A new path5/31/2017
Six flavors of southeast Asia
Since I began writing about the dining scene in Des Moines in the 1980s, most innovation has come from immigrant restaurants. A Dong, India Star, Taste of Thailand, Los Laureles, El Salvador del Mundo, Soul Africa, Miyabi 9, Irina’s, Baru 66, Café Salzburg and Kathmandu all brought something new to Des Moines’ communal table. Like Italian and Chinese restaurants before them, most of them inspired imitators. It’s as hard to imagine the city without Thai, Vietnamese, Michoacan, Indian and Salvadoran restaurants now as much as it would be without Calabrese or Cantonese cafés.
All those places brought international cuisines that were new to Des Moines. A rarer innovation comes when someone introduces new ingredients in a uniquely Iowan context. Jeremy Morrow and Gary Hines’ Bistro 43, which opened in the present Flying Mango venue in the late 1990s, was such a place. They, along with Doug Smith at Cosi Cucina, created a restaurant market for innovative farmers who had no other outlet but farmers markets at the time. When Mike Dukakis campaigned for the presidency here in 1988, Iowans considered him completely out of touch for suggesting farmers grow arugula commercially. Bistro 43 and Cosi Cucina turned Hawkeyes on to the snappy Italian salad green.
Many of the best cafés in town have followed the same Alice Waters’ template that those predecessors pioneered. Sage, Danielle, Proof, Alba, The Café, Lucca, Centro, Django, Gateway Market, Malo, Table 128, Eatery A, Splash and Bubba are some of the places that followed that path.
Joe Tripp and Jason Simon’s Harbinger blazes a new path. The restaurant incorporates the principles of the great cuisines of Southeast Asia, basically trying to balance the six basic flavors — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy and unami — in each dish. Their twist is using fresh foods of Iowa instead of the basics of Thai food such as coconut milk, red curry, galangal, etc. No fish appears on the menu. Spinach and broccoli are Euro-American varieties not Asian ones. Ghee (clarified butter) is served with sweet potato mantou, but it’s mixed with leeks that have been baked for eight hours. Miso is made with barley not soy. Rice congee is made with black rice, though it lacked the texture of congee.
Some of the most creative inspirations are behind the bar. Pisco rested on green sake lees, rhubarb cordial, umeboshi that is made with wet fermented green strawberries instead of plums (and will eventually also be dry fermented), burdock root. Bourbon is treated to a pho-like application with star anise, averna, garlic and mezcal.
The most successful dishes on the May menu took chances mixing Iowa proteins with fresh vegetables. Pork belly was marinated in a Vietnamese style fish sauce and served with dipping sauce, cilantro and fava beans. Strip loin was 60 days aged and served with congee, blistered asparagus and basil butter. Braised beef tongue, the most tender I ever tasted, was served in pho-like broth with chive dumplings and several kinds of alliums. Five-spice pork was stuffed in Napa cabbage with peanuts and Sichuan broth.
Vegetarian dishes were just as interesting. Three kinds of beet roots were braised in Chinese mustard and sour herbs, preserved raspberries and kermes rice in a bath of beet swill. Asparagus was blistered and served with tapioca and Percorino fritters. Carrot dumplings were served with carrot hoisin, scallions and pickles. Spinach was warmed and served with mushrooms, egg and a soy ginger vinaigrette.
Harbinger is revolutionary. Prices ranged from $4- $23 with only one dish exceeding that.
Side Dishes: Danny and Sheri Holmes opened Marco’s Pizza in Windsor Heights. That Ohio chain is the fastest growing pizza chain in the U.S. ♦