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Food Dude

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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Phat Chef’s
1300 50th St., Suite 206
West Des Moines

Phat Chef’s

Des Moines’ restaurant scene has come a long way since I began writing this column in 1995. Back then nothing had replaced Babe’s as a “go-to” restaurant downtown. Several Italian cafes from Babe Bisignano’s generation dominated dining here, but there was no young energy until half a dozen chefs from the American South started opening cafes in the late ’90s with fresh and local kitchen philosophies. Then farmers markets provided their best local suppliers with a means to a livelihood. Immigrant entrepreneurs infused more new ideas. Creative manufacturers of new foods, such as La Quercia and Northern Prairie, allowed people to think of Iowa as a producer of quality food, rather than just huge quantities of cheap food. The gap between reading about and experiencing the latest food trends shortened.

A couple weeks ago, we jumped that gap when the New York Times proclaimed that chef-served menus were the next “big thing.” Dean Richardson has been doing that at Phat Chef’s in West Des Moines for quite awhile now.

“We get too busy usually on weekends to do it, but my regulars are used to it now on weekdays. They like to sit at the bar and just order “three or four courses” and leave the rest up to me. It keeps my creative juices flowing, too,” he explained.

There’s always been a lot to like about Phat Chef’s, an oasis of fresh and local thinking in the franchise-dominated suburbs west of Valley West Mall. It’s open for lunch with four excellent scratch made soups, some 30 deli sandwiches and several salads. Table cloth and candlelight dinner service has always provided reliable steaks, from Richardson’s family farm in Calhoun County, excellent crab cakes with red-pepper coulis, a Caesar salad in which you can truly taste the freshly pressed anchovies, one of the best applications anywhere of Northern Prairie chevre (cashew encrusted with homemade tangerine-orange marmalade) and good uses of seasonal Iowa foods — from Spring morels to snow herbs. But nothing in my dining career has proved more consistently rewarding than leaving a menu in the hands of a good chef. So, on a recent Tuesday night, I went for Richardson’s (small) five-course menu without asking any questions. I noticed four other customers doing likewise amongst a crowd of twenty. I’d do it again in an instant.

My first course featured half a slightly poached plum, a miracle of Fed Ex delivery, with Port Salut cheese and four kinds of fresh sprouts, including Daikon radish and Bull’s Blood beets, dressed with clove oil. I was dazzled before a giant Weathervane divers scallop appeared, seared and stuck with a slice of caramelized pear over wilted pea and corn shoots on top of a sweet pea puree with a splash of tomato water and a dab of goat cheese.

Next came three slices of skin-on duck breast with Richardson’s unique tangerine-orange marmalade and wilted watercress. That was followed by three slices of perfectly seared, rare tenderloin of beef under a generous dab of foie gras and caramelized onions. He finished me off with a trio of delights from Sweet Binney’s — a flourless chocolate torte and a chocolate fudge smear flanking a lemon tart. That cost about the same as an appetizer and entree would have. Richardson also offered small tastings of wines paired for each course for the price of a large glass. Phat Chef’s wine list and pairing suggestions carry as much weight with serious wine drinkers as any place in town.

Side dishes

Andrew Meek, owner-chef of Sage, will open Torroco Italian Grill in the former Jesse’s Embers at 86th Street and Douglas Avenue by May 1. He plans a 110-seat northern Italian style café, with a new street front patio. The restaurant will be less expensive than Sage, with dinner entrees in the $14 - $22 range, lunches $7 - $11 and wines staying under $50 a bottle. Meek said that sous chef Dan Dixon will be promoted to Chef de Cuisine at Sage. CV

Food Dude Reviews 2008 2007 Reviews
Splash Raw Oyster Bar (1-3-08) Flavors of India(1-10-08)
Uncle Wendell's (1-17-08) Jesse's Embers (1-24-08)
Taste of Elegance (1-31-08) Old Country Buffet (2-7-08)
Baker’s Food & Fuel (2-14-08) Coffee (2-21-08)
Cool Basil (2-28-08) Sports Bars (3-06-08)
Daddy O’s Bodacious Foods (3-13-08) Maverick Grill (3-20-08)

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