food & drink

Food Dude

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March 17th, 2011 |
By Jim Duncan

A strange interlude at Kirkwood Lounge


Restaurants are subject to the same whims that bedevil other segments of the economy. Success and failure are as often determined by zip codes, synergies and dumb luck as they are by food and service. In 1929 Boston banned Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “Strange Interlude,” which dealt with an abortion. The play moved to Quincy where large crowds followed. It ran five hours with a dinner break, and the closest restaurant to the theater was a place called Howard Johnson’s. Word of mouth spread so quickly that HoJo’s became a franchising pioneer during the Depression, growing into a major chain of hotels and restaurants that flourished into the 1980s when Marriott bought it and let it slide into obscurity.

Four years ago, Mike and Carter Hutchison opened the fine dining Azalea Restaurant on the street level of the Kirkwood Civic Center Hotel with spectacular designs and food by Jeremy Morrow, then as hot as any chef in Iowa. Perceived to be a destination for special occasions, the place looked like an instant classic. Big crowds filled its linen covered tables before shows at the Civic Center and Wells Fargo Arena. Caught, though, in a no man’s land between the skywalk system and Court Avenue revelry, the place always struggled on weekdays when there were no big events in town. Such inconsistencies never work well in the restaurant business. Last year Azalea, then under talented chef Sean Wilson, downsized its prices to little avail though the food was better than ever.

Earlier this year, Des Moines Social Club (DMSC) was forced into a strange interlude between its original home in Gateway Park and a future, permanent home. The Hutchisons offered the Kirkwood’s ballroom and Azalea’s space, re-christened Kirkwood Lounge (KL). DMSC will hold its popular trivia nights and group meetings in the restaurant and theatrical production in the ballroom. Music events will play both venues but wrestling is out.

The restaurant ditched its linens, carpeting and daunting drapes. Overstuffed furniture, a stage and terrazzo floors took their places. Wilson again retooled the menu for KL, with even lower prices (everything under $20). His signature dishes seem intact. Homemade vermouth, wild berry gin and bitters add much to the cocktail end of the business. So do popcorn cooked in bacon grease and a slate of typical bar foods — chicken tenders, sliders, calamari and wings. Wilson’s rotating charcuterie platter combines things like house made pâté de campagne (country style pâté), rilletes (pork cooked in pork fat and sealed in duck aspic), green tomato jam, duck breast prosciutto and roasted peppers with imported fermented meats like copa, fennel finocchiona and soppresetta. His roasted bone marrow with red onion marmalade and parsley salad rocked. Low country egg rolls were stuffed with collard greens, smoked meats and apple chutney. Homemade pimiento was served with fried pickles. Oysters (Rockefeller) were deconstructed and reassembled as a fried dish. Wood oven pizza delivered superb, crisp crusts and ingredients that included homemade sausages and smoked meats. One pizza — roast beets with spinach, feta and chevre — was an epiphany. Half-pound burgers, daily specials and comfort foods (pan roasted pork tenderloins on mashed potatoes and onion gravy) intend to keep things from becoming type cast.

Bottom Line — new synergies should produce a major hit for both the Kirkwood and the Social Club. Wilson is a local treasure.

Side Dishes
Gusto pizzeria opened recently at the Ingersoll address of the former Colorado Feed & Grain. That was Paul Trostel’s first restaurant, which changed Des Moines dining habits in the 1970s. Gusto also opened on the day that Trostel died. CV

Caption: Charcuterie platter at Kirkwood Lounge, 400 Walnut St., 288-9606. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday from 11 to 2 a.m. and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.