By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
Things are popping at Zingaro
Pop-ups are not just another name for underground restaurants. The latter were a symptom of easy money. According to lore, they originated in Latin America’s drug capitols and notoriously featured smuggled contraband. In most places, they flew under the radar of health inspectors, liquor-control boards, ADA compliance and tax collectors. Even when perfectly legal, they advocated decadences like 36-course meals and rare wines.
Pop-ups bloomed after the banking crisis of 2008 when chefs suddenly had more creative ambition than access to capital. By temporarily taking advantage of legal, underused kitchens, they could experiment without risking bankruptcy. Now a celebrity chef, Los Angeles’ Ludo Lefebvre is often credited with starting America’s pop-up craze, but Des Moines was actually way ahead of the trend. In 1977, Benichang Luangaram and Prasong Nurack took over the kitchen of Little Joe’s diner on weekends to introduce Des Moines to Thai cuisine.
Since then, both underground and pop-up movements in Des Moines have been linked to Hal Jasa, an envelope pusher who experiments with culinary ideas that are as edgy now as Thai food was three decades ago — molecular gastronomy and deconstruction. His underground years featured extreme meals served in construction zones, on rooftops and sometimes all night long. The aforementioned 36-course meal was a Jasa extravaganza that didn’t work as perfectly as the chef’s vision. Zingaro (Italian for gypsy), his latest innovation, is methusalean for a pop-up. Though Jasa says he’s looking for a new venue, it’s now in its fourth month in the same Sherman Hill home, serving a completely new menu each week.
Recent visits featured $30 (no credit cards), three-course dinners in which limited choices kept things simple. Cheese and charcuterie boards were also offered with some of Jasa’s best creations finding subtle expressions — marmalade of blackberries smoked with tobacco leaves; paste of fermented black garlic; and mustards made with raspberry juice as well as with whiskey. Jasa restrained his molecular experiments to intermezzos that aroused the nose instead of the tongue. Herbs were burned like incense, and clouds of citrus were created by pouring nitrous oxide on infused hot water. Amuse-bouches included a marinated peppadew (pepper) with milk chocolate, and a leaf of endive with quince paste and blue cheese. First courses featured excellent soups — truffled cauliflower with sherry; chicken with fennel and spaetzel; smoked sweet potato with challah croutons; and sun dried tomato with guanciale (jowl bacon). Each time I tried salads, they featured fried egg: endive with miso paste, crisp bacon and a yuzu reduction; and pâte of pork with chicory and mustards.
Main courses were rather conservative, which is a good business move even at edgy places in Des Moines. A simple New York strip with roast yam, onions and a balsamic reduction was so popular one night that Jasa had to send out for more steaks. Caviar-textured Israeli cous cous and acili ezme (Turkish salsa that includes pomegranate juice and sumac) nicely complimented a trout that was served headless and tailless. Pork loin medallions were served with a peri-peri (chili) sauce, peppadew and a smooth, mild polenta.
Desserts pushed multiple flavors — vanilla ice cream with chocolate ganache, anise and salts; sour cream ice cream with almonds, raisins and smoked chilies; a Bourbon caramel bread pudding with dark chocolate ice cream and salts; and a eye-popping plate of reduced beet juice, anise seeds, chevre, walnuts and vanilla ice cream.
Bottom line — Jasa’s latest adventure reveals a mature chef mastering the many tools with which he plays. It also provides an extraordinary dinner experience at bargain prices.
Side DishChefs Carly Groben (Proof), George Formaro (Centro), Dominic Ianerelli (Splash) and Chuck Fuller (Metro Specialty Services) team to cook a progressive pop-up dinner at four downtown condos March 26. $75 includes limo transfers and wine. All proceeds benefit The Des Moines Playhouse, where tickets are sold. CV Caption: Chef Hal Jasa pioneered both underground and pop up movements in Des Moines. Zingaro, 1605 Woodland Ave., 661-4371. Zingaro is currently serving dinner starting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, but subject to change. For more information, visit zingarocuisine.com