Des Moines Restaurants

Sunday, April 16, 2006


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!