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Food Dude

September 27, 2012
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Exile on Walnut Street

By Jim Duncan
CVFDude@aol.com
Twitter.com/foodude

Lamb sliders included Feta on one visit. Exile Brewing Company, 1514 Walnut St., 883-2337. http://www.exilebrewing.com. Hours: Sun. – Thurs. 11 a.m. - late; Fri. – Sat. 11 a.m. - 2 a.m.

In the last two decades, more than a dozen new restaurants have restored historic buildings while driving magnificent revivals of Court Avenue, East Village and the Western Gateway. Exile Brewing Company (EBC) is the most ambitious such project since Centro saved the Temple for the Performing Arts from the wrecking ball. In a downtown that already has two successful brew pubs, R.J. Tursi decided not only to build a third but to make it the first to also become a craft brewer — with regional, not just on-site, sales. Its name honors the Statue of Liberty, “mother of exiles,” so EBC commissioned icon-creator James Ellwanger to build a replica of her crown to suspend above its roof line. Windows in the restaurant were designed to evoke those of Ellis Island. Even the menu is daring. The Tursi family’s Latin King is probably the most famous Italian restaurant in Iowa with roots in 1947 and a parking lot that’s always packed with out-of-county license plates. Yet, EBC’s fare is far more German than Italian.

In the spirit of romance, the restaurant was designed to transport visitors to a place far away. Call it a German bierhalle without any lederhosen or other clichés that usually attach to such places in the U.S. EBC has a restaurant side with a bar plus a bierhalle side with its own bar and biergarten attached by a trendy garage door. The place looks like several million bucks, having spared little expense to sparkle. Tall windows reveal four steam-powered brewing vessels. Beer taps have bidets so that each glass gets a fresh, cold rinse before beer is drawn. Still only weeks old, dishwashing machines have been replaced and upgraded.

EBC is already drawing people who want to show off Des Moines to outsiders. Their first two beers are dramatic. Hannah Weiss is a bubbly, unfiltered beer with deep spicy flavors. Betty Blonde is an all-American pilsner that refuses to be simple and boring like most such blondes.

The menu is designed for beer drinking. Scotch eggs came in sausage coatings with red cabbage. Excellent pickled beet salad presented multiple kinds of beets with chevre, candied pistachios and arugula. Fried pickles were light and crisp. French onion soup, though, had a strange, salty stock, while beer cheese soup was badly scalded. Lamb sliders were delightful one time with a yogurt sauce and Feta. A second time they were overcooked and Feta had inappropriately become cheddar. A side of potato salad was delightfully made, German-style with bacon and a vinegar dressing. Herbed frites were very heavily seasoned.

Words have new meanings here. “Turkey confit” did not appear to be a confit at all but pulled meat from baked turkey legs, served with sweet potato gnocchi, kale and bacon. A German platter included soggy bottomed schnitzel, homemade sausage and red cabbage. “Shepherds pie” was made with overly dry beef. Fish and chips disintegrated on my plate — the first piece was crisp, the second soggy and the third so soggy its bottom batter melted away. The meat in my pork belly “gyros” did not appear to have been crisped on a rotisserie and sliced at all.

Chocolate pudding stood out among desserts with marvelous cinnamon tones. Service was sometimes expert, sometimes uninformed and almost always slow. One time a tap had the wrong handle and hence dispensed the wrong beer.

Bottom line, Exile has a big-city ambiance that could be a source of pride. Food and service need to catch up to the brewery’s quality and to that of Tursi’s Latin King. CV

Side Dishes

Alex Wellerstein’s “Beer and the Apocalypse” revealed that in 1956 government scientists exploded atomic bombs near beer and soft drinks to learn if they would be safe and flavorful after contamination. Double yes to those questions but no word on how long the taste testers lived. CV



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