THE FEATURE – Extravagant tastes of Des Moines

Iowans have deep roots with steakhouses and steak de Burgo.

Iowans have deep roots with steakhouses and steak de Burgo.

Peking duck is classically prepared at Great China.

Peking duck is classically prepared at Great China.

Sea bass at Wasabi Tao.

Sea bass at Wasabi Tao.

Sushi houses like Akebono 515 have popularized open ocean fish like ono.

Sushi houses like Akebono 515 have popularized open ocean fish like ono.

Caviar, escargot, foie gras, black truffles and more of the most exclusive menu items the metro has to offer

By Jim Duncan

Historians have written that most wars were waged because the people of one tribe or nation wanted the foods of another tribe or nation. Certainly there has been a distinct relationship between imperialism and improved diets. Probably no one has ever dined as decadently as rich Romans of the Augustan Era. One of them, Vedius Pollio, took things to obscene levels. Believing that the best tasting eels dined on human flesh, he punished careless slaves by throwing them into his eel pond. Pollio miscalculated what impression this would leave on Emperor Augustus. The latter witnessed Pollio ordering a man who broke a wine cup be tossed to the eels. The emperor freed that slave and ordered that all of Pollio’s cups be broken.

Many rich Romans made their fortunes shipping foods. The favorite dish of Emperor Vitellus consisted of pike liver, pheasant and peacock brains, peacock and flamingo tongues, and eel sperm. Each ingredient came from the far ends of his empire. After the fall of the Roman Empire, European diets went from feast to famine. When Marco Polo described the lavish foods of 14th-century China, most of the French were still subsisting on gruel. Nobles fared better because they owned all hunting and fishing rights. Restaurants were not invented until after the French Revolution left so many rich people’s cooks unemployed.

For the common man, today is the Augustan Era of dining. Strolling through a supermarket reveals a bounty of things that were unknown in Iowa before the last few decades. Listen to the mighty music of their names — papayas, avocados, mangos, mangosteens, custard apples, lychees, rambutans, durians, jackfruits, star fruits. Those are all from the fruit section. Similarly amazing variety appears in every department. Rather than credit American imperialism, let’s assume that such variety of intercontinental foods are the fruits of the FedEx revolution — the age of overnight delivery and modern refrigeration technology.

Before graduating from high school here in the 1960s, the only fish I had heard of were salmon, catfish, halibut, cod, pike, pollock, whitefish, bullheads and perch. The fish today in markets like Whole Foods, C-Fresh, Waterfront or several Hy-Vee stores would blow away a time traveler from the 1970s. Adventurous restaurants like Splash, Wasabi Tao, Wasabi Chi, Akebono 515, Sakura, Satari, Hoshi and Miyabi 9 employ even more fish diversity. Not that long ago, tuna came in cans, period. Today, one can choose between fresh skipjack, yellowtail, tombo (albacore) and big eye tuna. Swordfish can be shutome (broadbill) or hebi (shortbill). Marlin used to be something sportsmen took long-distance vacations to hunt. Now Iowans can find both blue and striped marlins without leaving town.

Open ocean fish were not deemed worth shipping until the sushi revolution in Des Moines taught people about the delights of pomfret, dolphinfish, wahoo (ono) and moonfish (opah). Sea bass (grouper) used to be something Iowans tried in New York, Florida or Hawaii. Now there are a handful of different kinds available here. Snapper used to mean red snapper. Last week I saw three other kinds in town including some with orange flesh. Many Japanese restaurants in Des Moines now offer halibut cheeks, the most delicate part of that cold-water fish.

Then there’s pangasius (a.k.a. basa), swai and bocourti. Those many names were the result of the Catfish War. Before 2002, these fish, from Southeast Asian waters, were called catfish. In 2003, the catfish lobby in the United States convinced Congress to pass a law banning the name “catfish” from being used for Vietnamese pangasius. U.S. fishing interests claimed that the Vietnam government subsidized their fishermen and created unfair competition. Catfish prices soared here.

The 100 Years’ War actually lasted 116 years. America’s Oyster Wars came closer to being the real deal, beginning in 1865 and lasting till 1959 when Potomac and Chesapeake fishing inspectors were disarmed. Those two waterways produced half the oysters in the country, and locals did not like outsiders in their fishing beds. Violence was common. Until the end of the 20th century, oysters in Des Moines were usually identified simply as oysters, usually from Chesapeake Bay, and consumed in oyster stew, as oysters Rockefeller or fried. Today, Splash Oyster Bar rotates a menu of raw cold-water oysters that come from various specifically identified oyster beds in New England and the Pacific Northwest. Django and Waterfront also offer oyster menus that use multiple bedding grounds. Django sells oysters for a mere $1 each during Happy Hour, and Waterfront offers a big discount on Saturday afternoons. Mexican restaurants like Cinco de Mayo and Islas del Pacifico also offer oysters on the half shell.

Shrimp cocktails were pretty much the only seafood on appetizer menus before the late 1970s. Now people argue about what restaurant makes the best crab cakes, the best scallops, the best mussel or clam dish, the best calamari, the best cioppino, the best frog legs and the best clam or lobster chowder. Mussels (those labeled PEI for Prince Edward Island are the best) and calamari were popularized here at Asian and European cafés but now can be found on dozens of menus.

Two places take seafood and fish into deluxe waters. Splash has a caviar menu. Great China uses walleye in its Chinese fish dishes, a considerably better fish than the tilapia or pollock more often found in such dishes. Chef Cheng also makes a pair of Mandarin classics — abalone with black mushrooms and “shark’s fin soup.” The latter dish employs the recipe used at The French Laundry in Napa. It replaces the politically incorrect shark’s fin with fish maw. That duplicates the texture of shark’s fin by replacing it with another member of the “Big Four” luxury foods of Chinese tradition.

Iowans have strong emotional ties to steakhouses. They were the de facto country clubs in towns too small for the real deal. People went to them to celebrate the major events in their lives. Des Moines’ most famous dish is steak de Burgo, made with tenderloin and various sauces. People argue about whether they should use olive oil- and butter-based sauces, or creamy sauces. At Trostel’s Greenbriar, chef Troy Trostel’s gunpowder rib eye is so popular he sells the rub over the counter. He also can add any classic French sauce to any steak. Jesse’s Embers has been packed for 50 years, offering Rube’s beef. Two places use only aged prime beef — 801 Chophouse and Flemings. That ratchets up the experience, and the cost. Steaks can sell for more than $60, and that’s a la carte.

Other luxuries that have gone from unheard of in Des Moines to popular include black truffles, snails (escargot), sweetbreads (lamb pancreas or thymus), foie gras, blood soup/sausage, and duck frites (potatoes fried in duck fat). French cafés like Bistro Montage, Baru 66, Le Jardin and Django, as well as American cafés like Alba and Proof, are responsible for raising the level of awareness about these things. Other foods that people have learned to love only recently were introduced by Mexican tacquerias. Tongue, cactus petals and beef cheeks have moved up from taco stuffing to fine dining here.

The availability of exotica has increased exponentially in other dining categories. Des Moines is a famous charcuterie town now, thanks to La Quercia, a company that contracts heritage pork farmers to feed their pigs a diet of acorns, something the Romans started. Splash Oyster Bar, Eatery A, Django, The Cheese Shop of Des Moines and Gateway Market all offer plates of freshly sliced charcuterie. Hy-Vee has such a place in their EP True store. Even the coffee and gelato bar Sidebar offers a charcuterie plate.

The variety of both imported and local cheeses, olives, teas, gelatos and spices would astonish a Des Moines resident of 40 years ago. Gateway Market and some Hy-Vees have olive bars. Allspice Culinarium and Penzey’s are dedicated to worldly herbs and spices. Allspice and Vom Fass sell exotic olive oils and vinegars. Sidebar imports one of Italy’s great gelato lines. (Gelatos are churned slower than ice creams.) Stam’s makes Italian-inspired gelatos from scratch, some with their Dutch recipe chocolates, revered for their higher cocoa butter content. Gong Fu is the kind of teahouse one usually only finds in Chinese neighborhoods of large cities.

Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai cafés here popularized duck, the culinary king of winged creatures. Both C Fresh and Le’s Chinese BBQ sell whole roasted ducks. Peking duck, classically prepared at Great China, is probably the most famous dish in Mandarin cooking. Similarly, residents of Hyderabad, the culinary nexus of India, consider chicken biryani the greatest recipe in the world. Three local Indian restaurants all specialize in Hyderabadi cuisine — Namaste, Paradise Biryani Pointe and Persis Biryani Grill.

Perhaps America’s greatest imitation of Roman Empire decadence is the all-you-can-eat buffet. Invented in Las Vegas in the 1950s, these are mostly Asian operations today in Des Moines and often offer more than 100 dishes. RELISH



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