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

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