food & drink

Food Dude

By Jim Duncan


Short ribs Des Moines style

As restaurants adjusted menus to fit tighter budgets, 2009 became the year of the short rib. The cow’s inexpensive front shoulders found a new high-end respect that will increase now with winter’s braising season. I visited four of Des Moines’ very best cafés in search of the cutting edge of braising style — the art of turning the humblest cuts of meat into princely feasts.

I had previously noticed that chef Andrew Meek was using organic, grass fed Iowa short ribs at Sbrocco. Grass fed beef is part of the short rib buzz, changing the good/bad cholesterol ratio for the better. Dining alone at 4 p.m. (you read right), I complained that all the appetizers appeared to be large plates “to be shared” and was told to order soup. I had a good tomato broth with a mini grilled cheese sandwich floating on top. My short rib dish included four bones saddled with a thick flank of meat. It was served on a mashed potato and celeriac mix with onions, a side of chopped braised vegetables and braising liquid. However, the grass fed beef wasn’t available the night I dined. I left before dark with nearly half my generous order in a to-go box. By then, the dining room had begun to fill mostly with people trying Sbrocco’s popular wine flights, or buying bottles in their wine shop — a great deal with just $5 corkage fee.

At Alba, I was ushered to my favorite seat, at the chef’s table. I told chef Jason Simon I needed short ribs and he suggested I start my meal with a terrine of venison with allspice. That was served with grainy mustard and Simon’s rather famous homemade cheese crackers. He puts a new terrine on his menu every couple months and this was the best of the best. His short ribs are so popular customers won’t let him take them off the menu, even when braising is out of season. Mine were cooked in Guinness stout, pulled from the bone and served in braising liquid reduced with Port and Cabernet Sauvignon, with homemade mustard spaetzels, carrots, kale and sliced green apples. I wanted to lick the plate.

At Django, I ordered short ribs for two courses, starting with a poutine — the French Canadian version of gravy with fries. No place makes better fries than Django and they substituted duck fat fries for a slight surcharge. Their poutine consisted of pulled rib meat, mushrooms, onions and Cloverleaf Farm cheese curds in gravy that was mostly demiglace, plus brandy, beef stock and buerre manie. Chef George Formaro said he plans to add a foie gras version of that soon. I followed that with a classic short rib Bourgogne, braised in wine (Formaro prefers Nebbiolo Barolo) with vegetables, served with duck fat fried gnocchi, something everyone needs to try before they die.

I sat at Phat Chef’s bar, where chefs serve customers personally during light traffic. Hal Jasa suggested I start with a squash salad. He brought a fabulous combination of shaved green apples, almonds, raisins and roasted butternut squash perked up with the acid kick of a 14 year old sherry vinaigrette. His braised short ribs were pulled from the bones and stuffed in homemade ravioli. He served those in a meaty veal and Cabernet stock reduced with aromatics and highlighted with bianco sardo and black mustard.

Summing up. Short ribs, as much as many food, demonstrate the versatility and creativity of Des Moines’ best chefs. These very different dishes ranged in price from $5 (Django’s appetizer poutine) to $24 (Sbrocco’s entrée). If this had been a contest, Alba would have won, barely.

Side Dishes
White truffles were declared the most expensive food in 2009, edging out beluga caviar… Sbrocco will offer 20 wines from seven countries in a free Majestic Wine tasting at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 22. CV


Caption: Short ribs at Sbrocco, 208 Court Ave., 282-3663
Phat Chefs, 1300 50th St., West Des Moines, 327-9211
Django, 210 10th St., 288-0268
Alba, 524 E. 6th St., 244-0261

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