Des Moines Restaurants

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