food & drink

Food Dude

August 26, 2010
By Jim Duncan


Mojo‘s working


Mojo’s dazzles visitors with textured wallpaper, huge leather booths, Deco lamps, wide plank floors and wide-angle photographs of Iowa landscapes. A private wine room (available on first-come basis) has a window to the kitchen. A granite bar is backlit and dramatically punctured with pinholes. A large patio entertains live music on weekends. This place would probably do well without great food, but we’ll never know about that as long as Anthony Johnson mans the kitchen.

This young chef (a Dan Grove protégée) has lined up more superb Iowa farmers and artisan suppliers than anyone in the area. He’s using De Bruin Brothers rabbits, Iowa Ostrich Coop ostrich, Wirth Farm lamb, Fox Hollow and Sheeder Farms birds, Berry Patch fruit, Butcher Crick tomatoes, Clover Leaf dairy and La Quercia charcuterie. He also gets regular deliveries from half a dozen other small farms. To best use their produce, he builds a short, frequently changing menu with a few daily specials. Sometimes ingredients walk in the door at the beginning of dinner. That’s how fresh things are.

Johnson’s dining room often seems like a Slow Food event. People stare at the food on other tables and chat up perfect strangers. I’ve even seen people sharing food across tables. Half-price wine on Mondays might have had something to do with that, but mostly it’s just folks wanting to share a new taste experience.

Johnson’s starters recently included a marvelous calamari two ways: sautéed with homemade Andouille sausage and fried crisply with red pepper coulis. Tamales were served with duck confit, smoked ribs with whiskey grits. A deconstructed crab cake presented crostini, fresh crabmeat and garlic Dijon cream sherry, topped with a soft fried quail egg. Fried squash blossoms were served on fresh pea puree.

A house salad included marinated fresh peaches. Grilled Caesar salad consisted of a head of Romaine, shaved Parmesano-Reggiano cheese and light dressing. Spinach salad presented tender greens with duck confit, chevre, oyster mushrooms, prosciutto crumbles, and an herb dressing with fresh celery leaf, a marvelous herb rarely utilized in Iowa. Another salad featured mesclun with candied ginger and macadamias in a passion fruit vinaigrette. Some of those salads were also topped with crisped shoestring potatoes.

Entrees were paired with vision and variety: Mahi-mahi came with brown rice, edmame coulis, and tropical fruit salsa; Duck breast with bacon-apple risotto, cherry basil compote, and grilled asparagus; Lamb shank with baby sunburst squash, crisp parsnips, mashed potatoes and braising reduction; Pork medallions with chorizo bread pudding, honey cream, and roasted baby carrots; Chicken breast with wilted spinach and couscous salad, mushroom sauce, feta, and asparagus. No two entrees saw the same accompaniment — that only happens in the very best restaurants in any town.

Two dishes gave real meaning to the word “specials.” A seared saddle of rabbit loin had been thin sliced, pounded and rolled with fresh thyme. It was served on Bing cherry and basil coulis, with a shallot and prosciutto risotto and grilled cherry tomatoes. That rabbit was served with two “ears” of freshly crisped sage sticking up. Seared ostrich tenderloin was cooked perfectly rare and served with pearl barley and crumpled prosciutto, grilled carrots and Bourbon beurre blanc.

Desserts took full advantage of Mojo’s summer fruit suppliers. Fresh coconut ice cream (Johnson actually renders his own coconut milk) was served with fresh blueberries and a rolled almond cracker stuffed with chocolate ganache. Goat cheese crème brulee also featured blueberries. Cherry cheesecake was served with freshly made watermelon sorbet. Fresh peach cobbler came with cinnamon whipped cream.

Bottom line — Mojo’s ranks among Iowa’s very best restaurants, and Johnson is a rising star.


Side Dishes

Ron Barthel opened Black Angus Beef N Brew in the former Robin’s Wood Over Grill on S.E. 14th St.… Joe Falbo (Big Leagues Skybox) prepared to open Boss Hawg BBQ in the old Sonic on S.E. 14th St. CV


Caption: Spinach salad with duck confit at Mojo’s on 86th, 6163 N.W. 86th St., Johnston. Hours are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.


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