The youngest old pro9/30/2015
Long ago, in a restaurant world without bistros, gastropubs, sports bars or media buzz, Des Moines’ food scene was personality driven. Excellent cafés bore the names of their owners — Babe’s, Vic’s, Rocky’s, Johnny & Kaye’s, Gino’s, Aunt Jenny’s, Noah’s, Lemmo’s, Mr. V’s, Ricceli’s, Raul’s and Chuck’s to name a few. A guest could expect to see the owner who made sure that water glasses, bread baskets and butter dishes were refilled. Babe Bisignano told me he’d rather close down than worry how his customers fared without his vigilance.
Simon Goheen grew up in such restaurants. “My parents owned a small bakery that supplied bread to many restaurants. We never ate a meal at home. We always went out to eat in places that did business with the bakery. I really didn’t know of anything else I wanted to do,” he said recently. Goheen passed on college and bought J. Benjamin’s at the green age of 21. Ten years later, he changed the name to Simon’s and remodeled last spring. Industrial lighting, a new ceiling, a stressed wood bar top and some new furniture were installed. The distinctive aquarium over the fireplace and uniquely upholstered banquette booths remain.
This café is old fashioned in the best senses of the phrase. The help is as attentive as anywhere in town, and Goheen moves around the house like the ghost of Babe, making sure everyone’s dinner is everything they want it to be. A friend calls him “the youngest old pro in town.” It’s cozy with 63 seats capacity and quiet enough to allow conversation even with music playing. Candles and black tablecloths add charm. The venue has a history prior to being J Benjamin’s. From 1952 to 1986, it was Hank Montequise’s Franklin Food Shop. A group of friends, back in town for their high school reunion, dined there recently, in part because they used to go there for the cheapest beer they could buy 50 years ago.
The menu is traditional. Bread baskets are filled with soft Italian bread that tastes like the places mentioned above. Butter dishes are filled. You will not see trendy words like chipotle, Thai or kale here. There is no spinach in the artichoke dip, just lots of Parmesan. There is no Boursin in the stuffed mushrooms, just ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan with peppers and bacon. Ceviche is not an option on bruschetta. Scratch-made onion rings were from the crispy school. My favorite appetizer is the baked cheese — feta baked in olive oil and topped with olives and tomatoes.
The trendiest thing Simon’s does is to allow build-your-own versions of pizza, pasta, and macaroni and cheese. The pizza pies are thin crusted, similar to Noah’s style. Simon’s serves just two cuts of steak — tenderloins and New York. The former can be ordered three different ways — with mushroom and onion cream sauce, with potatoes and vegetables, or de Burgo. Naturally, the de Burgo is the traditional recipe with butter, garlic, fresh herbs and spices. The New York is the best value steak dinner in town. A full-pound choice steak costs just $21 and includes salad or soup (seafood bisque is house special), potatoes, grilled asparagus, bread and butter and a delectable spinach, mushroom cream sauce. I recommend ordering the sauce on the side. Even the stroganoff is made with these two cuts of beef.
Seafood dishes included giant scallops or shrimp and a nontraditional cioppino in cream sauce served on pasta. From the specials menu, a honey-peppered duck breast stood out. Beautifully executed, it was served on mashed potatoes for just $14.
Dessert consisted of complimentary red velvet cake — a rich version, too. A full bar, good craft beers and inexpensive wines are available.
Side Dishes: The Des Moines Register initiated a new weekly column called The Dish. That’s the same title as our long-time Relish column. Imitation is flattery. Thank you. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
5800 Franklin Ave., 255-3725
Mon. – Fri. 5-9 p.m.;
Fri. – Sat. 5-10 p.m.