Alba’s new star9/25/2013
Local science businesses are frequently cited when civic leaders tout the cosmopolitan makeup of central Iowa. Our restaurant industry rarely gets credit for such things despite its extraordinary record for attracting outsiders. Italian immigrants, mostly from Calabria and Emilia-Romagna, dominated fine dining here between World War I and the Vietnam War. The fresh-and-local movement that raised the city’s dining profile this millennium was heavily influenced by traveling chefs who opened restaurants here: Paul Trostel (Greenbriar, Dish, etc.), from Colorado; Jeremy Morrow and Gary Hines (Bistro 43), from Tennessee; Andrew Meek (Sage), from Wisconsin; Rob Beasley (Varsity), from Louisiana; Don Hensley (Danielle), from Texas; David Baruthio (Baru66), from France; Sean Wilson (Proof), from Seattle; Johan Larsson (Django), from Sweden; Mao Heinemann (King and I), from Thailand; Jay Wang and a dozen of his friends (Wasabi Tao, Wasabi Chi), from New York City; etc.
The latest culinary gunslinger to ride into town is Joe Tripp. He moved here after five years at Denver’s Fruition, a restaurant that grows its own fruits and vegetables, raises milking sheep for its own creamery, plus chickens and heritage pigs who dine on whey from the creamery. Tasting menus feature the best of each month’s farm produce. Tripp settled here at Jason Simon’s Alba, a bustling East Village bistro whimsically redesigned within a venue built for an Art Deco car dealership.
I visited this August during Restaurant Week and found astonishing choices over three courses for $25. Among the dishes I sampled then were octopus carpaccio with arugula and crisply fried eggplant strips, a bacon-wrapped rabbit terrine with pistachios and roquettes, a pan-fried chicken breast with a chicken confit chile relleno, smoked beef cheeks with currants, salted crème brulee and a sweet corn semi freddo. Unlike other restaurants I visited during that promotion, Alba focused on its special three-course tastings and offered no regular menu. I was quite impressed and decided to see what Tripp’s kitchen could turn out without the limitations of a $25 menu.
Last week, the third of a series of chef Tripp’s Sunday tasting menus offered six courses for $60, with wine pairings also available. After an amuse bouche of shortbread with robbiola (sheep’s milk cheese), homemade chile jam and home-grown dill flowers, our dinner began with gazpacho of melons, tomatoes and octopus. That was served impeccably with fruit and cephalopod in a chilled bowl into which liquid was poured tableside — to avoid the invariable slushy mess that results from carrying filled bowls on a tray. A chilled spoon was also served with that course.
Bull’s Blood beets, cold smoked apples and foie gras shavings were then served on a chilled plate with sorrel leaves and geranium-infused beet jus. A perfectly poached duck’s egg was then presented with a drizzle of Bechemel sauce, lardo gel, duck fat demiglace and slivers of brioche. That was the best bacon and eggs dish I ever tasted. It was followed by cobia (a Hawaiian whitefish) that had been cured and poached (at a very low temperature) in olive oil and served with crisply fried almonds, couscous and kale on a puree of eggplant with thin-fried eggplant straws as garnish. That marvelous fish did not taste the least bit oily.
Perfectly cooked duck breast was served with cold-smoked peaches, turnips and turnip puree with beet micro greens and duck confit demiglace. Finally, a chocolate ganache was presented with banana gelato, roasted bananas, homemade graham crackers, cocoa dusted chocolate truffles and hickory-smoked meringue. That last item is a trick worth learning. The next Sunday tasting menu will be on Oct. 27.
Side Dishes Jeff Duncan (Dos Rios, Big City Burger and Greens) was named Restaurateur of the Year by Iowa Restaurant Association. Johan Larsson (Django) was that group’s Chef of the Year. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.