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By Jim Duncan

Irina’s Restaurant Bar

Before Baker’s Cafeteria closed last year, legendary restaurateur Kay Compiano played piano there once a week. Her fans would inevitably stop by to tell her “there’ll never be another Johnny & Kay’s,” referring to a steak house she ran with her husband for many years after World World II. Until recently, I would have bet Kay’s fans were right. The upscale mom and pop restaurant is an endangered species. That business is too risky now for both a husband and wife to give up the assurance of an outside job. And it’s too grueling to attract couples that have saved enough money to start their own business later in life.

I would have lost such a bet. The new Johnny & Kay are named Dmitri & Irina, a young Russian-born couple who have transformed the former Jesse’s Embers West into Irina’s Restaurant Bar. Irina Khartchenko works the floor like an old pro while Dmitri Iakoviev runs the kitchen like an experimental perfectionist. The couple expanded its patio to 200 seats and is building three gazebos, a statement of flair popular in Black Sea resorts where they both grew up. Even in rainy weather, the bar buzzed at happy hour and late into the evening and “Biker Sundays” haven’t even begun yet.

Their menu mixed some of Jesse’s icons with upgraded recipes and dishes new to Des Moines. Ember’s holdovers include the Greek salad and the huge Ember’s burgers, but Jesse’s London broil was replaced with a French dip that uses prime rib. Steaks were similarly upgraded to Creekstone Farms beef, a company, focused on Japanese exports, which also supplies the Market at Jordan Creek and Joseph’s. Salmon is now all-wild. Pork tenderloins are now thick-cut, hand breaded when ordered and among the best in Iowa. DeBurgo came from the Chef’s Kitchen-Vets Club side of town, but with a much lighter cream sauce.

Specialties included: Russian (marinated pork) kebabs; pork wings (shank cuts); Russian ravioli (pork dumplings in chicken broth with sour cream); and stuffed chicken (feta, spinach, fresh herbs and bacon served Alfredo). My prime rib was equal to a king-sized cut elsewhere. Its au jus was pure, without the usual saltiness, but it’s rare center was cold. Ribs were smoked naked, with hickory, and served with sweet tomato-based sauce. Good cottage fries were made with frying pre-baked potatoes. Grilled or sautéed vegetables increased side options.

Salad dressings and sauces were given unique touches, too. Dmitri’s balsamic vinaigrette was much better than most, with olive oil, quality balsamic and a deep infusion of fresh basil, sea salt and garlic. His Alfredo was unusually light with only Parmesan as thickener. Similarly, his cioppino sauce was built around diced tomatoes heavily seasoned with fresh herbs — a rare occasion locally when a sauce actually enhanced seafood.

All Irina’s desserts were made from scratch in Dmitri’s kitchen, another rare thing in West Des Moines. His carrot cake soared, with rich cream cheese layered between moist carroty crumb-infused with two liquors, most obviously Grand Marnier. It was served on a plate dusted with cinnamon and accented with two carrot doodles built from a reduction of grated carrot and caramelized powdered sugar. Raspberry panna cotta was made with fresh berries.

Dinners included salads, sides and bread for $14 - $23, serious bargains. Wines sold for $23 - $250. Cigars were sold and smoked at the bar, which was not sealed from the non-smoking dining area.

Side dishes

Rick Bayless, whose Chicago restaurant (Frontera Grill) recently won the James Beard Award as the nation’s best, will sign books at Gateway Market on June 23... Jordan Creek Younkers is teaming up with Fleming’s to offer evening cooking classes in Younkers’ demo kitchen: basics of bread making on May 29; home made mozzarella on May 31. Reservations: 457-7635, ext. 3220... John Wayne’s 100th birthday this week inspired several misguided inquiries — his widow’s restaurant is in Texas, not Iowa. CV

Past Food Dude Reviews
Amici Espresso (1-4-07) Bandana's (1-11-07)
Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)
Centro (2-1-07) KC BBQ (2-8-07)
Planet Sub (2-15-07) Trostel’s Greenbriar (2-22-07)
Acapulco (3-1-07) Aryana (3-8-07)
AJ's (3-15-07) Ban Thai (3-22-07)
Two Crop Palace(3-29-07) Mo Q x 2 (4-5-07)
What's In A Name?(4-12-07) Lemongrass (4-19-07)
Chef Joe's Place (5-3-07) Suburban Restaurant (5-10-07)
Gateway Market Café (5-17-07)  

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