Lamb sliders included Feta on one visit. Exile
Brewing Company, 1514 Walnut St., 883-2337.
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
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.