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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Jethro’s smokehouse work is as good as anyone’s, and their side dishes rank with those places charging three times as much.

2008 in review: the best new stuff

While tight credit and volatile markets stalled other economic sectors, Des Moines’ food scene birthed more excellent restaurants, world-class products and novel ideas than in any previous year. That made as much sense as fine dining in sports bars, a restaurant built around fries and French cuisine in the Corn Belt. We did all that, too. After consulting my panel of food experts, here’s Food Dude’s 14th annual list of the best things to hit Des Moines in this wild and crazy year.

Best New Restaurant: Django
George Formaro’s café headlines a marvelous list that also includes Le Jardin, Proof, Alba, Skybox, Sbrocco, Maverick and Jethro’s — all of which drew at least one “top new café” vote from my consultants. Django wins for its greater ambition — with long hours and multiple services. It deserves kudos for: introducing French classics (duck confit casoulet) that don’t condescend to American tastes; reviving historical French-American classics (Sazerac); and providing a distinctive urban ambiance.

Best New Pub: Skybox
Skybox edges out Jethro’s and GoodSons with extra touches — tablecloth dining, private rooms, a superb full entrée menu and personal service that recalls the hey days of Italian Des Moines. It’s so popular on big game days that customers pay $50 just to reserve tables.

Best New BBQ: Jethro’s
Jethro’s smokehouse work is as good as anyones while its side dishes rank with those of restaurants charging triple the price. This place set new standards for sports bar food, and it kept improving as the year moved along.

Best New Fast Food Joint: Ocean Beach Fries
For 40 years the fast food industry downgraded the quality of French fries in favor of reduced labor costs. Ocean Beach Fries’ hand-peeled, triple fried potatoes became so popular that the store moved up from a food court stall to a double-bay store in Valley West Mall — all in just one year.

Best New Restaurant Bar: Graze
Graze wins with freshly squeezed juices, scratch-made mixes and syrups, ostentatious design and a contemporary disregard for traditional boredom.

Best New Wine Bar: Sbrocco
Sommelier Tim Grimes has no peer for discovering quality wines in all price categories. Chef Darin Sturgill is a risk taker who finds new applications for creative wine pairings.

Business Plan of the Year: La Mie & Le Jardin
Some restaurants only open for dinner, others only for breakfast and lunch. Rent never sleeps. So Joe Logsdon of La Mie offered to share his space with Tag Grandgeorge of Le Jardin. Two of the city’s best cafés now have a better chance of turning a profit.

Best New Product: La Quercia’s “Acorn Edition”
The Norwalk company introduced acorn-fed Guanciale, Pancetta, Lonza, Lardo, Spallacia and Prosciutto. This slow food method of raising pigs had disappeared even in its Duchy of Parma homeland.

Best New Service: Old Castle
By reviving Chat Noir menu items and by building a rotisserie capable of handling three whole sheep at the same time, Old Castle edged out Florene’s new breakfast service, by a lamb’s tail.

Best New Idea: Jesus Ojeda
Equipment is expensive so El Chisme owner-chef Jesus Ojeda encouraged his tortilla machine to multi-task. First he developed recipes for thin pizza crust and calzones. Then he introduced scratch pasta — making his Mexican café the second place in town (after Café di Scala) to exclusively serve homemade pasta.

Best New Food Writer: Nick Bergus
This “new media” Iowa journalist wrote old fashioned rings around other young food reporters in traditional media — by practicing self examination without self indulgence and by teaching readers about his subjects.

Best New Food Photographer: Ben Stone
This Grinnell College student and Phoenix Café line chef created a well-researched, photographically splendid Iowa food journal.

Next week — Des Moines’ best restaurants and best chefs, plus the year’s worst ideas, trends and service. 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) Proof finds its place (11-06-08)
Graze is no ordinary restaurant (11-13-08) Living History Farms (11-20-08)
Iowa restaurants (11-27-08) Skybox (12-04-08)
American dreams come true (12-11-08) $10 — the new $40 (12-18-08)

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