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Food Dude

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By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com Reviews

Jesse’s Embers

Jesse’s Embers
3301 Ingersoll Ave., 255-6011
Mon. - Thurs. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.; Sat. 5 - 11 p.m.

Des Moines is running low on legacy restaurants — places that have become part of the community fabric over three or more generations. The café business has become brutally competitive, and sometimes a legacy’s loyal customer base prevents owners from innovating. Ron Giudecessi told me that part of the reason his family opened Mezzodi’s was that customers at Christopher’s wouldn’t tolerate any changes. Marty Scarpino knew all this when he bought Jesse’s Embers late last year with partners Deena Edelstein and Thom Ruan. He also knew some changes had to be made. Still, allowing the light of day into this cozy steakhouse was a radical notion to any loyal Embers patron — even Scarpino.

“The windows were Deena’s idea. I fought her over it, but it’s good she won. Old customers are coming in for lunch just to see what it looks like with light. Then they remember how much they like the place and come back for dinner,” he confessed about the frosted glass block windows.

Scarpino grew up working in his family’s famous restaurant in Windsor Heights and was the Embers’ bartender for more than half of its 45 years. So he knew not to change much. He did some brick work, thoroughly cleaned the wood and leather trappings, installed a new lighting system which allows one to see all the way across the room and added a few menu items. He also made the dining room non-smoking, though cigarettes are permitted in the adjoining bar. Scarpino said the bar has undergone the most drastic change over the years.

“Customers here used to only order two wines — red or white. Now we have to stock a full wine list,” he said of a menu that offers mostly between $24 and $40 with a few splurge items. Don’t worry though, the original 1963 menu of ice cream cocktails remains for those who must pair a pink squirrel with steak.

On my visits, the place still had a fabled neighborhood feel. One cold night, an elderly couple entered to find a surprisingly long wait for a table. When they expressed wariness about standing at the bar, two different customers offered to exchange places on the wait list so the couple could be seated immediately.

The open flame grill still dominates the place, providing that primal scent of seared beef that encouraged our human progenitors to walk on two legs, carry clubs and invent fire. The beef, from Rube’s, is aged Black Angus, USDA choice and prime. The prime cuts are the house specialty sirloin. London broil and (New York) “Yankee” cuts are among the most popular and come from opposite ends of the $15 to $30 price range, which includes salads and side dishes. My ribeye was cut thick from the center of the muscle — try finding that in a supermarket. When I ordered it “Pittsburgh,” I got what I asked for — a hard sear with a cold red center. Try finding that at Applebee’s.

The old school appetizers included Cajun shrimp made in butter and beer, shrimp cocktails prepared exactly as they were in 1963, sautéed mushrooms in white wine and garlic sauce and thin, homemade onion rings. Asparagus with hollandaise sauce and spinach are still offered as side dishes. Ember’s now offers weeklong pasta specials, some of which come from the Scarpino family playbook. I tried an $11 manicotti dinner that smacked of tomato and pork sauce perfection.

The famous Emburger and London broil still starred at lunch despite serious competition from daily specials such as a state-of-the-art hot beef sandwich, with pan-dripping gravy. Non-steak items included pork ribs, beer battered lobster tails and four fish.

Side dishes

A second Tequila University seminar will be held Feb. 7, 7 to 9 p.m. at Dos Rios. The first event sold out last month. Cost is $60. Call 282-2995 for reservations. … I incorrectly identified the couple that coaxed Miyabi 9 owner/chef Miyabi Yamamoto to Des Moines. It was Dr. David Chew and Ai Bee Lim. … Rob Beasley has left Mojo’s on 86th. One of the metro’s best, and best known, chefs, Beasley said, “The other two partners are taking the restaurant in a new direction, and I will not be involved.” CV

Food Dude Reviews 2008 2007 Reviews
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