Thursday, December 3, 2009

Des Moines: Three Foodie Destinations in Thirty-Six Hours

Bistro Montage's Cassoulet

This Thanksgiving, I had the pleasure of visiting one of my favorite cities, Des Moines, Iowa, the jewel of the Midwest that gave us Cloris Leachman, the Academy Award winning actress, Edwin Perkins, the inventor of Kool-Aid, and oh yeah, Kuzak, too.

For many of us, any mention of Iowa instantly conjures up images of corn fields, but in recent years, Des Moines has undergone a serious food renaissance!  In part this is due to the national spotlight it enjoys during the presidential primaries, and this last election, a camp of celebrity-like candidates made the city their home away from home, and a candidate needs to eat more than hot dogs and ice cream, especially one with a professed love for arugula (you know, the elitist Obama!).  But this is also due to the fact that the city boasts a culinary school - the Iowa Culinary Institute at the Des Moines Area Community College. Educate your populace, and the community will reap the benefits, or this case, they'll eat them, literally!

Foodie Destination #1 - Proof 

So after all the turkey had been consumed and the cranberry sauce put away, I embarked on a three destinations in thirty-six hours foodie field trip, beginning with lunch at Proof, the new eatery that showcases Mediterranean flavors.  The term, proof, refers to the baking term for rising dough.  The restaurant is open Monday through Friday for lunch and Friday nights for dinner, offering a prix fixe menu that changes weekly.

From millisecond I stepped through the door, I knew this was my kind of restaurant!  Simple, unpretentious decor?  Check!  Fresh, seasonal menu that changes regularly?  Check!  Homemade pastas and breads?  Check!

After chatting with the delightfully cute chef-owner and asking for her recommendations on what to order (yes, it's a she!), I settled on what I considered a Turkey Day detox lunch - the shrimp/bulgar salad paired with a cup of the carrot bisque soup.  Total cost?  $8!  What a steal!

Potato-Bacon Soup with Shrimp/Bulgar

One of the things I loved about the menu is that that shrimp/bulgar didn't even begin to describe what appeared at my table moments later.  Yes, it had shrimp and bulgar, but it also had tender, leafy spinach, delicate winter radishes and thin shreds of carrot, all coated in a wonderful aoili-like dressing.  Likewise, the carrot bisque soup, was served with a whimsical swirl of creme fraiche and dusting of chives. I also sampled two of the flatbread sandwiches - the falafel, for which they've become known, and the Morrocan chicken, both of which rocked my taste buds with their moist, succulent fillings encased within homemade flatbread!

Flatbread Falafel Sandwich

One thing was imminently clear!  This was simple, healthy food done right, and thanks to Proof, my stomach was on its way to detoxing from the Thanksgiving madness I'd foisted upon it the day before. Another bonus?  After lunch, we strolled throw Des Moines' new sculpture garden which was right next door, a beautiful park littered with statuesque art and open for free to the public.

Sculpture Garden

More Proof Pics:

Flatbread Morrocan Chicken Sandwich

Foodie Destination #2: Gateway Market 

My three trips in thirty-six hours was already off to a great start!  Next up? Gateway Market, an independently owned grocery store and cafe specializing in fresh, local product.

My mission?

Procure fresh, local ingredients for a winter salad I planned to bring over to a family friend's house for dinner that night.

Was Gateway Market up the challenge?

It was, and then some!

I quickly seized upon a stand by the door of honeycrisp apples from a local Iowa orchard - they were bulbous with red and yellow highlights.  It was clear that they had to go into my salad.  I also scooped up organic baby arugula, chevre, organic walnuts, roasted walnut oil (my new obsession) and balsamic vinegar.

With my mission accomplished, I perused the mouth-water-inducing cheese section and ample wine selection, my eyes combing over the aisles, taking in all the culinary possibilities!  If only I was in town longer, I would have loaded my cart to the brim with everything from Niman Ranch pork chops to local, organic produce.  I guess I'll have to wait for time.

More Gateway Pics: 

Foodie Destination #3: Bistro Montage

I must confess that I'd visited Bistro Montage once before - Kuzak's parents, who live nearby, had graciously escorted us there for dinner when we'd visited last fall.  I didn't have much expectation beyond the fact that they'd be offering French bistro-style cuisine, so to say that I was impressed by the food would have been an understatement.  For months, I couldn't get the damn sliders out of my head, succulent, thick patties of beefy goodness on buttery brioche, accompanied by crispy fries with homemade ketchup and garlic aoili, so I wasn't surprised in the least when I heard that chef-owner Enosh Kelly subsequently got nominated for a prestigious James Beard Award (a well-deserved nomination that has vaulted him onto the national scene).

Needless to say, I'd made it a point to revisit the eatery on this trip to see what changes it may have undergone in the last year.  On a blustery cold night, we traipsed through the front doors into the dimly lit, cozy-feeling space, and were cheerfully greeted by the host.  Bistro Montage is a neighborhood restaurant that specializes in sourcing and cooking local product (I'm a huge fan of this!). 

I was quickly informed about two big happenings in the world of Bistro Montage. First, they'd recently hosted none other than celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, who'd stopped by a few weeks ago to tape the Midwest episode of his fantastic show, No Reservations. Second, the restaurant had recently acquired a "sous-vide" machine, which is a method of cooking food under vacuum seal in a water bath at a low temperature to maintain the integrity of the food.  My Top Chef Brother has been working with this method for years, so I'm very familiar with it.  Bistro Montage is the only restaurant in Iowa that sous-vides anything. Maybe that would be a handy slogan?  For all your sous-vide needs!  But seriously, in the food world, this is a big deal indeed, and their genuine excitement about what they're doing was completely infectious and permeated the entire meal.

Bistro Burgers

Down to business - what did we eat?  First, it was abundantly clear that Bistro Burgers were in order for the entire table.  They'd changed since my last visit - now they were 4 oz. elk sliders served on warm, dark rye brioche buns with caraway-jicama slaw and Dijon mustard, kind of like a modern take on a deli sandwich.  Even though we requested only burgers, the kitchen generously sent out a batch of their hand-cut fries with homemade ketchup and garlic aioli (to die for).  We made quick work on the burgers, munching them down.  The elk was wonderfully juicy and tender with rich, meaty flavor.

Dinner Salad

For starters, I perused the menu, but settled on ordering the simply named Dinner Salad rather than choosing one of the more ornate offerings.  I did this for two reasons - because I was still detoxing from Thanksgiving and because I believe that you can tell a lot about the quality of a restaurant by their simplest offerings, sort of a riff on how the quality of a chef can be determined by how well they make soup. Chef Kelly easily passed this test. The salad was beautifully arranged with spring greens, julienned carrot, shaved red cabbage and the most stunning heirloom radishes I had ever seen, their thin slices an explosion of purple bleeding into green.  It was dressed with a sherry vinaigrette (I opted for this instead of the delicious-sounding blue cheese and bacon dressing thanks to my stupid blue cheese allergy).


Next up?  Entrees!  From the second I looked at the menu, I knew I had to have their deconstructed Cassoulet.  Not only do I love cassoulet and make it regularly at home (click here for my recipe), but the description of the dish was irresistible - "white bean and tomato ragu with house-made Niman Ranch garlic sauasage, braised Niman Ranch pork belly and confit leg of duck."  Wait a minute!  You mean, there's a dish that includes sausage, pork belly and duck confit?!  Forget calling it Cassoulet - it ought to be called Heaven on a Plate, if you ask me.  Of all the wonderful components, if I had to choose, I'd say the duck leg was my favorite, perfectly rendered, tender, salty, fatty, heavenly.

Green Apple Sorbet

For dessert, we had just about everything they had to offer, thanks to the generosity of the kitchen.  While the Gateau Marjolaine with its crispy, toasted hazelnut and almond meringue, French vanilla and dark chocolate buttercream was something to write home about, my favorite bite of the evening came in the form of the house-made Sorbet.  We sampled two flavors, and while the pineapple was fab, my favorite was the green apple, flecked with darker green bits, it tasted so purely of the freshest, crispest green apples, like the most perfect distillation of fall itself.  If they packaged it up and sold it, I'd stuff my freezer full of the stuff, that's how much I loved it.

All in all, my foodie field trip was a smashing success!  Now, I can't wait for my next trip to Des Moines  I already have a view destinations in mine...  I'm looking at you Azalea!

More Bistro Montage Pics:

Hand-Cut Fries

French Onion Soup

 Roasted Beet Salad

Guinea Foul

Veal Chop Special

Crispy Duck Breast

Flourless Chocolate Cake and Apple Tart

Gasteau Marjolaine

Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee

Pineapple Sorbet

Restaurants Mentioned: 

1301 Locust St.
Des Moines, IA 50309
(515) 244-0655


Gateway Market
2002 Woodland Ave.
Des Moines, IA 50312
(515) 243-1754


Bistro Montage
2724 Ingersoll Ave.
Des Moines, IA 50312
(515) 557-1924


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