Bar food goes molecular at Gas Lamp3/6/2013
Not too many years ago, Des Moines scrapped its motto “the surprising place.” At the time, people complained that outsiders would swallow it with a spoonful of sarcasm. In the culinary realm, it’s been a long battle to convince national, even regional, media that we have surprising things to offer beyond state fair junk food, bacon orgies and sandwiches that pack a week’s worth of calories between slices of Whirl-slathered bread. After nearly a decade of impressive honors in the James Beard Awards, the tide of that battle’s tide is turning. Andrew Zimmern devoted last week’s hour-long, “Sweeps Week” show on the Travel Channel to the surprising, quality foods of Iowa. There was barely any allusion to stereotypes about overeating. Like Grant at Vicksburg, proud local culinarians celebrated with bottles of rye whiskey.
I found Des Moines’ latest food surprise at Gas Lamp, a bar and music club that no one has ever confused with a gastropub. In fact the kitchen is so small that it’s called Hole in the Wall. Zach Gutweiler is no traditional chef either. A rollerblading phenom, he grew up in Texas and Louisiana before moving to Denver for its superior skating scene. He moved to Des Moines for a girl.
His food was both as traditional as his roots and as current as the latest skating video. Gumbo was made with smoked chicken, herbed rice, okra and a mahogany roux that he said he cooked for 15 hours. That’s 14 hours longer than is typical for that Cajun style emulsifier. It departed a sweet nutty flavor to the stock. A piece of crisply fried chicken skin topped the bowl. Deviled eggs were paired with micro kale, garlic chives and “cayenne caviar.” That latter ingredient represents an eureka moment in food history — the original “spherification” experiment in which Feran Adria invented modern molecular gastronomy by using sodium alginate and calcium chloronate to create little balls that looked like caviar. Gutweiler’s had the appearance and texture of caviar but barely popped their inner liquids.
Chicken sandwiches could have stood in for chicken pizza. Made on naan that was baked in a conventional oven, they had the crusty texture of good pies. Their chicken had been brined in lemon juice and salt before smoking. It was served with crunchy jicama-apple slaw and basil yogurt. Watermelon salad delivered melon wedges and arugula with goat cheese and a mostarda of pumpkin seeds candied in molasses. A plate of pork ribs had been cured 24 hours, smoked and covered with a sweet Templeton Rye glaze. They were served with Brussels sprouts, fried kale chips, more jicama slaw and a darling little pear tart. Divine house made pickles had been preserved in a miso and mustard brine. “PB &J” was made with homemade almond butter, homemade aroniaberry jam, macerated apples and goat cheese on La Mie bread. Cheese biscuits and gravy were made with smoked pork shoulder gravy, lemon braised kale and garlic micro chips. Mac and cheese used smoked Provolone, caramelized onions and brioche crumbs.
For now, food is served at Gas Lamp on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights. That could expand soon, and plans are in motion to also place Gutweiler in a larger restaurant.
Side Dishes After seeing the above mentioned Zimmern show, Tremendous Entertainment asked Iowa pig farmer Carl Blake to develop a reality series. Blake said he’s moved most of his pigs to an all-green Amish farm near Iowa City and that he is now selling Amish turkeys and sheep that are raised on grains from the same seed that Amish ancestors carried from Germany… Red Lobster’s annual “Lobsterfest” is ongoing. Rock lobster tails with lobster tacos are a new feature this year… Fleming’s has restored its surf and turf duo of filet mignon and lobster tail at the promotional price of $38, including an appetizer, through April 7. CV