Location: 316 Court Ave., Des Moines, IA.
Des Moines' first bistro-style Mexican restaurant is located off of the increasingly lively Court Avenue. (In summer, the street is home to the city's farmer's market, which I miss.) A roomy space, it was, by all accounts, much frequented by many of the political campaigns in town for the caucuses. Our table was laden with a variety of drinks menus - wine, cocktails, specials. My tamarind pop was appealing, not overly sweet, but we were primarily there for the food, off of the abbreviated lunch menu.
Guacamole is made to order from a table-side cart. Since we ordered two batches for our party, we could give feedback on one for the second. It erred a little on the spicy side, richly flavored, a robust accompaniament to a choice of spiced and plain fresh tortilla chips. The Two Taco Special was a sensible size - only slightly too large - selection of a choice of two tacos, a cup of soup (I opted for corn chowder), and the house salad with tangy dressing. At $10, they're charging more than most places in the city would for the meal - but then you're paying for and getting a higher-end restaurant experience, complete with service, ambiance, and named-farm sourcing. Food was pleasant, the first batch of guacamole excellent, and I'd love more tamarind pop.
Location: In the Kirkwood Hotel, 400 Walnut St. Des Moines, IA.
Azalea topped the list of the best new restaurant to open in Des Moines last year, according to one DM Register food critic. And with good reason. It's a spacious, lush space, which is an impressive description for a room whose bones are concrete columns. It has enough drapery, artwork, floral arrangements, and glass to feel elegant, but not intimidating, fully ornamented, but not cluttered.
As a civilized American restaurant, glasses of tap water arrived promptly, as did wine advice, once asked. The wine was very well chosen: I'm always a challenge, wanting whites with my hearty meats, but the sommelier rose to the challenge and the rest of the table - fortunately - liked it too. (Conundrum). We blunted our appetite on bread while picking amongst a choice of hearty American-size portions of locally-raised and cured meats and cheeses. (Niman Ranch steak, Eden Farms pork, Northern Prairie chevre, Point Reyes blue cheese etc.) It's not exclusively local, but that's where the menu's emphasis lies. Local and seasonal. (Plus, there's pizza for a more informal meal.)
There were all sorts of exciting combinations of things on the menu (bacon-wrapped quail with cornbread stuffing), but at the waiter's recommendation, I started with grilled artichoke hearts with fresh mozzarella and prosciutto. The prosciutto and mozzarella were good. The lightly charred, sliced-down-the-middle artichoke hearts were amazing, with a laid-back earthiness brought out by the grilling. I moved on to an enormous grilled pork chop, substantial, succulent, tasty in the way that - in the limits of my experience - only Iowa pork is. It came with wilted spring greens and tasty shrimp grits - I couldn't taste shrimp per se, but they had an appealing depth of flavor, and were smooth without losing their texture. Just right.
I couldn't finish my main, but I was gluttonous enough to want to dessert anyways. Fortunately, everyone else agreed to share, which also meant we could take advantage of the Royal Tokaji 'Aszu 5 Puttonyos' (2000) on the menu to accompany a rich orange-chocolate moussey cake. If dining out weren't so much of an investment, this is the sort of place which, balancing comfortable and elegant, reliably good - but rarely great - food that I would happily go to on a regular basis.
Location: 420 E. Locust St, in the East Village. Des Moines, IA.
If I were given this long, thin, comfortably spacious, brick-walled industrial space and told to do something worthwhile with it, I would struggle. Yet in a space like this, Lucca has succeeded in making a sophisticated restaurant with a touch of whimsy and a touch of lounge-style sophistication, while retaining the clean lines of the space. It's furnished in white, with a long counter running down most of the spaces interior; within, chefs cook and bartenders serve up drinks to the handful of customers at the bar. A piano stands in the window, ready to be played. All of the less sightly restaurant activities, such as dish-doing, are hidden in the basement.
The menu is stipped down and uninformative. Three courses for a set price, with the third one being cheese. Do they even do desserts? I don't have time to stay and find out. Menu items are listed without adjectives: Chicken livers. Gnocchi. Frittata. Mushroom - Pasta. Salmon - Cracked wheat. Fortunately, the menu also comes with a waiter, who's happy to describe at length just what tonight's preparation of each of these dishes is. We're not left on our own to guess, and a good thing too.
The gnocchi are made in house and particularly endorsed by the waiter, so I try them for my starter. Moderately fluffy, lightly sauced, not too many, they're a sensible portion size which leaves room for my main. My beef must have been decent, but I can't remember it: the carrot pancake (think potato pancake style) eclipsed it. And even that was eclipsed by a superb side dish of mixed vegetables which I order as an extra, all beautifully cooked and cut to an ideal size for my fork. The tangle of orange carrot strips enlivens the mess of green.
I may have been taken aback at first by a cheese course as the built-in conclusion to the meal, but it was amazing. Extraordinary. The best thing about the whole meal. A selection of thin slices of four difference cheeses, including a Livarot-like soft one, a sublime blue, and a wine-rich hard Italian cheese. The restaurant specializes in cheese. It has a dedicated temperature-controlled cheese cave, available for tours for choosing one's cheese. (Had I only known this at the time!) There are flights of wine available to be paired with cheeses. They have over fifty of them in stock, usually, says the restaurant's web site.
The majority of the food was fine, occasionally very, very good, often competent-but-unexciting. The cheese on the other hand was very exciting indeed. Go. Eat cheese.