We tried out the latest South American restaurant in town, Al Punto — serving meat-centric Argentinian fare in a strip mall in the Des Moines suburb of Windsor Heights. I’m hesitant to knock any earnest newcomer but the menu was too limited and meat-heavy, albeit quality meat-heavy for me. There seemed to be too much emphasis on volume, although I gather that’s the Argentinian way (and the Brazilian way). My husband and I would have preferred to share the restaurant’s signature entree — the $30 per person mixed meat/vegetable grill aka “Gaucho Experience” — but were discouraged from doing so (for starters, we were told it would cost $10 to share) so we both went Gaucho, along with our friend D. and ended up taking much of it home.
The meat arrived on a portable wood-fired “Parrillada” grill — a heap of beef, lamb, chicken, chorizo, red peppers, onions and asparagus that looked less alluring to eat than daunting to tackle. The meat was well-seasoned and well-cooked. There was just too much of it. It was served with delicious garlic potatoes and excellent homemade chimichurri sauce (which greatly enhanced the meat and veg). It also came good beef empanadas (although we would have preferred something other than beef but the two other options listed on the menu weren’t available) – plus a choice of starters including Cesar salad (so-so) and deviled eggs stuffed with salmon salad ( too rich and pale pink for me). One of our party did get shrimp as an entree — huge “Wild Argentinian red shrimp” – – which also arrived in a big mound.
Meanwhile, I’ve returned twice to the new Peruvian restaurant in town, Panka and continue to be impressed. Maybe I just prefer Peruvian cuisine to Argentinian — especially wide and diverse selection, including light options such as ceviche. I tried a second soup — a perfectly seasoned Chupe de Camarones, hearty chowder with pieces of shrimp and chunks of creamy yellow potatoes – and a delicious Causa de Cangrejo (an attractive round mound layered with yellow mashed potatoes, slices of avocado and crabmeat.) There are still many things I want to try on the menu, although I already have some favorites I’d love to eat again…
Shrimp Chowder at Panka (and almost-devoured Causa to the right). The purple drink is a Peruvian classic — Chicha Morada, made with purple corn, fruit and spices.
Well that was fun! We had an excellent dinner at Panka, the new (and we gather first) Peruvian Restaurant in Des Moines, almost hidden along Ingersoll Avenue, sandwiched between two chain restaurants in a strip mall. But the small 43-seat place has a real verve and vibe, with sleek modern furnishings, an open kitchen and brightly colored photos of Peru on the walls. The place was packed last Saturday at 7 p.m. on a bitter cold February night and for good reason. The food was outstanding — and reminded us fondly of when we ate our way through Peru – – which has one of the world’s best food cultures — several years ago when our son was studying abroad during college in Lima.
We tried several of the many Peruvian dishes that we loved when in-country and they tasted very similar to what we once ate, sometimes even better. The lomo saltado, a beef stir fry with thick slices of onion and tomatoes, in particular, was better than I remembered it in Peru, maybe because the beef was so tender and flavorful. The aji di gallina, a creole chicken stew in a thick creamy yellow sauce with sliced potatoes, did not disappoint. Nor did the ceviche — there were several kinds. We went with the Peruano, which an English guy sitting next to us recommended. The chicharron de cerdo (crunchy porkbelly chunks) were maybe the one weak link — a little dry and not as crispy as I’d like.
The place felt South American lively, with the two enthusiastic welcoming owners — both women originally from Peru — helping out the servers and the chefs in the open kitchen. There are some kinks to work out, as is the case with any new restaurant. Our five shared dishes including a delicious Aguadito soup (light cilantro-laden broth with chunks of chicken) arrived after a considerable wait and all at once which meant that once we finished the soup (which could have been warmer) the other dishes were cold. The kitchen also ran out of desserts, all homemade including a chocolate cake that several of our neighbors had (and looked great). No liquor license yet so no pisco sours but we thought to bring wine and I don’t believe there was a corkage fee.
We can’t wait to return!! Next time, we will make a reservation. We got in without one this trip but just barely…
Word has it from Wini Moranville with DSM magazine that the redo of Beaverdale’s Chefs Kitchen by the folks who brought us the good DSM restaurants Eatery A, Alba and Harbinger should be unveiled in Mid-April. No further word on details including a possible new name or type of cuisine. Our dinner at Alba last Saturday night (for Dirck’s birthday) was good – the red wine braised brisket was a bit dry but the carrot congee (whatever that is) was as moist as mac n’ cheese so that helped; the pan roasted chickenbreast with a cake of bacon-sage bread pudding and Brussel sprouts was delicious. I would have tried the fancy deviled eggs if the birthday boy liked deviled eggs. We went with a mushroom bruschetta, which was very good. And the molten chocolate lava cake was decadent, as usual.
Wini also reports that Eatery A , at 2932 Ingersoll Ave. has added brunch/lunch service on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Before it was Friday through Sunday. Looks like its avocado toast will give St. Kilda’s some competition.
In the meantime, I’m eager to try the new Panka Peruvian restaurant, a few blocks east at 2708 Ingersoll! Haven’t had Peruvian food since we were in Peru in, um, 2013 when our son was studying in Lima. This is the only Peruvian Restaurant in Des Moines, apparently, although maybe not the first?
By Wini Moranville
Until this year, Eatery A only served noontime meals on Fridays through Sundays. Now, they’ve added brunch/lunch service on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. More good news: To celebrate their fifth anniversary, Eatery A is offering a buy one/get one free lunch special on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during the month of February. Starting today.
Last week, I ventured in to give the hybrid lunch/brunch menu a try. Executive Chef Keith Johnson, who recently took over the kitchen from Nic Gonwa, oversees a dynamite menu: Entrees range from a crab eggs Benedict and lemon-ricotta pancakes (a personal favorite) to shrimp and grits, spaghetti and meatballs and a cauliflower-chickpea falafel. And then there are toasts, salad bowls, sandwiches and wood-fired pizza, too.
Johnson and team have said “game on” to the culinary scene’s ongoing avocado-toast crush, and Eatery A’s is as crush-worthy as any I’ve had elsewhere. Well, almost. I must say I prefer an oozing poached egg over the mostly cooked-through one here, but that’s a personal preference. Otherwise the smashed avocado topped with artfully arranged feta, pickled corn, conserved tomato and chickpeas and a slight tangle of arugula pleased in all the right rich, sprightly and bright ways. My dining pal was equally pleased with her quiche Florentine (aka spinach quiche), which especially stood out for its brown-butter crust and the accompanying shaved-fennel salad. Just lovely.
So, where has former exec chef Gonwa gone? He’s off concepting a new venue with restaurateur Jason Simon (of Alba, Eatery A and Harbinger fame). The new restaurant is taking over the former Chef’s Corner Kitchen spot in Beaverdale. Johnson tells me they’re shooting for a mid-April opening.
Yes!! I finally will get to see Brandi Carlile when she comes to town. Plus Hozier, Maggie Rogers and more. (We may miss Jason Isbell on night #2 because of a prior comittment.) Anyway, here’s the just announced lineup for the 3-night (the first 3-nighter) Hinterland festival in St. Charles, Iowa, about 35 minutes south of Des Moines. August can’t come soon enough!!
We finally went to one of the “First Friday” gatherings at Mainframe Studios, which is home to a maze of artists studios and has gotten some nice national press lately. (see story below from CityLab, an online publication reporting on people “creating the cities of the future.” ) On a cold January night, the place was busy with people wandering around three floors (LL, 1st and 4th) lined with small studios and exhibition/sales space for work by painters, jewelers, sculptors, ceramics, photo studios and graphic designers. We particularly enjoyed the well-attended glassblowing demonstration on the LL floor and the beautiful wood tables and metal sculpture next door at Dane Fabrication. We also picked up some fun Des Moines and Iowa-centric magnets and postcards at John Bosley’s Bozz Prints.
Des Moines Wants to Be the Affordable City for Artists
As Iowa’s capital city grows, its creative class has a pitch to artists in pricer cities: We’re creative, we’re affordable, and you can help us stay that way.
Ask someone to name U.S. cities with booming creative scenes and they’re likely to name the usual suspects: New York or L.A.; maybe Austin, Nashville, or Portland. One you probably won’t hear is Des Moines, Iowa—a state capital that has long been the realm of insurance workers and ag execs who flee the desolate city center after business hours.
But the city has been changing quickly over the past decade, posting the fastest population growth of any major metro in the Midwest in 2016, and 40 percent growth since 2007. In that time, the number of people living downtown has more than doubled. As the boom rolls on, the city’s creative boosters are on a quest to “create culture” by marketing their home as an option for creative entrepreneurs being priced out elsewhere—and to generally change the image you might have of the region. That might seem like a tall order, but the pitch can be distilled to a message many larger cities can’t credibly make anymore: We’re creative, we’re affordable, and you can help us stay that way.
“We want artists to be part of the conversation, and my impression is there are other places where decisions are being made around them, instead of with them,” said Sally Dix, executive director of Bravo Greater Des Moines, the region’s arts organization. “They will be part of deciding how we grow.”
A key part of that effort is making sure a growing city can remain affordable, even if prices increase in the future. The hope is to avoid the predicament seen in Austin, where a survey found more than half of the city’s artists are thinking about leaving, and nearly a quarter say they’re in a “precarious” position with their lease. Des Moines already hasn’t been immune to some of these pressures: Three artist buildings closed in Des Moines in recent years and are being converted to apartments and condos.
One of the most ambitious efforts to avoid that problem is Mainframe Studios, a project that is now the largest nonprofit arts space in the U.S. The idea: create permanent, affordable workspaces for artists by funding the project up front so that it’s financially self-sustaining, meaning low rents (as cheap as $114 a month) can be enough to cover operations and contribute to an endowment.
“Every day, we see headlines about artists being priced out, and it’s even happening here in little ol’ Des Moines,” said Siobhan Spain, director of Mainframe. “We want to learn from what’s going on in other cities, and we think we’ve created a model that approaches the problem in a proactive way.”
The building, a 160,000-square-foot former insurance call center in downtown Des Moines, has been transformed into modern studios with floor-to-ceiling windows, concrete floors, and 16-foot ceilings.
So far, it holds 85 artists repping a wide range of fields. When the build-out is done, that number will more than double—and there’s already a long waitlist. The demand is largely from artists in Iowa, but about 20 percent have come from out of state.
Mainframe tenant Adam Van Wyk, a Hollywood storyboard artist, had previously been operating out of one of the now-shuttered artist studios that is being converted into loft condominiums after operating for 20 years.
“The owner wanted to retire; I mean, I can’t blame him—but, yeah, that wasn’t part of the plan,” Van Wyk said. “Luckily, I could move into Mainframe, and in theory, shouldn’t ever have to move again. Even cooler is that it will be here for artists long after we’re all gone.”
Much of the city’s efforts are being centered and guided by a regional cultural assessment commissioned by Bravo as part of the city’s “Capital Crossroads” strategic five-year plan. The assessment’s recommendations included building networking hubs (like Mainframe) and reviewing city codes that could be slowing down creative businesses.
“One of the things we learned is that artists here weren’t feeling as connected to the resources, mentors, and community as they want to be, so we want to focus a lot of energy on that,” Dix said. “Mainframe is a good start, but we plan to do more.”
Indeed, artists say the biggest benefit to the new space is community—both getting to work alongside fellow artists and also engaging with people during events like First Fridays, when studios open the doors to the public. Another new effort is a study commissioned by Bravo and the Des Moines Arts Festival. Led by artist Chris Dahlquist, who also assisted Kansas City with arts initiatives, the aim is to study how Des Moines can provide even further professional development opportunities for artists.
Housing costs are a major factor in attracting and retaining artists. Currently, Des Moines’ cost of living is 10 percent lower than the national average, and it’s one of the top three markets for millennial home purchases. But as many other cities have seen, affordability often suffers with growth. The city is working with the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech to identify gaps with its workforce and housing projections in the coming years.
“We want to make sure factoring affordable housing happens before development does, and we’re figuring out now how to make that happen,” said Nikki Syverson, director of Capital Crossroads.
When it comes to actually funding cultural projects like Mainframe, Des Moines has had to get creative. Iowa ranks 47th for state funding for the arts, so public-private partnerships, individuals, and businesses have been key. With Mainframe, the county provided about $300,000 in grants, and Bravo gave over $170,000 to the project—but that’s a drop in the bucket, with a total $12 million needed. It’s mainly been possible due to individual donors. Other projects in the works include a new 65,000-square-foot skatepark on the river, funded by a wealthy local businessman; the downtown Des Moines Social Club, founded by East Coast transplant Zachary Mannheimer in 2007; and more than 90 public art installations around town, including the newest 30-foot tall Kerry James Marshall monument, largely funded by individuals.
Artists here generally agree that Des Moines has its pros and cons. For one thing, it’s certainly not New York in terms of exposure. One painter with a studio in Mainframe talked about the hurdles to accessing buyers and shows, for instance. But most of the spaces are filled with artists and creatives who find it easy to do their work from anywhere.
“The reality is we’re still exporting more twenty-somethings than importing,” said Mannheimer, who now works at an engineering firm overseeing creative placemaking initiatives in rural communities. “The next step we need to make is to change that.”
One Mainframe tenant, clothing designer Lori Lawler, moved back to Des Moines after 17 years in Los Angeles to open up a vintage clothing store and workshop space. She admits the adjustment to life in Iowa—namely, the harsh winters—hasn’t been easy. Overall, though, she says it’s been worth it.
On a frigid Sunday afternoon at the Des Moines Art Center, visitors could be seen crouching down to closely examine a series of ordinary objects — a paint-splattered wooden ladder, a battered wooden desk, some small screws inserted into a long bare wall, a dirty drop cloth bunched up by another wall, paint-splattered coveralls. They are all located in a museum exhibition space that looks like it’s being prepped for an art show. But this is the art show and the seemingly ordinary objects are the artwork. They’re not what you think.
What’s going on here? The objects are actually painstakingly crafted art installations, sculpture and drawings — often with inlaid semi-precious stones and hand-embroidery — by Susan Collis, a conceptual sculptor/painter based in London. The closer you look, the more you’re likely to see that what looks worthless actually might be worth a lot — or certainly worth a second look. And a very close look at that.
The stains on the coveralls, for example, upon closer inspection are not dirt or paint. They’re patches of hand-done embroidery. The dots, drips and splashes of paint on the scuffed ladder and chair are actually inlaid semi-precious stones – coral, mother of pearl, opals – cut to resemble paint dots, drips and splashes. The screws are made of precious metals. Some have a diamond in the center.
What looks like rags haphazardly thrown on the floor are actually made from Jacquard fabric — an intricately woven pattern more commonly used for fancy linens. What looks like a cheap felt packing blanket (to wrap around an artwork) is actually a needlepoint project. A cheap throw-away plaid plastic-fiber carrying bag – the kind refugees use to carry all their worldly possessions when they are fleeing – is actually a recreated hand-made bag and valuable sculpture, because of the meticulous hand labor employed to color in the plaid pattern and what looks like a real zipper (until you look more closely).
All this makes you think about the concepts behind the work. Fortunately, as a docent trainee, I got to learn firsthand from the artist during a presentation what some of those concepts are. They are supposed to inspire you to think about:
The hidden work that goes on behind the scenes in a gallery, as laborers and installers prep for the exhibit.
What is of worth or value vs. what is worthless?
What is lost during gentrification of a neighborhood?
To me the exhibit also brought to mind Trompe-l’œil, which means “deceive the eye” in French. Instead of working in traditional Trompe-l’oeil fashion to make something look 3-D and often fancier than it really is (ex: making a wood wall look resemble marble columns), Susan Collis is adding almost hidden value to an ordinary-looking object (ex: making a shabby step ladder more valuable by inlaying it with precious stones.). It’s sort of mind-bending. I recommend taking a look for yourself. A very close look!
My main disappointment with the December farm-to-table meal by the chef of the Wallace House in Des Moines was that, to our surprise, the meal wasn’t held at the Wallace House, a pretty 19th century building in the Sherman Hill neighborhood. Apparently the place isn’t big enough any more for the event so it was held at nearby Hoyt Sherman Place, which was pleasant but still…I’ve been there before, for several weddings during the 1990’s and have not been the Wallace House.
From what I gather, other Wallace Center meals throughout the year on Thursdays are held at the Wallace House. Click here for details. I’ve also enjoyed meals during the summer prepared by Chef Katie Porter at the Wallace’s old farmstead in Orient, about 45 miles west of Des Moines. (Details below. It’s closed during the winter, last I heard.) Henry Wallace, fyi, was an extraordinary Iowan — U.S. Vice President under FDR (1941-45, until he was replaced by Truman for being too liberal) and an agricultural innovator who founded the powerhouse agricultural seed company Pioneer Hi-Brid (now technically known as Corteva Agriscience, after it was bought by DuPont, which then merged with Dow Chemical. and then spun off as a standalone company).
The food was good – honey nut squash and apple soup (that could have been hotter, but I say that about most soups at restaurants and large gatherings); beef short ribs braised in red wine with a delicious potato kale cake and grilled vegetables; and apple ginger crisp that was a little on the dry side (more oatmeal-y, than I like) served with a sage ice cream. For the price $48, a glass of wine or can of beer could have been included. Seemed a bit steep. Nice live music by the John Krantz Duo and of course, great company with a table full of friends.
Where Farm & Table are Just Steps Apart
Friday Lunches and Dinners at the Country Life Center
The Gathering Table restaurant is located inside the historic barn replica at the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center near Orient, IA. Open to the public on Fridays, the restaurant offers lunch and dinner menus centered around the more than 40 varieties of fresh produce grown in the 12 acre on-site garden and orchard. Seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables that are rich in flavor and beauty are complimented by beef, pork, lamb, poultry, cheese and grains. Menu options change almost weekly.
Walk-ins or reservations are welcome for lunch. Please make your reservation by 3 pm for dinner. Live music is on hand every Friday evening; call us to find out who is performing.
The Gathering Table may need to close because of private events such as reunions and wedding receptions. These dates are posted in advance. We apologize for any inconvenience. No lunch or dinner will be held on Friday, November 23 in observance of Thanksgiving. Our final dinner for the season is November 30. Lunches end for the season on December 14.
Please call 641-337-5019 for reservations or email Lisa Swanson.