Joe’s relentless pursuit of perfection5/11/2016
I’ve reviewed so many good new restaurants the last two months (Gilroy’s, Kue’d, Jetheroni Pepperoni, Reed’s Hollow, etc.) that readers said I was getting soft.
I figured that was an excuse to revisit a standard-bearer of Des Moines excellence for perspective. At this time, that means Alba to me. Chef Joe Tripp was the only Iowan among this year’s top 20 Midwest chefs, according to the James Beard Awards. He also returned last week from a two-week culinary tour of Vietnam — “at least five meals a day” from the southern-most parts of the country to the northern-most. That exemplifies the obsessive love of food and learning that elevates Tripp to the top of such lists.
Alba’s accolades include being the only restaurant in Iowa to produce multiple James Beard Awards best chef semifinalists (owner Jason Simon was the first), two Food Dude chef of the year nods, and three Iowa Restaurant Association top bartender awards (Shannon Emerson — the restaurant’s first employee, but her understudies are as good as anyone else, too). More than any other place in town, Alba renews constantly while consistently improving. For instance, I have enjoyed sweetbreads (thymus or pancreas of calf or lamb) and octopus there at least six times each and never from the same recipe twice. A chef who travels to learn (Tripp also takes short internships at the very best restaurants on the West Coast) improves his menu with changes that have been well researched. There are only four or five other chefs in Iowa who even approach that level of diligence.
I visited Alba upon Tripp’s return from Vietnam and after a morning of his foraging for the marvels of Iowa spring such as morels, ramps, pheasant back (dryad) mushrooms, plus less wild things like rhubarb and asparagus. All would be included on his menu that same day. Tripp changes menus weekly.
Octopus, this time, was slow-cooked and plated with marinated grapes, grilled ramps and house made XO sauce (a Cantonese staple of dried fish and shellfish, chilies, garlic, ginger and onions). Tripp’s version is less salty than imported ones. His current sweetbreads recipe was lightly breaded, fried hot and plated with a garlic potato puree, a house version of sriracha (too much creativity) and a brilliant Meyer koshi honey (lemon pepper paste). My favorite first course, though, was a warmed Buratta cheese served under Tripp’s foraging discoveries — ramps, raw pheasant backs (he says that’s by far their best application), morels and rhubarb. Next up was an asparagus soup, served tableside, with a malted wild mushroom emulsion, crunchy toasted wheat berries and an egg poached in truffle broth. Marinated crab in panzanella (soaked bread and tomatoes) salad with fresh watercress, dill and an avocado Hollandaise (great idea) was a strong second favorite.
Tripp’s “corned beef sandwich” included no beef but a juicy chicken breast with perfectly crisped skin that had been marinated in corned beef jus. Pan-seared diver scallops, far and away the most expensive menu dish at $33, was plated with agnolotti made from cannellini bean flour and a ragu of spring leeks served over a seafood brodo seasoned with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Halibut, the queen fish of spring, was perfectly cooked in a similar brodo with spring peas, white beans and olive oil.
Bottom line — Alba leads the conversation now about what is Des Moines’ best restaurant. And it’s refreshing itself, while getting better, all the time.
Side Dishes: Fresh Market last week closed a few months after opening and a few weeks after Fresh Thyme Farmers Market opened in the same ‘hood. Not just a coincidence from our point of view… Food Dude’s favorite ethnic food fest, CelebrAsian, returns to Gateway Park May 27-28. Discover why the Nepalese food stand wins “best of” year after year. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
524 E. Sixth St., 244-0261
Tuesday – Friday, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.; Monday – Saturday, 5 p.m.- close.