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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Proof, 1301 Locust St., 865-2768, Mon. - Fri. 11 a.m. - 2 p.m., Fri. 5 - 10 p.m.

Proof finds its place

This year’s impressive lineup of new restaurants already includes Alba, Zuzap, Le Jardin, Maverick, Sbrocco, Django, Torocco, Gateway West, Jethro’s and Graze. That competition makes it tough for a new place to find a niche, yet Proof distinguishes itself from the pack in more ways than one. First, Carly Groben’s corner café on Gateway Park completes an all female free enterprise zone — in the Arlington Building, next to the Ritual Café. Secondly, the cafe defies a shibboleth that fine dining can only make it in Des Moines by focusing on dinner. Proof is open for lunch-only, except on Friday nights when it defies another common belief that diners need a multitude of options. Proof offers only one dinner choice — whether to order the four-course prix-fixed menu, or to select fewer than four courses.

This café borrows style and ambiance from two of consultant Steve Logsdon’s restaurants in which Groben previously worked. The same unusual hours of service gave Basil Prosperi a near cult following earlier this decade. Proof’s minimalist restoration harkens the design mantra of Lucca and its architect Kirk Blunck — “Do a lot of work to make it look like nothing much was done.” Other elements of décor remind diners to leave all assumptions at the door. This is a bastion of nonconformity where fresh cut flowers have not yet bloomed, nor even produced scents, where a female-owned restaurant looks utterly masculine with heavily waxed, hardwood floors, a black and white color scheme and exposed ceilings on which even the electrical wiring has been blasted with gunmetal gray spray paint.

So, it’s not totally surprising that Proof’s breads have not been proofed (leavened). In fact, on my four visits, I never encountered single proofed bread — just good flatbreads. Obviously, this kitchen is also nonconformist. Though partitioned off, it’s one of the most “open kitchens” in town — as at Radish, guests are welcome to walk through on their way to the dining room. Fabulous salads are made without using any lettuces at all. A “seafood tagine” was prepared without a tagine (conical clay pot that lends its name to the dish). Instead, it was cooked and served under a cone-shaped lid improvised from parchment paper.

Groben recruited top talent — Chris Place was Django’s original head chef and Tony Pill was sous chef at Sage. Proof’s small dining room, short hours and shorter menu pretty much ensure that the talent will prepare your meal. That’s a rare luxury as fine dining trends toward bigger things. Everything I tasted was exciting and flawless. Homemade merguez (lamb sausage) even excited some picky North African foodies, though I’ll order it without the distracting marinara next time. Fantastic seasonal soups were made from bone stock — green pork chile, roasted pumpkin and coconut beef stood out. All sauces were out of the Escoffier playbook (bone stock reductions), one made a nice filet of beef, with a wild rice pancake, even grander. Salmon was served perfectly rare, as ordered, and was creatively plated, hanging over a globe of risotto like a crescent moon. Chicken with couscous was tender and juicy. Tabbouleh defied tradition by including quinoa along with fresh mint and raisins. Those were all lunches, none of which exceeded $10.

Dinners were more creative. Salads included a grapefruit with fennel and another that layered fennel hearts, Feta and sweet potato wrapped in fresh basil leaves. Place served a pair of fried oysters, on home made scones, with Feta, carrot relish, harissa (chile) oil, remoulade, aioli, baby tomatoes and fresh spinach. His lamb moussaka was made with braised whole legs plus eggplant. Lamb roulade was paired with cous cous. Desserts were served in duos: chocolate and harissa with bread pudding one week; a fabulous sticky yogurt cake with homemade espresso ice cream another.

Side dishes
Dos Rios will pair tequila cocktails with six courses on Monday Nov. 10, $75, 282-2995. ... Sage will offer four courses with Belgian ale pairings the same evening, $55, 255-7722. 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)
Phat Chef’s (4-03-08) Shotz & Grill Cordoba (4-10-08)
Radish (4-17-08) Alba (4-24-08)
Billy Mack's (5-01-08) Jethro’s BBQ & Sports Bar (5-15-08)
Viva los Forasteros (5-22-08) Torocco! (5-29-08)
The King and I (6-05-08) Chipotle Mexican Grill (6-12-08)
Django (6-26-08) Swine (7-03-08)
Sbrocco (7-17-08) Zuzap (8-14-08)
Le Jardin (8-21-08) Samurai Sushi & Hibachi (8-28-08)
Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano (9-4-08) Old Castle (9-11-08)
Old Mexic, New Mexico (9-18-08) Bistro at ICI (9-25-08)
Transmigration of the soul (food) (10-02-08) Boilin' Crawfish 4 (10-09-08)
Comfort food (10-16-08) Beyond the World Food Fest (10-23-08)
Tedesco’s Steakhouse (10-30-08)  

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