Baru at the Art Center10/30/2013
Not long ago eating at museums, colleges and public buildings meant vending machines or boring cafeterias featuring bad coffee and stale pastries. No one did more to transform the local non-profit dining scene than Mike and Lisa LaValle. Their tent dinners added a new gala event to the opera season. Lisa ran the marvelous Des Moines Art Center Café for decades, and Mike recently opened the city’s Hub on the Riverfront. Baratta’s improved the kitchen at the State Historical Building, and even giant companies like Sodexo, which runs Drake’s food services, responded to fresh and local requests with finer dining.
The latest positive changes are also related to Lisa LaValle. She left the Art Center earlier this year to develop a new restaurant at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. In her stead, David Baruthio took over. His Baru66 perches on nearly every gourmet’s short list of the best restaurants in Iowa. When it opened three years ago, it was voted one of America’s 20 best new restaurants by the James Beard Society.
Obviously many things remain unchanged at the Art Center. The café is still a unique venue, designed by Richard Meire with seating around a reflecting pool and iconic statue of Pegasus. Soup, sandwiches and salads remain the menu focus, and the café still has a full liquor license (wines ranged $36-$57 by the bottle). Other things have changed. Hours were expanded, now with Saturday and Sunday lunches, as well as Thursday evening service. Cheese, charcuterie and smoked salmon plates have been added as well as a few entrees. On my visits, the latter included salmon risotto ($13), pasta marinara ($10), a chef’s casserole ($14 with filet mignon, fried eggs, bacon, potatoes and mushrooms) and a confit of duck’s legs ($16 with mashed potatoes, Port jus and blueberry compote). Sandwich offerings included a “La Quercia melt” ($12) that seemed slight with a single thin slice each of Brie and prosciutto, teriyaki pulled pork wrap ($10) and toasted cheese with fig jam, which seemed anything but slight with cheese oozing over edges of grilled white bread. Salads included heirloom tomatoes with onions and basil ($10), artisan lettuce with walnuts, prosciutto and an almost indistinguishable hint of blue cheese ($11), plus red beets with chevre. All seemed more appetizer-sized than lunch-sized. Two soups were offered — a vegetable soup with a range of textures and lemongrass flavor ($4-$6) plus a chicken noodle (also $4-$6) with breast meat and short tubes of pasta cooked al dente, thus missing the rich broth flavor one expects. A slice of lemon cake suggested that desserts remain at LaValle’s high level.
Ambiance and service were inconsistent. On a sunny day outside, there was no more pleasant place in Des Moines for lunch. On a rainy day, the café was packed and as noisy as any restaurant could be. With 64 people talking, the only music I could hear was the pounding bass of rock. On another day, with half as many people, classical and jazz played subtly and no acoustical problems existed. Service ranged from very attentive to inconsistent, perhaps because of hearing problems. French press coffee cooled off too fast to enjoy, even indoors.
One day my entrée and soup were brought together, though I’d asked that soup be served first. No one responded to my complaint. I wanted to butter my potatoes, but they were too cold to melt butter by the time I finished the soup. Duck confit generously delivered two legs, but one was tender while the other was tough and chewy. Neither had crisp skin, which one expects from a dish cooked in duck fat.
Bottom line, this is a marvelous lunch option that is ironing out some wrinkles.
Side Dishes Lisa LaValle’s café in the Botanical Garden is set to debut in November… After two years of training and licensing, Centro and Django are making their own charcuterie, including some with Iowa Swabian Hall pork. CV