Trellis — masterpiece in progress1/8/2014
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That maxim is gospel in the restaurant business, where barely 50 percent of new ventures survive beyond one year. Yet it’s a hard one to heed, because all cash flows against the current before a restaurant opens. So I worried when Trellis debuted last month with its magnificent windows, the focus of the café, looking out upon construction fences and fields of weeds. That was foolish on my part.
When work is completed, Trellis will add a patio above a lily pond that descends downhill until it appears to flow into the Des Moines River — like trompe l’oeil artists touching up Monet’s garden in Giverny. Such projects are interesting enough that witness should be paid to their progress. Witnesses are a near certainty, as Trellis runs smoothly on the warm side of its windows. So much so that Cityview columnist Joe Weeg leaves the English language to describe the vibe that owner chef Lisa LaValle brings to a restaurant. He goes Dutch with “gesellig” (heh- ZELL-ig), which is translated as both “cozy” and “untranslatable.” Writer Jennifer Wilson says LaValle creates a rare, comforting vibe that is distinctly feminine.
On all my visits, the café was packed beyond capacity with an overwhelming percentage of female diners. Fresh flowers, modern chairs, a few paintings and polished concrete floors provided trappings, but the good vibes generated from a staff that includes Rose Punelli, LaValle’s longtime No. 2 during their previous lives running the Des Moines Art Center Café. Fans of that place will find much of what they liked, plus considerably more, here. A much larger kitchen allows an expanded menu, which LaValle says will change “monthly or so.”
Soups ($4.50 and $6.50) starred. I tried three deeply-flavored types — pumpkin squash bisque, with a signature drizzle of crème fraiche, ginger lentil with multiple drizzles and chicken lemon vegetable. A photogenic serving that somehow matched pumpkin bisque with ginger lentil managed to avoid mixing until stirred by the diner. All were garnished generously with grapes, pineapple, orange and grapefruit wedges and berries.
Subtitled “Creative cuisine from the plant world,” the café’s salads ($10.95) occupied the largest portion of the menu. A “super foods” salad delivered an all-star lineup of ingredients currently endorsed by nutritionists, including quinoa, brown rice cooked with turmeric, spinach, yams, walnuts, flax seed, broccoli, a mesclun mix and a vinaigrette dressing that included acai, pomegranate and yogurt. Crimson tabbouli mixed cracked wheat with apples, beets, craisins, carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, radishes and mesclun in a raspberry balsamic vinaigrette with sunflower seeds. Salmon salad brought a cold, grilled piece of overcooked fish with green beans, peas that tasted too fresh to be out this time of year, cucumber and mesclun in a lemon dill vinaigrette. A “colors” salad promised seasonal vegetables with cheese and nuts in a sesame-ginger vinaigrette.
Sandwiches ($10.95) included a black bean and yam tostada with mango salsa and guacamole, plus a smoked turkey reuben on marbled rye. Trellis’ pasta ($10.95) menu delivered bow ties with tri-colored sauces of arugula pesto, Bechemel and roasted red pepper coulis, plus freshly-grated Parmesan cheese and toast points. A Greek-style beef ragu with Feta was also offered. A gluten-free option of brown rice pilaf with any pasta sauce was available. Decadent desserts ($6) were irresistible. I tried both coconut cake and a three-berry pie that ranked with the best in town. A dessert tray of three offerings totally changed with each visit. Small wine and beer lists were extraordinary.
Bottom line: Rather than Dutch, a Thai term describes my feelings after eating at Trellis — “Sabsung” (SOB-soong),which equates human emotion to the way dry Earth responds to a heavy rain.
Side Dishes Visiting French chefs will prepare dinners Jan. 30 -31 at the Iowa Culinary Institute for $125, which helps support the college. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.