Restaurant and Chef of the Year12/26/2012
The three great cuisines of classical history — Chinese, Roman and Ottoman — all developed as spoils of empire. From Zheng He and Marco Polo to Ibn Battuta and Columbus, history’s greatest adventurers trekked around the world seeking new foods as much as anything else. From Bistro 43 and Sage to Baru66 and Splash, many of the best new restaurants in Des Moines the last 20 years were creations of travelers who decided to hang their hats here. Our choices for both “restaurant of year” and “chef of the year” in 2012 keep that trend going.
Proof was created four years ago by Carly Groben, a Newton native who had spent a couple years traveling the southern rim of the Mediterranean. She built a considerable reputation at the café, including a nod from the James Beard Foundation as one of the top 20 American chefs under 30. Last year she sold the restaurant to Sean Wilson and Zach Mannheimer, natives of the outer banks of Carolina and New York City respectively.
Chef Wilson’s mother is half Filipino and half Italian, so he says he grew up in an experimental kitchen where lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) were as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and dressing. His travels included stints under famous chefs Todd English in Boston and Jonathan Sundstrum in Seattle. Mannheimer served as maitre d’ and sommelier at Embassy Club before organizing the Des Moines Social Club (DMSC). They hired Hal Jasa, well known here as the Underground chef and owner of Zingaro.
Together they brought a good chemistry to this 64-seat café. Wilson and Jasa founded Boucherie, a 2-year-old, weekend-long celebration of whole-animal cookery. Mannheimer worked for Jasa at Zingaro and Jasa for Mannheimer at DMSC. They restrained themselves from making big changes to Groben’s popular menu that was heavily influenced by her travels in North Africa. Their typical lunch menu looks much as it did before, with three salads, five sandwiches (served ironically on un-proofed breads) and five grain dishes. Subtle changes they made yielded spectacular results. They altered the method of preparation — all dishes are now made “à la minute” (prepared to order) rather than being prepped in advance and reheated when ordered. That makes a huge difference on foods like chicken breast that can so easily be overcooked. Flatbread recipes changed, too, to resist breaking apart in one’s hands.
They also expanded their pantry with new charcuterie like merguez sausage and khlea (beef preserved with North African spices like vadouvan). They increased dinner service by an extra three nights a week and built a bar featuring now legal, house-created bitters and infused beverages. Mannheimer’s wine list features lesser-known grape varietals he considers bargains for adventurers. Dinners are explorations. A once-a-month, 10-course “table d’hote” serves two guests for $80. I have paid several times that much for lesser meals in larger cities.
On a typical afternoon last week, I found Wilson and Jasa sitting at their bar with books and notebooks, hashing out a new menu. They admitted to several influences. Both admire the self-taught Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlah, whose Aziza café in San Francisco, Calif., has won Michelin stars four years in row. Mourad is known for “New Moroccan” cuisine. Wilson said that’s code for a system in which classic family and tribal cuisines are reassembled and presented in a more modern, Western style. They also admitted that “The Flavor Bible” is another influence. That book shows how many great chefs choose to enhance classic recipes by importing new spices and herbs.
By the time I left, Wilson and Jasa had made copious notes and decided to experiment with several new ideas. I’m sure I am not the only one who can’t wait. CV