality Excellent
Service: Top quality
Value: Excellent
Recommended: Yes

Mosaix Restaurant

5014 E.P. True Parkway
West Des Moines
515-226-3450
Serves Dinner: Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday

Mosaix has always been a favorite spot to celebrate special times for “A” and “D”. Owner John Teeling knows how to run a first class establishment and it shows the moment you walk through the door. We first enjoyed a glass of wine at the very intimate and cozy bar as you enter the restaurant. The wine selections are excellent and the bar service always perfect.

The restaurant, decorated in soft peach and celery green and awash in candlelight, makes everybody looks good! The tables are covered in sparkling white linen with underskirts in florals and stripes to compliment the other décor. Pentimento lends interest to the walls and the look of Tuscany is perfectly controlled and executed. Mosaix is, for us, one of the most romantic and elegant settings for an evening out. Glasses and silver are spotless and, thankfully, a very nice combination salt and pepper mill adorns each table. The addition of this element to each table certainly eliminates the pretentious necessity some restaurants utilize of having a waiter crank pepper from the house howitzer-sized mill.

The wait staff at Mosaix are all seasoned professionals and provide flawless and completely unobtrusive service. Many have been with the restaurant since we started going several years ago which says something about both the management and the clientele.

Mosaix has an excellent selection of wines both by the bottle and by the glass. If there is something special that is not on the menu and, if it is stocked at JT’s wine store which is next door to Mosaix, all you have to do is ask and it will be provided.

The chef at Mosaix is John Haas who has been a chef at Jesse’s, Bistro Montage and Des Moines Golf and Country Club. His culinary skill is evident in many of the dishes, however in some preparations, the expected surprise or different twist is lacking. On a recent outing we started with selections from the tapas menu with “A” sampling the Gambas Alajillo, tiger shrimp in garlic sauce and “D” trying the Pork Empanadas. The shrimp were large in size but the sauce did not have the expected snap of garlic r the flavors that should be present. The empanadas were topped with sofrito sauce which is a rather gummy and unimaginative salsa that was heavy on the cilantro. Other tapas we have tried include grapes coated with blue cheese, escargot, the artisan cheese selection, steamed mussels and the scallops. Most are quite good, but a few lack the depth of flavors that a master saucier might bring to the selection of small dishes.

Dinners come with a mixed green salad topped with house-made roasted tomato, balsamic, Maytag blue cheese, oregano or garlic. The endive salad, a la carte, is also superb. “A” and “D” both had the Maytag blue cheese which arrived with well-tossed glistening greens and a generous scattering of cheese crumbles. Salads are served with a basket of South Union Bread which, on the evening we visited, was stone cold, almost as though it had been sitting in a refrigerator before it landed on our table. Room temperature or a quick pop in the microwave would have done more justice to George Fomaro’s signature baguette bread.

“D’s” main course was a Hanging Tender Steak served with foie gras butter, roasted root vegetables and house mashed potatoes. “A” had the steak Suzanne, two medallions of beef tenderloin in a wild mushroom bordelaise served with house potatoes and seasonal vegetable, which turned out to be the same assemblage of root vegetables that came with “D’s” entrée. Both beef dishes were prepared as ordered – a very nice medium rare. The Hanging Tender Steak was very tender and flavorful, a model of hanger steak preparation. “A’s” tenderloins were tender and flavorful, however there was not a wild mushroom in sight in the bordelaise. The root vegetables were interesting but not dazzling and the mashed potatoes were bland and forgettable.

Dessert brought “A” a tiramisu that was not prepared in the traditional manner with ladyfingers embedded in layers of the Italian custard. Instead it was a rather soupy concoction served in a wide stem with two pirouline cookies on top. The flavor was very nice and the presentation interesting, but the pirouline’s did not provide the same punch that one experiences with the more traditional tiramisu. “D” ordered a cherry almond sorbet and it was a delight. The crisp nutty almond flavor was a wonderful foil for the rich dark cherries.

The bottom line is that dinner, while good, was not the exceptional dining experience we have enjoyed in the past at this fine restaurant. It is almost as though the chef has some recipes about which he is enthused where the flavors soar and sing. However, there are others that are almost tepid in flavor and lacking in the excitement that one expects from the kitchen at Mosaix. We have never had a bad meal at Mosaix, but the last couple of outings left us a little less enthused than previous visits.

Mosaix changes the menu several times each year in an effort to take advantage of seasonal items as well as a motivation to keep reinventing the food offered to customers. Perhaps the menu is evolving with Messrs. Haas and Teeling and they are still finding the right mix for Mosaix and the chef. We still return and enjoy delightful evenings at one of Des Moines nicest places for a special, romantic dinner.

Rating 3 Yes
Quality Very good
Service: Top quality
Value: Good
Recommended: Yes

Friday, January 06, 2006

Food, Dining and a Life of The Table

We are "A" and "D," experienced food critics, writers, publishers and diners. "A" is a successful cookbook author, recipe creator, food writer, extraordinary cook and was a test kitchen chef for several major television cooking series, including The Great Chefs of the World; The Great Chefs of New Orleans; The Great Chefs of the U.S.; The Great Chefs of the Southwest; and The Great Chefs Jazz Brunches. "D" is an avocational gourmand, an author and culinary publisher, and has cultivated a life of gourmandise on four continents, dining in, savoring and reviewing many of the world's greatest restaurants. Both "A" and "D" have extensive knowledge of various cuisines, techniques, specialty ingredients, U.S. and world wines, and the practice, service, lore and Joy of the Table.

Having each returned to Iowa from lives spent in the food meccas of the west and the east, we believe Des Moines to be one of the great treasures of American living and one of the developing culinary bright spots of the Midwest.

No Agenda . . . No Allegiance

"A" and "D" dine out often together (and separately) in the Des Moines area, each spending their own money, not that of a local newspaper--mainstream or alternative. We are committed to nothing except the quality of the dining experience from the customer's point of view. We have no interest in advertising revenues, high-powered connections, positions in local society, or anything other than superb food, well-prepared and well-served at a reasonable cost for the experience. That is what we write about.

Diners Like You

Neither "A" nor "D" are known to local restaurant owners or chefs. For those few who do have a passing familiarity with us, it's only because we are fairly regular customers of their restaurants, returning often when the dining experience is worthy. We are similar to the Everyman or Everywoman of literature; representative and little different from any other customer who goes to a restaurant hoping only for "superb food, well-prepared and well-served at a reasonable cost for the experience." We are not into the 'foodie' scene and we don't seek out the companionship or recognition of local celebrity chefs or restaurateurs. We are anonymous; we are in this for the food and the Joy of the Table, and we hope our experiences will help you to have great dining experiences in the Des Moines area--and avoid those less than great experiences.

The Rule of Quality

Both "A" and "D" are probably somewhat ruthless in their critiques, both of the dishes and the operation of the restaurants. We don't 'coat' the truth with a verbal 'sauce' designed to provide a mediocre restaurant with a soft landing, or give them a 'second chance' because of an 'off night.' If a restaurant charges $70 to $100 or more for dinner, it doesn't deserve an 'off night' and we probably won't offer a 'second chance' to merit a more positive review. Like you, we measure the cost against the satisfaction. As restaurants (and chefs) age, they tend to rest on their laurels and past history, even as the business loses its appeal for the customers. We do return and review the experience periodically; after all, chefs come and go, menus change, and--now and then--a chef or restaurant owner reads what we write and works to improve their restaurant and its offering. But, there is always that wretched category of restaurants we describe as, "Let's try it again just to see if it's as bad as ever." Usually, it is. Des Moines has a long and illustrous history of great restaurants. We value them and we passionatley care about the Joy of the Table.

Read . . . Enjoy! Those are the basics. Over time, there will be an ever-growing number of reviews. Search the past months' archives. Respond. Disagree. Create a dialogue. We are particularly interested in what restaurants you would like reviewed. We generally eat out two or three times a week, and we are willing to try almost any restaurant. You can also read our reviews and many other diners' reviews on the excellent website, Des Moines Alive at www.desmoinesalive.com. If you are not familiar with Des Moines Alive, it is absolutely the best and most complete site for all Des Moines entertainment and dining venues.

Our ratings are no nonsense, straight forward and based on a four-point scale. We cannot hide with a rating of 3 out of 5, which is neutral. We take a stance!

1 = No; 2 = Maybe; 3 = Yes; and 4 = Absolutely!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Cosi Cucina Italian Grill

1975 NW 86th Street
Clive IA 50325
515-278-8148
Lunch and Dinner, daily


Both “A” and “D” have been regular customers of Cosi Cucina for a number of years, and this is a difficult review to write because it is one that must comment on the dining experience and quality over time, rather than a single experience fixed on a single visit. In fact, this review is so important to us, that “A” and “D” will each write a separate review rather than their usual combined profile.

“A’s” Review

Reviewing Cosi Cucina is a bittersweet proposition. There is still so much to like about the place such as the always present banks of gladiola in the windows and fresh flowers on the table. Lighting in the room is subtle and very appropriate if you are looking for a spot that evokes romance. The service at the restaurant is done by seasoned professionals who make you feel like you are almost family. The welcome is warm, sincere and starts off your dining adventure on a very pleasant note. They know the specials of the day and let you know what they are and the price before you get too far into the menu.

“A” has eaten at Cosi for many years for both lunch and dinner engagements. Until recently, each trip has been good to exceptional. The last two or three trips, however, have left “A” feeling like the chef is either resting on his laurels or is not inspired to deliver the kind of cuisine formerly anticipated and enjoyed at Cosi Cucina. At both lunch and dinner, Cosi’s was always packed with diners who were willing to wait over an hour for a table. On recent visits, there has been no wait for a table.

The most recent outing brought “A” the chef’s special for the evening, Steak de Burgo served with potatoes Dauphanoise and green beans, according to our waiter, and a Caesar salad. Cosi has always been famous for their triangle shaped dinner rolls served with a splash of infused olive oil. They still get high marks however it seems they used to be a little more dense and chewy and served a little warmer. The Caesar salad is really a sad concoction of limp romaine tossed with a creamy style dressing that lacks the bite of garlic or anchovy one expects from this dish. On one outing, the anchovies served on “D’s” Caesar salad were considerably past their prime and were definitely candidates for the kitchen disposal.

The Steak de Burgo was cooked to the desired medium rare requested, however the sauce had none of the characteristics of good de Burgo. The sauce was watery and totally lacking the snap and luster of the garlic and olive oil or butter that one expects from Steak de Burgo. Perhaps there was a miscommunication between the kitchen and the wait staff but the “potatoes Dauphinoise” were really a very poor execution of Dutchess potatoes. Potatoes Dauphinoise are sliced and scalloped, usually with Gruyere cheese. Dutchess potatoes are mashed with cream and garlic, piped onto a plate and browned. The mound on “A’s” plate was not artfully piped and the potatoes and had been overly baked until they were dry and flavorless. Cooking green beans to the perfect texture is also something that should be expected at a restaurant of Cosi Cucina’s reputation and history but alas, “A’s” were undercooked and cold.

“D” ordered a Caesar salad and the penne with sausage sauce, Cosi’s signature pasta named Ziti Cucina. “D”s comments about the Caesar echoed “A’s” findings. The penne pasta tasted as though it had been cooked for quite a while, left to sit on a prep table and reheated prior to being sauced and served. It tasted doughy and overcooked. The menu item boasted Graziano sausage in the sauce however its quantity was negligible. On a previous Sunday lunch outing, “D” ordered the salmon in cucumber sauce. The salmon was not as fresh as it should have been and the plate was awash in a flavorless, milky fluid floating a sea of cucumbers. Pale fish served on a white plate with white sauce does not an interesting entrée make.

We don’t know whether some of the luster from the kitchen has disappeared due to a decreased number of diners. The plethora of new eating establishments on Des Moines west side and Cosi Cucina’s weekly discount coupon hype and increased hours indicate they are feeling the pinch. We will probably continue to review it periodically to see if Cosi Cucina returns to the glorious days of its beginning with inspired food, beautifully prepared and served. What they are churning out these days is a disservice to its fans and certainly to a talented and eager wait staff.

“D’s” Review

Cosi Cucina is entering the 13th year since its opening by chef and owner/co-owner Doug Smith. In 1993, Smith was doing highly innovative things like featuring organic ingredients, using unknown-to-Des Moines ingredients such as ramps, and introducing Cleverly Farms’ artisanal salad greens. The cuisine style was an exciting ‘Cal-Ital’ and Chef Smith quickly captured the interest and loyalty of Des Moines diners, winning praise for both his dishes and the romantic nature of the restaurant’s ambience. The restaurant has a wood-fired oven in the middle of the dining room and was among the first locally, perhaps even in the Midwest, to serve the interesting west coast style pizza that has since swept the country. Good wines, a unique and exceptionally intimate full-service bar, a well-trained wait staff, and high-quality dishes using the best ingredients were the hallmark of Cosi Cucina.
“A” and “D” have observed, since about 2003, changes in some of the hallmark expectations of dinner at Cosi Cucina. The opening of chains such as Biaggi’s, Bravo!, Granite City, and other large-format restaurants has created competition for share of the diners’ wallets and, seemingly, has put pressure on Cosi Cucina for customer loyalty. What we believe we are observing is the timeless tale of the intrigue of the ‘new’ versus the ‘old,’ especially when the old restaurant doesn’t update and allows itself to become caught in a cost-cutting spiral in an attempt to remain competitive.
On three dinner experiences, we have been served dishes that are not up to the standards that were the hallmark of the recent past. On one lunch experience, the quality and preparation was actually disappointing. Service has remained excellent; on every visit, we have been made to feel welcome and appreciated. But, something is amiss with the quality of the food.
We dined on a Wednesday evening, about 6 p.m. Again made to feel welcome, we were seated and Steve, a long-time waiter with excellent skills, immediately began his attentive, knowledgeable and professional service. “A” had a glass of a Steve-recommended St. Supery cabernet; “D” had a favorite Peppi sangiovese. Both were served in elegant, over-sized stems that amplified the aromas of the wines and the wine service. The cab was $10 a glass; the sangiovese, $6.
Peppi is an interesting and inexpensive sangiovese (available at about $7 at J.T’s Wine and Spirits on E.P. True at 50th Street in West Des Moines) and is one of the first California wineries to totally adopt screw-caps over the traditional cork. “D” applauds this as at least ten percent of all bottles using corks opened over the past few years have been corked and have had significant levels of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) in the wine. Corked wine containing TCA has a characteristic odor, sometimes described as resembling a moldy newspaper, wet dog, or damp basement, but in every instance something other than what is desired in the wine experience. Cork taint destroys the wine's aromas, and even a very lightly tainted wine is completely undrinkable (although harmless). “D” has never experienced TCA with screw caps and is a firm believer in this newest wine bottling technology. But, back to Cosi Cucina.
Bread was brought to the table, the signature restaurant-created rustic triangle rolls with peppered olive oil dip. These are served from a large wicker basket; in years past, they were served warmed from the oven. The olive oil on the table is unfiltered, infused with herbs, buttery and flavorful. Steve used the bread service time to thoroughly explain the evening’s featured dishes which he does in an interesting way that shows genuine understanding and interest and not just ‘The Script of the Day.’ “A and “D” both chose the calamari with aoli sauce as a shared appetizer and creamy Caesar salads as starters. Steve said he would check on entree selections after the salad course, a nice touch and one that encourages relaxed dining.
The calamari is breaded and lightly fried. The strips are flat and cut into ½ inch thick slices. We may be wrong, but the squid tastes and feels like a processed product, perhaps a calamari-like prepared frozen product, similar to ersatz-crab. This was “D’s” third attempt at this appetizer in three years and it is the same dish. Calamari has little distinctive taste to begin with, but the preparation should instill several layers of flavor to be accented by the aoli dipping sauce. The breading on this dish is unremarkable, actually a bit soggy and lifeless. The lobster ravioli, scallops or portabella mushrooms may be better appetizer alternatives.
The Caesar salad is an enigma. We have a chef who pioneers Cleverly Farms greens, yet the romaine lettuce in the Caesar is limp, warm, uncrisp and uncool. This is the third Caesar with the same shortcomings, so this is a problem not an oversight. The cream dressing is so heavy on the romaine as to totally overpower any other flavors that might be present, such as garlic and anchovy. The pine nut salad or Gruyere salad are better choices and tend to please consistently.
Post-salad, the entrees were ordered. “A” chose the featured dish, Steak de Burgo and “D” chose the house signature pasta dish, Ziti Cucina, a penne and blush sauce with Graziano sausage. A second glass of the St. Supery and the Peppi accompanied the entrée.
The Steak de Burgo is well-described in “A’s” review accompanying this one. The Ziti Cucina was, frankly, surprising. The pasta was overly glutenous, an indication of pre- and over-cooking. How can this occur in a good Italian restaurant? A number of clumps of three to six penne clinging tenaciously to each other were found in the dish, an unheard of, basic, pasta no-no. The blush sauce is flavorful and excellent, but the always delicious Graziano sausage was a mere hint in quantity, not a hearty and plentiful addition. The smoked chicken and pasta may be a better choice. On other visits, “D” has had the excellent pork Marsala and was pleased; the 8 oz. Iowa-raised ostrich was interesting but overdone. It is worth trying if it can be moisturized and served medium. The wood-fired oven pizza is very good and is always a top choice here.
Cosi Cucina can do better. It must do better. It has a distinguished history of doing better and loyal patrons who want it to do better. If I were to suppose reasons for the shortfall in quality of the dishes, it would be inexperienced kitchen staff. Certainly, not the chef, but the line assistants. What is happening seems to be a lack of attention to excellence and a lack of attention to excellent ingredients; that is unfortunate. The dinner was $100 with a generous gratuity for excellent service, but the dinner was not a $100 value, not even a $70 value with these disappointments.

Rating: 2 Maybe
Quality: Fair
Value: Fair
Recommended: Provisionally
Alternatives: Tursi’s Latin King, Bravo! Cucina, even Biaggi’s