Food Dude’s top new restaurant of 201312/26/2013
Central Iowa’s restaurant boom has fully recharged. The year should end up ranking with the best years ever for new restaurant openings, and 2014 is already looking like a big year: Jason Simon’s A2, George Formaro’s Malo and David Baruthio’s Blue Tomato all plan to be up and running in the next few months.
So many good new cafés premiered this year that selecting an outstanding new restaurant was a challenge not seen since 2000 when trendsetters Danielle and Sage both debuted. Three different places, Akebono 515, Table 128 and Wasabi Tao, would have been obvious choices in lesser years. All delivered excellent service from day one. That just doesn’t happen, because top waiters don’t often jump to new restaurants, and it takes a while to break in new staff.
At the end of the year, Wasabi Tao edged the others by paying attention to details. The venue in the Hotel Kirkwood building was remade by importing some rare, large furnishings — from red horseshoe booths to a golden statue of the Abaya Mudra Buddha. The latter would not fit through any door, so bricks were removed around a window. A 13-foot sushi case was specially constructed. Back-lit onyx panels meshed with a marble bar. Wasabi Tao’s leaf/fish logo was subtly stenciled on painted walls. Pillars were covered with Des Moines River pebbles. Similar concern for details showed in stylish dinnerware and cocktail glasses, including two-part glassware for chilling saki. Restaurant chef-owners Tony He and Jay Wang talked excellent staff from New York City into moving to Iowa.
Cocktails employed fresh-squeezed citrus and exotics like hibiscus juice, whole hibiscus flowers and lychee juice. A daily sheet featured fresh fish rarely seen in Des Moines sushi bars before Wasabi Tao opened: striped bass, sea bass, baby yellowtail, sunfish, Japanese mackerel, kumamoto oysters, etc. Chef He and staff raised the level of knife skills in town with touches like roses carved out of tuna. Their presentations — some stacked on three levels of daikon, greens and bamboo sticks — set similar new standards. They prepared their own wasabi and pickled their own ginger.
Appetizers were also innovative. “Tuna dumplings” wrappers were made of tuna and stuffed with crab meat, avocado and roe in wasabi aioli. Crunchy soft-shell crabs were served in pieces with a mango puree in the sauce. Duck salad featured marinated and crisply-fried duck on baby greens, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes in vinaigrette made with lime juice and fish sauce. Eggplant was thinly sliced and baked in homemade soy and honey marinade.
The seafood curry hot pots — with whitefish, shrimp, scallops and squid — developed a cult following. The pan-roasted Shanghai-style cod and even its grilled New York strip steaks developed serious fans. Bottom line — Wasabi Tao raised the bar for sushi cafés in Des Moines.
Side Dishes Some other honors are worth attention at the end of the year. Kris Van Tuyl survived the closing of his East Village gem Luna to preside over the magnificent reopening of Genevieve’s/Cityscape in the Holiday Inn Mercy Campus. This is the last year Van Tuyl is eligible for a Rising Star Award (a category popularized by the James Beard Foundation, for chefs under 30). Such an acknowledgement is long overdue in this column. That hotel’s handsome restaurant, which Cityview readers voted into the final four of our Ultimate Place for Noodles competition, deserves a nod for Renaissance of the Year… James Beard Foundation Award nominations for 2014 are due by midnight Dec. 31. Omaha, in the early stages of a foodie revolution, is recruiting voter turnout this year, so help out your favorite local chefs at http://jamesbeard.starchefs.com/awards/vote/index_2.php. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.