Des Moines Restaurants

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Big Steer

1715 Adventureland Dr
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
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 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
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