Tag Archives: DINING
We had the hardest time using a gift certificate to dine at Simon’s (aka J. Benjamin’s) , a cozy neighborhood joint on Des Moines’ north side. Our first mistake may have been trying on Saturday night. Both times we found a line outside the door (even in the rain). The first night, the small place was dominated by a large table full of prom kids — from far away Ames, no less. We eventually left.
The second night, there was another table of prom kids (this time from the Des Moines area) but we stuck it out and waited for a table, which was actually kind of fun. We chatted with other waiting diners crammed into a little area between the dining room and the front door. We had a drink at the bar and discovered that one of the servers was someone we knew as a kid when she was in elementary school.
When we finally were seated, we found the food unexceptional but serviceable/just fine. We decided it was the place to eat uncomplicated southern Italian staples — spaghetti with meatballs and red sauce; hearty lasagna with sausage from local favorite, Graziano’s, and oozing with ricotta and mozzarella.
But we can see why the place is popular. It has a “Cheers” kind of feel, where everyone would know your name if you told them your name. The small dining room was so packed that when people walked past our high-walled booth, they inevitably peeked in at us — looking like they hoped they’d spot friends. When they didn’t, they smiled. Some people might find this intrusive. We found it amusing — and endearing. Classic Des Moines.
Also, the service was warm, friendly and swift. The young owner, in casual garb, went out of his way to acknowledge that people were waiting and to update them on the wait and the options while waiting (like sitting at the bar). That’s the way to do it! And I’m assuming it was his idea to give us a free piece of delicious red velvet cake at the end of our meal. I gather from Yelp that complimentary cake is not unusual…although I can’t promise it.
Best Chef: Midwest (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, WI)
Karen Bell (Bavette La Boucherie, Milwaukee)
Steven Brown (Tilia, Minneapolis)
Justin Carlisle (Ardent, Milwaukee)
Gavin Kaysen (Spoon and Stable, Minneapolis) WON
Ann Kim (Young Joni, Minneapolis)
When we were in Kansas City a few weeks ago, our server at a trendy new restaurant – who graduated from Des Moines’ Drake University – reminisced fondly about her favorite rib joint near campus, Woody’s Smoke Shack. We told her the place had closed but recently reopened with a new owner — a promising sign. Alas, judging from the ribs we got last Friday, the new Woody’s is NOT the old one. The ribs appeared to be cooked without any sauce — so they were pale and unappetizing looking. Worse, they didn’t taste very good. They did come with a container of sauce — sweeter than we remembered Woody’s being. So Woody’s — or at least the one we knew — doesn’t appear to be with us any more. Unless this was just a bad night…
We finally made it to the Strudl Haus on the south side of Des Moines — and the Sunday brunch was good. There were six of us (three celebrating April birthdays, a little late) and we never would have gotten a table in the small place without a reservation — which I made several weeks ago. I enjoyed my “Tuscan” breakfast – two over easy eggs with a slash of olive oil and chopped herbs, served with prosciutto, ricotta and fresh fruit (the included pastry was unnecessary and too sweet as we learned the Monday morning after when we tried). Dirck, who is of German descent, went for the more German/Austrian entree — eggs served with fried sausage (which actually tasked more like fried salami, part of my Jewish palate.) Some others had eggs slathered in a thick yellow Hollandaise — which I can’t stomach visually or physically. The omelets looked good. The service and ambiance — a small European-cafe vibe – was pleasant. All in all, a good brunch option.
We are staying in a sweet little room off the garage in an old house on an old street in Lawrence. It’s described as a casita and it is sort of. Not freestanding like casitas I’ve stayed at in New Mexico but small, cheerful and well appointed so suits us just fine (and very reasonably priced. About $50 As I recall.) Sure beats a bland motel (we will have that tomorrow in Dodge City).
As we were barreling down Interstate 35 from Des Moines and getting hungry, we remembered a great little restaurant we’d gone to in a former drugstore in Smithville, Mo., just north of Kansas City. but when I looked it up, I discovered it had closed. Then I discovered the owner had just opened a restaurant in Kansas City, just south of the plaza, about two blocks from where we lived very briefly almost 30 years ago. The restaurant, Black Dirt, was very good. We had the much-lauded fried chicken which was as good as advertised. Somehow, the chicken breast meat was moist, the skin crispy but light, the sage gravy and potatoes creamy and flavorful and the stalks of broccoli rabe were bright green but well cooked and again, full of flavor (butter?cumin seeds). We also had a Missouri Caesar with tender chunks of fried catfish instead of croutons. The salty part was smoked trout rather than anchovies. Clever and good. Also enjoyed the duck confit fritters and the homemade bread with butter was worth the $5 Extra, Our waitress was a Drake U. Grad and big fan of DSM so that was fun. We will be back!
We had heard mixed things about Reed’s Hollow in Des Moines’ Beaverdale neighborhood and in the end, we have to agree with one report that the food is too peculiar/pretentious. I don’t mind experimentation and welcome creativity but the dishes we had were too strange. And such small portions (as Woody Allen would say). We should not leave a meal that cost $71 (before tip) discussing where to get takeout burgers. (We decided to have popcorn at home instead.)
We had three dishes, one technically an entree, listed on the menu as “Smoked Chicken – smoked chicken, confit chicken, chicken skin, hay yogurt, pickled apples, BBQ.” It arrived, literally, smoked — in a glass jar filled with smoke. Clever. But about only about 1/4th of the jar’s contents was food — although who could really tell. Most of the jar was filled with smoke. I recall one solid bite of chicken. Digging around at the bottom of the jar, I came up with various bits and bobs, a piece of crispy skin, some crumbly stuff that appeared to be the biscuit. All this for $23. Really? There were some good flavors but the dish was confused and skimpy.
So too with our even smaller side dishes (“provisions.”) We had mushroom bread (that would be bread made out of mushrooms with some green asparagus cream, a few pieces of asparagus and some crunchy finger-shaped crackers that we were told were mesquite twigs.
Our other dish was a few dumplings filled with a watery broth that, when cut, led to some projectile splattering. There may also have been mushrooms inside the dumplings. They sat atop a smattering of scrambled eggs and beside I’m not sure what else. Part of the issue was the menu’s written description, which was unclear bordering on misleading. The dish was described as: “Agnolotti – shiitake soup, zucchini, enoki, scrambled eggs, shiitake bacon.” I’ll admit, I was unfamiliar with several ingredients — as I’m guessing other diners were — so why not explain clearly what they are? I took this to bea soup. Turns out the soup was inside the agnolotti, which is a pasta dumpling. The dumpling was atop the scrambled eggs and some other items, presumably zucchini and bacon made out of a shiitake mushroom. The dish did have some vivid flavors and the scrambled eggs were refreshingly loose. But again, a skimpy portion. Dessert was an ice cream sandwich supposed made with a fancy cheddar cheese. We found a small speck or two of the cheese….
Don’t think we will return.
I didn’t doubt for a moment that Provisions would be a good place to eat in Ames because it came recommended by my friend Veronica, a longtime resident, superb cook and discerning diner. But without Veronica’s recommendation, I might have dismissed Provisions out of hand because of its unpromising location in a nondescript land of bland office parks, on the side of Loop Road, no less.
But the food was fabulous — and I am already longing to return for the salmon sandwich I had on a dark brown brioche roll. The salmon was lightly grilled but moist, full of flavor, on that gorgeous slightly sweet roll with slices of cucumber and a light dill sour cream sauce. The hamburger (which the two Iowa State University students we were visiting ordered) also looked superb and the Cuban sandwich was also good. My sister was very happy with her grilled salmon atop greens – which is a go to entree for her but still managed to be special. My only regret is that I could not take home one of the homemade breads (especially cranberry pecan) from the to-go counter which was closed by the time we left. We’ll be back! Thank you Veronica!