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By Jim Duncan

Bistro Montage

They don’t advertise it, but Bistro Montage is Des Moines’ French café. Owner-chef Enosh Kelley’s background and heart are steeped in the French classics, same as those of sous chef Nick Ellingsworth. How French is the place? The bar serves pastis, as well as absente and pernod. They cook rabbit in goose fat and make brown stock with ducks. They stuff quail with sweetbreads and wrap it in caul fat. Waiters are well informed and quite condescending. Don’t let any of that scare you. The place is down to the Iowa earth. Consider their bistro burger duo. Freshly ground beef shoulder is mixed with Niman Ranch pork belly, pan fried and served on home made (all bread is scratch-baked daily) poppy seed brioches, with white truffle mayonnaise, with Parmesan cheese fries and home made ketchup.

Bistro Montage is better than ever now. Kelley sold his second restaurant, so he’s always here. The 54-seat room ensures that the cooking is always done by the chief talents. There’s a new patio, restrooms have been remodeled and Kelley recently acquired some heirloom baking equipment from the very French Younkers Tea Room. That allowed him to create pressurized pastries and breads, with a denser crumb that suits his layered tortes. But more about that after dinner.

A complimentary amuses-bouche of sweetbreads on fresh herbs set my mouth up for a tomato tart — a puff pastry topped with deeply herbed tomatoes and kalamata tapanade, with greens and vinaigrette. Duck liver pate and pork terrine, wrapped in bacon, were served with good mustard and cornichons, plus Cumberland sauce, a currant based wonder that should accompany all fatty and game dishes. Appetizer cheeses included Humboldt Fog goat cheese, Fourme d’Ambert blue, Beemster and aged Gouda, a selection that could have used more subtlety. That sharp blue cheese also appeared in a superb roasted beet salad, with sliced pears and a sherry walnut vinaigrette, the house dressing. (Sherry vinegar is “in” and balsamic is “out” according to trendy gourmets.) Montage’s chicken salad got the biggest French makeover — chicken quenelles were heavily steeped in fresh rosemary and served with roasted fennel and grapes and dressed in walnut vinaigrette.

Skate wing has long been one of Kelley’s signatures. This is an odd fish far more popular in Europe than North America or Asia, with soft bones and the flavor of scallops. It was pan fried here, and a bit over cooked. Steak frites were pan seared and served with soggy sautéed spinach and wonderful double-fried potatoes (only Dish’s compare). Bouillabaisse provided a sublime broth (Kelley said his secret is to go heavy on halibut bones) clearly saffron and fennel-rich and accompanied with the essential rouille (tomato mayo) and crostini. Monkfish and grouper shared its divine pond with the usual shellfish suspects, plus potatoes tournee (marinated in saffron broth). How often do you find those in Iowa?

My favorite entrée was duck seared fatty side down and served perfectly rare with a potato pave (layers of sweet potato and white potato) that could shame local hash browns into storm cellars. The best looking dish was a rack of lamb pan roasted and served with a bean medley that included fava, cranberry and marrow beans, plus the compulsory haricot verts.

All the new baking paraphernalia, including stencils, make dessert courses a delightful work in progress. Kelley’s signature daquoise is hard to resist, but I sampled several new homemade ice creams, ranging from a too heavy goat cheese to a fabulous light berry. Profiteroles (cream puffs) were flaky enough to let me leave with the Gallic delusion that I had eaten lightly.

Side dish

Cafe di Scala’s backyard garden now supplies all its summer herbs and vegetables. They also now make all their own pasta on premises and are about to open a bocce court. Plus owner Tony Lemmo is opening a pizzeria in Dogtown. CV

Past Food Dude Reviews
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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) Azalea (6-07-07)
Pho All Seasons (6-14-07) Farmers Market (6-21-07)
El Sabor Latino (6-28-07) Crouse Café (7-5-07)

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