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By Jim Duncan


In 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 being given.

That’s entertainment in 21st century Des Moines.

Side dish
A “Great Appetizers” class will be held Tuesday at The Market at Jordan Creek, $80/person, $110/couple. Reservations: 309-1332. 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) Irina’s Restaurant Bar (5-24-07)
Trailer Tripe (5-31-07)  

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