By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
the 1970s, it was joked that restaurants
were Des Moines’ only entertainment.
The town has added a zoo, a brace
of minor league teams and a flock
of big festivals since then, yet
the old joke hangs around like
star-struck fans lining a red
carpet walkway, especially this
time of year. Our big restaurant
hits seem to premiere in warm
weather months and Azalea is a
blockbuster from the producers
who gave you Star Bar, the director
of Bistro 43 and the screenwriter
of the McCleod Center.
For the record, Azalea was created
in the former Kirkwood Hotel by
Mike Hutchison and Jeremy Morrow
with help from several talented
friends including architect Rob
Whitehead and artist TJ Moberg.
The view alone is worth the price
of admission. Design and restaurant
professionals from Miami to Minneapolis
have already gushed describing
it. Details raise the volume of
their buzz: Two-story concrete
pillars, draped in plush velvet,
frame a visitor’s first impression
of the dining room; an entire
wall of tall mirrors reflect that
same impression; and an exquisite
crystal vase of calla lilies crawls
over a half wall between the open
kitchen and the main dining room
like an Olympian vine.
Hutchison and crew created something
rare and Big City here — a social
gathering spot that includes exclusive
niches (three distinctively different
dining areas, including a loft,
with separate menus) without giving
up a sense of democracy (half
walls, glass guard rails). Pampering
is accomplished without snobbery
by the open loft and in elegant
booths. See-and-be-seen commonality
is achieved with the mirrors,
inexpensive wines by the glass
and with exceptional acoustics.
Design flaws are small: awkward,
cheap serrated steak knives and
badly worn vinyl bill folders.
As much as anyone in Des Moines,
Morrow has upgraded Iowa’s culinary
profile — at Bistro 43 and Star
Bar. Azalea is a new challenge
as he is mainly supervising and
teaching now. His menu could be
described as Jeremy’s greatest
hits, plus pizza. If you’re not
familiar with his work, think
Pan Pacific Iowan (PPI). Nothing
explains that so deliciously as
his (free ranged) bacon-wrapped
quail with cornbread stuffing.
Fresh and local ingredients
dictate these menus. Morels, green
garlic and asparagus played starring
roles during the opening weeks.
Asparagus, prosciutto and chevre
shared top billing on a brilliant
all Iowa pizza, but a soup that
combined the garlic and morels
was carelessly fibrous.
Some entrees were extraordinary.
Braised short ribs with kim chee,
cucumber salad and sticky rice
delivered a perfect piece of meat
with deep contrasting sides —
the epitome of PPI. A two-boned
prime rib of pork, topped with
micro greens and served with buttery
shrimp grits was an Iowa take
on a Dixie dream (Morrow is a
Tennessee native). An organic
lamb loin was beautifully presented
with olive-anchovy vinaigrette,
Roman artichokes and pommes anna.
Those artichokes, like those in
an artichoke appetizer, were perfectly
trimmed and grilled, but so deeply
infused with salt that one could
barely taste what they were.
Some dishes are democratic bargains:
homemade noodles with roasted
chicken ($15); roast pork sandwich
with arugula aioli ($10, bar only).
Service was promising, which means
way above average in Des Moines.
On all my visits, many mistakes
were made — undercooked pork,
weak wasabi, under-educated waiters,
no dessert menu and dishes not
matching menu descriptions. None
of this bothered me because the
attitudes of the servers were
all excellent and growing pains
are expected with wildly busy
new joints. On a Tuesday, out-of-town
diners were astonished to find
Azalea completely packed before
6 p.m. They became really confused
when told it was no ordinary night
here, because a “lecture” was
That’s entertainment in 21st
century Des Moines.
A “Great Appetizers” class will
be held Tuesday at The Market
at Jordan Creek, $80/person, $110/couple.
Reservations: 309-1332. CV
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