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


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