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By Jim Duncan Reviews
Skybox Salmon
Skybox, 1261 Eighth St., West Des Moines
Daily. 11 a.m.- 2 a.m.


Skybox is an ambiguous and loaded word that suggests a luxurious life style to some folks, but over-priced mediocrity to others. The new Skybox Sports Bar clears that duplicity with its own definition — “a sports atmosphere that’s a level above.” It earns that entitlement with small, unexpected elegances — tablecloth dining, a full entrée menu, good desserts, live music and personalized service. On each of my five visits, owner Tony Rose checked on every table, recalling customers’ first names and preferences. Like a young Babe (Bisignano, not Ruth), he fixed the slightest problems. That’s the sine qua non of a truly good restaurant.

State of the art video monitors were visible from any table, but Skybox cultivated a rather different sports audience with dark lighting, muted televisions, live jazz and three distinctive dining areas. The kitchen is run by one of the area‘s best young talents, Matt Pearson, a Culinary Institute of America grad who has been learning new pitches from some old pros — Troy and Paul Trostel, Don Hensley and Andrew Meek among them. Pearson also learned to use his bullpen appropriately, farming out some desserts to ace reliever Ryan Binney (Sweet Binney’s). Most importantly, Pearson was personally cooking on each of my visits.

This young chef respects the classics. His Boursin mushrooms, sautéed in white wine, were a tip of his toque to Paul Trostel, who made that dish a signature 40 years ago. Many appetizers were well executed sports bar favorites: chicken wings, in two levels of heat; perfectly seared beef brochettes with chipotle-lime butter; Tex Mex crab cakes and crisp sweet potato fries. Pearson also innovates. His tempura shrimp sushi roll bucked tradition by going heavy with the vinegar on its rice. That’s not inappropriate in a sports bar. Lobster Rangoon confused me with too much (raspberry-mango sauce, ginger cream cheese) going on. Mango-glazed shrimp skewers, on sesame slaw, were sweet and sour as well as soft and crisp. Chicken tortilla soup stuck out among soups and salads with intense chicken stock, fresh avocado and limejuice. Thin-crusted pizza used top ingredients like roasted and peeled peppers, fresh herbs and spinach, Northern Prairie cheeses and Graziano sausages.

Pearson’s entrees and desserts elevate this sports bar. Fish and chips, made with walleye, were as good as I’ve ever found in town. Pearson’s home made chips were “gaufrette” cut to resemble waffled wafers. The same walleye appeared in ciabatta on a fish sandwich, a bargain at $8 with a choice of soup, salad, sweet potato fries, or homemade chips. Cold smoked sirloin steak produced rare tenderness while its three-chile chutney complemented its milder sides of Hollandaise sauce and goat cheese polenta. Moist salmon was grilled, not steamed, in cornhusks and served with a tomatillo sauce and chipotle mashed potatoes. Pearson introduced this writer to Antarctic Queen, a Chilean fish the wait staff compared to tilapia, though its flesh was thicker and blander, more like cod. He compensated its mildness with an almond and cheese crust, sherry butter, shiitake and chanterelle mushrooms and perfectly fried potato and shallots side dish. The same sherry butter covered a lobster linguini. Stuffed chicken breasts were busy — a salty blue goat cheese stuffing overwhelmed two large, nicely crisped breast halves while crisp prosciutto lent even more saltiness. That dish came with a good mushroom risotto and caramelized carrots. Pearson’s homemade crème brulee (pumpkin, blackberry, etc.) were fabulously rich.

Service was still a work in progress. No one ever provided a plate to set utensils on between courses, nor offered to bring clean utensils. Desserts were served on coffee saucers. Bottom line — Skybox is the most recent excellent restaurant to open in 2008, the best year ever in Des Moines. With an $18 top price, it’s also quite affordable.

Side Dishes
Iowa State Historical Museum hosts “Breakfast with Santa” on Dec. 13 and 20, tickets $15 - free, 277-3727... The Juice, Co. closed its Westdale Shopping Center store in preparation for a long-rumored move to The Shops at Roosevelt. CV

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