The new old thing at Vivian’s and Bubba8/31/2016
Sometimes the big new thing isn’t new at all. This year, savvy veterans of the food scene have turned their attention to diner food with a third millennium twist. Earlier, Scot Carlson took over the venerable address that once housed Jimmy’s American Café with Gilroy’s. Recently, Jeff Duncan moved into the former Hotel Kirkwood with Vivian’s, and Chris Diebel opened Bubba in an old auto showroom that was most recently Raccoon River Brewing Company.
Carlson and Duncan are both protégées of the late Paul Trostel, a restaurateur of legendary stature. Diebel is a first-time owner but has been a behind the scenes guy for Orchestrate with Centro, Django, Malo, Zombie Burger and Gateway Market Café. If these guys think Des Moines is hungry for $20 chicken dinners with succotash, then put your Southern on and unfold your napkin.
These 21st century diners are nothing like their American prototype. Vivian’s has remodeled the former Azalea/Gramercy Tap space beyond recognition. Bathrooms are no longer a long walk through the hotel lobby. Ivory is no longer just a background color; it sparkles in intricate tile work, shimmers off a sensational beaded curtain and accentuates the refurbished wood furniture. An upstairs lounge area provides several cozy seats for two, rather than a single, long table for large groups.
Copper mug mules replace “martinis” as featured drinks. I loved an Iowan who mixed Cedar Ridge whiskey with ginger beer, lemon juice, lime juice, honey and lavender oil. Bacon croquettes were crisp and accented with a strong smoked onion sauce. Crab was served as a fondue, green beans were fried with peppadews, and sliders were made with short ribs. Succotash was Iowa style with edamames and sweet corn forward.
Chef Ryan Caray’s fried chicken provided a super crisp, golden airline style breast, with mashed red potatoes, herby gravy and succotash. Order the gravy on the side if you appreciate crisp chicken. Stroganoff paired egg noodles with mushroom demi glace and sour cream sauce that rallied the braised sirloin tips. French toast was made with cream cheese icing and smashed berries. Desserts starred Rebecca Duncan’s (one of Iowa’s very best cake makers) favorites.
Bubba made over the brewhouse dramatically. The bar is where the brew tank used to be. A kitchen was built in the previous dining room, and the upstairs area replaced pool tables with a new dining area. The café prides itself on its whiskey list, including hot new products from Asia and Texas. There’s no Pappy van Winkle, but most anything else is here.
Fried chicken is the featured star of the menu. Chef Jammie Monaghan brines his large pieces for 24 hours and then soaks them in buttermilk another day. They are deep fried southern style and served with mashed white cheddar potatoes and two sides including ham hock braised collard greens, red beans and rice, black eyed peas, pimento mac and cheese, and a southern style succotash.
In homage to Diebel’s Texas roots, catfish is fried in cornbread batter, shrimp are served with Anson Mills grits, okra in spears, fried green tomatoes with poblano aioli, and fritters are made with crawfish. The star of the dessert menu was a Bourbon pecan pie. Monaghan cut his teeth working at the Des Moines Pie Company just a few blocks away from the new restaurant.■
Vivian’s owner Jeff Duncan and Catering by Cyd owner Cyd Koehn have been collaborating on various projects. During the Rio Olympiad, Koehn mentioned that she wanted to take time out to watch the USA volleyball game because her cousin, Kelsey Robinson, was playing. Duncan then revealed that he had coached Robinson in high school in Wheaton, Illinois.
400 Walnut St., 282-8936
Daily 7 a.m. – midnight
200 10th St., 257-4744
Monday – Thursday
11 a.m. – 10 p.m.;
Friday 11 a.m. – 11 p.m., Saturday 4-11 p.m., and
Sunday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.