Showing off in Des Moines

Price, service and prestige are what separate central Iowa’s elite restaurants from the rest.

By Jim Duncan

All over the world, people show off by lavishing friends, family and clients with the best possible foods. One historic
theory posits that all wars before the capitalist era were waged by people wanting to steal another people’s food.
The Roman Empire and Ottoman Empires and the great kingdoms of ancient China and Mughal India created
sophisticated cuisines and international trade back when the French were still eating acorn gruel. Acquiring the best
foods has been symbolic of prestige and power for more than 2,000 years.

What has changed is what people consider luxury foods. Salt and pepper were once the gold standard. Cod was the
most precious commodity of Europe for more than 300 years. Game as common now as deer and pigeon was the
exclusive right of royalty in England for 500 years. Before World War II, chicken was more expensive than the best
steaks in Des Moines restaurants, something for special occasions. In fact, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s earliest
advertisements boasted, “It’s not just for Sunday anymore.” When bananas were first served in the U.S., they were
the most expensive dish in the most expensive restaurants.Now they are the cheapest fruit in the supermarket. Supply changes demand (and, hence, the price people will pay for something) more than anything else, but it’s not the only factor.

Oysters have been a prestige food for as long as America has
been around.

The best places for showing off as a host in Des Moines fall into three basic categories. First come those places
where you can get stuff that’s too expensive for other places. Dry aged USDA prime beef is perhaps the king of
prestige in Des Moines today. Only two restaurants carry it exclusively — 801 Steak and Chop House and Fleming’s.
Steaks sell for $42-$64 at 801 and treatments like a marrow bath, torchon of foie gras and Bearnaise sauce cost an
extra $4-$10. Side dishes add another $8-$18 and salads an additional $10-$14. The bottom line is dinner will cost
$100 or more before you even order wine or drinks. Yet, I rarely hear anyone say it wasn’t worth it.

As for showing off with booze, the Wall Street Journal advised to not order the most expensive bottle on a menu,
which can easily run $300 or more in Des Moines. Picking something a little less expensive suggests an expertise for
value, whether you have any or not. As for booze, Pappy Van Winkel bourbon has an aegis that demands $3,000
a bottle online. Chris Diebel, whose Bubba probably has the best Bourbon collection in town, says that Blanton and
Colonel Taylor are really good substitutes in the $40-$60 a bottle range.

Splash has no competitor as a high-end seafood outlet. One dines in chairs upholstered in ostrich hide. Its oyster
bar serves only air-freighted delights from the Pacific northwest, Long Island, Nova Scotia and New England. Iced platters include giant shrimp ($6 each) and whole Maine lobster ($45). Splash’s jet-fresh fish dishes are in the
$29-$39 range. You can add a crab leg or lobster tail for a $55 surcharge. Surf and turf goes for $95. Charcuterie
and cheese boards are available, and so is caviar, which ranges in price from $50 for American sturgeon to $276 for
Russian osetra.

Many cultures believe that foods should be served whole. It’s hard to find a whole roast pig, but two local places sell several of them each week — Le’s Chinese BBQ and 515 Café in C Fresh Market. Don Cotran, manager of the latter, roasts them, and also whole ducks, with the skin on. “That’s where all the flavor comes from,” he explained. Heavenly Asian restaurant offers whole barramundi, with crispy skin ($23) with $3-$6 sides.

Barramundi is served whole at Heavenly Asian.

A second factor in showing off is knowing what places provide the kind of service that makes everyone feel special.
Des Moines’ Italian restauranteurs have been paragons of that talent. Christopher’s, Latin King, Tumea, Hilltop,
Jesse’s Embers, Noah’s, Mama Lacona’s, Chuck’s, and Baratta’s all have kept loyal clientele for decades for this
reason. The most lavish Italian restaurants in town are probably Aposto, Lucca and Centro. Trostel’s Greenbriar has similar service and a fabulous menu. Simon’s fits this profile, too. Depending on your guests’ pickiness, an easy way to impress is to let the chef cook for you. Baru 66 offers a six-course degustation for $79, or $129 with wine. That’s
less than some of their best entrees cost. Harbinger allows one to order its entire menu for less money than a couple
steak dinners at some places.

A third category for showing off has everything to do with the prestige of a place. Bubba, Splash, Centro and
Gateway Market Café do such a nice job of packaging carryout that guests are usually impressed before they even
see the food. Bubba and Gateway Market Café have the most elaborate versions of fried chicken in town, the king
of protein long ago. The Cheese Shoppe is in a category of its own for its namesake. La Quercia has no peer in
America for charcuterie. ♦


Categories: The Feature

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