As we were driving toward the Greater Des Moines Botanical Center last Sunday, we started realizing that the road leading there was chock-a-block with parked cars. Sure enough, we weren’t the only people with cabin fever, eager to get out of the house albeit not into the bitter cold tundra that is Iowa right now.
The Botanical Center is smartly offering blues concerts every Sunday from Jan. 7 through March 25 and I heartily recommend. The music – by local favorite Bob Pace, who I’m told plays regularly at The Gas Lamp downtown, although not to as huge a crowd as provided last Sunday at the Botanical Center – was good, as was the people watching and the very welcome green and leafy tropical hothouse setting. What a joy to see growing and flowering plants, especially at this time of year. The sun poured through the center’s glass dome, reminding us what it felt to actually feel almost hot. It felt great.
Avocado fries and a view at The Republic
Afterwards, we stopped at The Republic on Grand, the very stylish but welcoming bar at the top of the six-story AC Hotel in Des Moines’ East Village that I’d yet to visit, mainly because I don’t go to bars much. This one has great views of the city and was quiet and welcoming. We had some outstanding avocado fries (avocado slices dipped in what looked like chickpea batter and fried) — delicious!
The new St. Kilda Bakery & Cafe, tucked away in an emerging downtown neighborhood of old brick warehouses converted into lofts and newly constructed apartment buildings, grabbed my attention initially because its owner is London-born and Australian-raised and promised an “Australian-style cafe.” That’s new for Des Moines. Then I learned from a friend – a Des Moines native who lives in Brooklyn’s stylish Prospect Heights neighborhood – that St. Kilda’s owner previously ran a bar/restaurant in her NYC neighborhood. (Apparently he’s married to a Des Moines native, hence the move here…)
Anyway, St. Kilda (named after the owner’s hometown near Melbourne) has an urban contemporary vibe and “modern, healthy-style” food, based on my first lunch there last month. Located in the attractively renovated warehouse now known as the Harbach Lofts, south of MLKing Parway downtown (a few blocks northwest of Principal Park, home of Des Moines’ minor league baseball team, the Iowa Cubs), St. Kilda is a small but airy tan-grey-white space with pale hard wood, concrete and redbrick. My friend Denise and I shared the avocado toast (an entree that appears to be all the rage today) and a steak salad with a poached egg on top. Both were attractively presented with clever ingredients (beyond smashed avocado, the toast included charred corn, feta, tomato salsa; the surprisingly light steak salad included figs, pears and a bacon vinaigrette) — so not as ordinary or easily-made-at-home as you might think. I look forward to trying dinner there sometime soon. (Here’s DSM Mag’s take)
This new bar/food truck emporium/hangout is something new for the Des Moines area, as far as I know. Located inside a former 1890’s red-brick rail car repair shop and iron foundry, The Foundry’s “Hall” is both rustic and high-tech, with long wooden tables and benches but also lots of gi-normous (over 6 foot high) computerized screens on the wall that broadcast sports shows and movies as well as let you know when your order is ready.
cozy space inside The Hall
To order food from a food truck in attendance (they rotate), you go up to a computer kiosk, tap on the name of the food truck you’re interested in to get its menu, tap what you want to order, pay using a credit card (not sure if you can use cash) and wait for your name to pop up on the overhead screen and then pick up your order. No server involved, that we could tell. At least for the food.
Ordering at the kiosk
But you do order drinks from a server. And we bought some coffee (from downtown’s Horizon Line, which sadly was way too bitter) from a real human being standing behind a coffee cart. We went on a Sunday midday so it wasn’t an ideal time to assess the place but it did offer the makings of a fine Bloody Mary Bar. There were only two food trucks there when we visited but guessing there are more and not sure if there is a schedule.
The food can also be ordered by downloading an app for “The Hall.”
The Hall also has great spaces to hang out and play board games (also provided). Happenings including Tuesday trivia nights, Wednesday card nights and pop-up events from ballet to beer bingo to movie screenings and sports game-watching. On December 17, there’s a homemade gift market for last-minute holiday shoppers.
On tap for next year is some sort of kitchen operation that’s a nonprofit seeking to combat hunger and homelessness, plus provide skills training – so that will be interesting to see – and a distillery.
This from a NYTimes Q and A with chef April Bloomfield, whose restaurants we’ve recently gone to (Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall; the Spotted Pig in NYC).
London recommendations: in Hackney, Violet (cute tea shop/bakery); in Shoreditch, Lyle’s (“clean simple food”)
In LA: Hearth& Hound (her new place in Hollywood for “wood-fired food.”)
In San Francisco: her place, Tosca Cafe or Marin Brewing Company (in Marin)
In NYC: her places – Breslin Bar & Dining or the John Dory in Flatiron district; White Gold Butchers, Salvation Taco.; recommendations – Kunjip in Koreatown.
Outside Snack Taverna, West Village
I have wanted to eat at the tiny East Village restaurant Prune ever since I read Blood, Bones and Butter, the well-written, compelling memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton, the owner/chef of Prune. Yesterday I finally did and loved it. My pal Myra and I may need to make this the annual dining spot at the end of our much-cherished post-Thanksgiving rendezvous. The food was outstanding — unique and memorable without being fussy or out there — and the service was welcoming, warm and attentive. Did we want bread to sop up the one or two spoonful left of our mussel and leek stew? our server inquired. Yes. Please.
Prune, at last
We arrived when it opened for dinner at 5:30 (Myra had an early train to catch) and the place was empty but it soon started filling up and we were glad we made a last minute reservation. Soon the dozen or so tables were full and single people sat comfortably at the bar. Several customers seemed to be regulars and were greeted by name or even a kiss by wait staff. Felt like a neighborhood handout. Myra and I shared everything (except her martini and my beer): creamy white parsley root soup with a flavor-packed piece of crispy chicken skin; fried oysters with a white creamy herb sauce; the light and delicious stew; a side of crispy grilled onions and garlic, and for dessert a rectangular “crouton” topped with a light caramel sauce and a scoop of ricotta ice cream. We will be back.
Earlier during our wander around the West Village, we stopped for a drink at another tiny restaurant, The Spotted Pig, that has long been on my list, run by another female chef, April Bloomfield. At 4 p.m. the bar was full, as were a few tables. Cheerful cozy place. The menu is more English fare, somewhat pricey but hope to return. We ate a light lunch at Snack Taverna, which was surprisingly good considering that we just stumbled in, lured by little beyond an empty table (actually all the tables were empty, which usually is uninviting). This place seemed to be doing an good take out business. We had good solid Greek-with-an-earthy-flair food: a light country Greek salad (no lettuce; a slab of fresh feta) and spinach feta leek triangles. Myra had a yummy egg atop polenta with a delicious light sauce. Around the block we found Westville, the restaurant I am always looking for but I can never remember the name or street. Glad to try something new.
A hall full of food truck fare?
Looking forward to checking out The Foundry which opened recently in West Des Moines’ Valley Junction. See: Details here!
I fell in love with onion bhajis in the 1980s when I lived in London and started going to Indian restaurants. But I have rarely found them on menus in Indian restaurants in the U.S. so when I spotted them on the menu at Kathmandu, a new Nepalese restaurant on Des Moines south side, I had to violate my pledge not to eat Indian food at the restaurant (we wanted to stick with Nepalese entrees since we’ve rarely had Nepalese food) and glad I did.
They were the real deal. crispy clumps of cut onions, battered and fried, served with two sauces. THink Indian onion rings that look more like a sloppy latke. WE also had chicken moma, a Nepalese dumpling and a Nepalese version of saag (spinach) creamed with chunks of potatoes. the restaurant looks like a bodega from the outside, on an uncharming thoroughfare known for ragtag shops, cheap motels, pawn shops, rough bars, used cars and immigrant- owned businesses.