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Food Dude

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By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com Reviews

Alba
524 E. 6th St., 244-0261
Tuesday through Saturday: 5 p.m. – close

Alba

Half a century ago, people flocked to downtown Des Moines auto dealerships to ogle Detroit’s latest models before taking in a movie. The car dealers and cinemas moved to the suburbs long ago, but downtown is again the place to see the hottest new models and trendiest designs. This century, they come from the culinary world, and Alba is its tangerine-flaked, streamlined new baby. The café’s showcase, in a Deco era Ford dealership, is dashingly appropriate. A major architectural success, it provides bold embellishments without detracting from the now established premise that chefs and food are the new stars of the downtown night. On first glimpse, Alba seems to defy the conventional, minimalist style of the East Village café scene — with African orangewood tables, fishbowl windows, huge tree paintings, antique door ceiling tiles, curved walls, a door-less “private” room and oversized, Tiki lounge of a bar. However, the focus of that faux lava-walled bar room is an open kitchen with a chef’s table. It is all about the food.

Owner-chef Jason Simon knows a thing or two about star power — he was an offensive lineman on Iowa Hawkeye football teams in the Tim Dwight era. He also knows how to train an assembly line kitchen staff. Even on a busy night, I never saw more than four chefs turning things out for two busy rooms seating more than 100 people. There’s always a show going on. Simon and company accomplishes this with a sensible menu of merely 21 items. Appetizer plates looked as arty as the venue: A hamachi (rare tuna) duo was beautifully served tartare and alongside a bright colored duo of paprika aioli and mango paste, with micro greens and blood orange segments. The yellow fin flavor was a bit lost in the busy plate; scallops, perfectly seared yet delicate, were served on a saffron-colored cauliflower puree with nuts and parsley; and thick sliced, Kobe beef carpaccio was rolled and served with a five pepper Ranch-like sauce, scallions, bulls blood beet sprouts and more blood orange segments. It sacrificed the essential texture of thin, raw Kobe for heftiness and good looks.

The simplest plate of the night stood out — deviled egg salad with gold and red beets, pickled squash and more blood orange. A winter squash soup ranked with the best in this squash soup town, tasting of five spices and smoky bacon. A fairly simple truffle-flavored gnocchi with shrimp in a light marscapone sauce also impressed.

Entrees were strong too. A rib eye was slightly over cooked but compensated with a superb foie gras sauce. A catfish filet was better, wrapped in double casing of prosciutto and magnificently plated with Brussel sprouts, potatoes layered with cheese and tomato and a surprisingly sweet parsley pesto. A poorly seared burger with aged cheddar and fried egg would be the only entrée I wouldn’t order again. Braised veal breast with leeks and tomato petals will be the first entrée I re-order.

Desserts were not as good as the earlier courses. Is Café di Scala the only place in town that serves a soft textured panna cotta correctly removed from its mold? This is something our best cafés get away with that would be unacceptable in San Francisco or New York, or even Minneapolis. Alba’s ambitious panna cotta layered some fruit jelly between espresso flavored cream and a third layer of cream. It was served in its mold, had the texture of Jello and was topped with yet another segment of blood orange. A chocolate cake was better but included precious little crumb stuffed with erupting chocolate sauce. The menu promised buttermilk ice cream but mint ice cream was paired with it and didn’t work. The best dessert was a simple trio of three tiny scoops of homemade ice creams.

Bottom line — dazzling Alba deserves its instant star status, but showmanship and presentation overwhelm other aspects of the kitchen arts.

Side dishes

The Embassy Club’s “Whole Hog” dinner will be held in their 801 Grand’s main dining room on May 2. $85. Call 244-2582. ... Gateway Market’s anniversary gala dinner ($85) will be Saturday in the Hotel Fort Des Moines ballroom. Call 243-1754. CV

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