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Food Dude

April 26, 2012
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The buffet rules

By Jim Duncan

Centro's wood fired whole Iowa Swabian Hall pig roast at Rare Affair. Eastern Hibachi Buffet, 4001 Westown Parkway, 267-8999. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

While politicians argued about whether an upper case Buffet (Rule) would retard the economy or pay off excessive government spending, two lower case buffets set new standards in Des Moines. A Rare Affair in Hotel Fort Des Moines matched some of Iowa’s most discriminating farmers with top local chefs who use meats from sustainable Iowa farms. It sold out (300 tickets) quickly with admission price of more than $40. The event was the brainchild of Larry Cleverley, a Mingo vegetable farmer who has introduced, and re-introduced more heirloom varieties of naturally raised foods than anyone in central Iowa. He determined to showcase meats that are raised humanely and naturally — outside of confinements without hormones or antibiotics.

Anthony Johnson recreated a dish I have enjoyed at Mojo’s on 86th — seared ostrich tenderloin from De Bruin Brothers of Oskaloosa. He drizzled it with smoked strawberry sauce and onion jam served over Prairie Breeze cheddar from Milton Creamery. Derek Eidson of Centro also paired off with a familiar face. He cooked an entire Iowa Swabian Hall pig overnight in his restaurant’s wood burning oven. Carl Blake of Rustik Rooster Farms recreated the legendary 19th century Swabian Hall breed of Germany by crossing Russian Wild Boars with Chinese Meishans. Their pork is dark like goose near the bone and fattier than any other hybrid. A slice of its duck-like skin alone was worth the price of admission. Alba’s Jason Simon also recreated a favorite dish — rabbit stew from De Bruin Brothers. Mike Utley of Americana served coconut braised short ribs of Majinola’s Wagyu beef, with pineapple and mango salsa. Sbrocco chefs served herb encrusted, slow roasted acorn finished pork shoulders from Eden Farms.
Other chefs experimented. Luna Bistro’s Kris Van Tuyl made a pheasant terrine served with freshly marinated plums. George Formaro and Scott Stroud of Django worked with that restaurant‘s Mexican line cooks to make the best frijoles I ever tasted — copious quantities of butter were involved along with chicharones, onions and fresh herbs. They also made tepache (fermented fruit beer) and tacos, including some that mixed hearts, brains, tongues and cheeks. Nick Ilingworth and CJ Bienert of Cheese Shop of Des Moines made toasted cheese sandwiches with La Quercia prosciutto. Bill Overdyk of Gateway Market prepared pork belly wraps with Gojuchang chile paste and nuoc cham.

Eastern Sushi Hibachi Buffet opened in a extensively remodeled 500-seat venue once home to Mondo’s. A misty carp pond greeted visitors along with a replica of a horse drawn chariot from the terra cotta army of Xian, one of the great archeological finds of history. A sign delightfully disclosed that this is not the original.

Food has upgraded the Chinese buffet genre in town; I had never seen so many Chinese diners eating in an Iowa Chinese restaurant before. Many unexpected things were scratch-made including excellent kim chee, coconut macaroons, fresh fruit salads, an apple pie or dumpling with sesame crusts, and an original take on tiramisu. An $11 buffet, the most expensive of the week, featured salt and pepper squid, crab stuffed mushrooms, large fried frog legs, four shrimp dishes, fried halibut, crab legs, crawfish, large baked salmon and two kinds of clam dishes.

A hibachi bar offered freshly boned chicken thighs and skirt steak, rather than the weird frozen pieces of meat other buffets serve. Hibachi chefs put on a good show, juggling eggs on their spatulas and creating dazzling flames for children. A sushi station was ordinary with mostly featuring crabstick rolls.

Bottom Line — Rare Affair might well have been the best buffet ever assembled in Iowa. Its success suggests it will become annual event. Eastern sets a new standard for Chinese buffets in Des Moines.

Side Dishes

British doctors began administering the diabetes drug metformin to the unborn babies of morbidly obese mothers-to-be to reduce fetus weight. CV

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