Escaping the fair8/13/2014
Some of the folks who love the Iowa State Fair refuse to eat there. Each year I hear from readers who find the fair’s concessions disgusting, unhealthy or overpriced. So the first week of that big event seemed like an appropriate time to revisit a couple institutions that offer something utterly different.
Once common in Des Moines, complete meal pricing has been driven underground by a la carte rates. It still rules in smaller towns from where many state fair visitors come. After considering legacy Italian-American favorites Mr. V’s, Tursi’s Latin King (which offers family style menus) and Riccelli’s, I decided to see how well Maxie’s has maintained its designation as “Best Dinner Value” bestowed by a Cityview readers’ poll. Value dining usually comes with a tradition that younger folks deem old fashioned. There is good reason for that. Places that have been around for 50 years usually have paid off their mortgages and can return their reduced overhead costs in lower prices for their customers.
Maxie’s is a cross between a steakhouse and a supper club. It’s not unusual to see senior citizen reunions mesh seamlessly with children’s birthday parties, as they did on my recent visit. Pink squirrels, brandy Alexanders and grasshoppers, cocktails that other restaurants now call “historic,” have been the specialties of the house here for decades. Maxie’s has three main claims to fame: Its peppery Italian dressing is so popular it’s bottled; onion rings — thinly cut, lightly breaded and heavily seasoned — frequently win “Best of Des Moines” designation with Cityview readers; half-pound Maxieburgers — hand-packed and hard-seared — were honored among the nation’s best in Jeff Hagen’s book “Searching for the Holy Grill.”
Dinners include rolls and real butter, salads, onion rings, pasta with marinara, a choice of potatoes and entrees. A weekend special prime rib appeared considerably larger than its advertised 10 ounces. It produced three meals for me, at $21.
Other readers have inquired about getting completely away from the madding crowds of the fair. A Facebook friend asked about places that are bustling, yet quiet enough for conversation. Splash popped to mind in both cases. It’s as gorgeous as the exotic fish in its aquarium (fully restored after last February’s frozen pipe tragedy), open as its two-story ceilings, and sophisticated as its extensive caviar menu and wine list, which includes several four-figure options. Splash’s wide-seat chairs, covered in red ostrich hide, are the most comfortable in town, and second place isn’t even close.
Splash is a marvel of the Fed Ex era, receiving fresh shipments daily of fish and seafood from Hawaii and the coasts. On my recent visit, I tried oysters three ways — Rockefeller, Bienville and Moscow. The latter were new to my ken — raw oysters on the shell with two kinds of caviar and freshly shaved horseradish cream. A sweet, flakey Chilean sea bass (restored now from endangered status and popular as ever) was glazed with sake and served with saffron basmati, sweet corn salsa and grilled asparagus. Also regenerated from over fishing, a swordfish steak was blackened yet cooked rare, served with garlic mashed potatoes and two kinds of string beans. All produce was sourced from farmers markets. A new dessert was quite special: a glazed pineapple cake recipe (from the Kapalua Ritz Carlton kitchen) was served with homemade ice cream.
Side Dishes: Bartenders from Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse South, Splash and Crème Cupcake finished ahead of other local competitors and will represent the metro in the Iowa Restaurant Association’s state mixology contest Aug. 27 at Americana. Tickets are $30 and will sell out quickly. https://www.dineiowa.org/secure/shop/product/state-mixology-final-competition/ CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.Maxie’s 1311 Grand Ave., West Des Moines 515-223-1463 Mon. – Fri. 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Mon. – Thurs. 4:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.; Fri. – Sat. 4:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. Splash 303 Locust Ave., 515-244-5686 Mon. – Sat. 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.