Marlene’s new chef10/4/2017
Jacob Demars is a New Englander who comes to town via Denver, Chicago and Charleston
Until the first freeze, October is the best month for food in Iowa. The overlap of summer and fall fruits and vegetables provides a happy feast. It’s also the return of soup season, and it’s not too hot to eat outdoors. There is no setting in town more distinguished than that of Chef’s Palette at the Des Moines Art Center. Three of the world’s greatest 20th century architects all contributed marvelous buildings that meld on the café’s outdoor patio. No one coaxes more flavor out of soups than chef and owner Rosie Punelli. Her signature curried cauliflower bisque is a classic. Crowds are back, too, and that was not the case so much before Punelli’s return.
Another delightful outdoor spot is Marlene’s at Sevastopol Station. Unfortunately, they are not currently serving lunch, so hours of daylight there are limited. The happy news is that Marlene’s has a crack new chef. Jacob Demars is a New Englander who comes to town via Denver, Chicago and Charleston. He worked in two Michelin starred restaurants — Elizabeth and Spiaggia in Chicago. He is here, like so many other of Des Moines’ best chefs, for the love of an Iowa lady.
This place is not for everyone. Photos I posted on Facebook drew several comments about portions, which are not huge. Harbinger and Eatery A are probably the two restaurants in town that most resemble Marlene’s, with Demars in the kitchen. Each plate here is a work of art. Among the dishes I enjoyed were carrot steeped in malt with carrot puree, rice noodle, a lime cube and malt soil. The description does no justice to the dish. Demars served a lightly cooked tomato in pearl barley that had been tossed in beer vinegar. His risotto carbonara featured pecorino.
His seaweed salad included cucumber, tomato, quinoa and sesame seed vinegar. Pork tenderloin was seared medium and served with wasabi (which works well), red cabbage and summer squash purees. A large scallop was seared and served with curried poblano pepper, cauliflower and a scallop chip. The only dish that disappointed me at all was salmon that was cooked well done and plated with peas, pea puree and pearl onion. The best thing I tried was a corn soup made with red corn silk.
The menu should not scare larger appetites away. It does include a double cheeseburger, a hefty beef tenderloin and chicken wrapped in sausage. Cured pigs head is thinly sliced and served with arugula and spinach gel. Pork belly is served with baby bok choy, corn nuts and cranberry gel.
The dessert menu is only two items, but one is a superstar. It’s called pine and is made of pine ice cream with chocolate crumbles and squash. Marlene’s has been an excellent restaurant since it opened. I miss the crab bisque they no longer make. It’s reached a new level with Demars, though. It’s one of the town’s very best.
The top chain restaurants in sales per store surprised the hell out of me. No. 1, by a huge margin, is Chick-Fil-A. Panera came in second, Whataburger (a mostly Texas chain) is third, and Jason’s Deli is fourth. McDonalds and Subway still lead the way in total sales… Confluence Brewery opened a large new beer garden… Luigi’s is again open for lunch after taking the summer off… Heavenly Asian opened a Gansu and Sichuan restaurant in Valley Junction. Lamb is featured in Gansu cooking… Enosh Kelley, the former James Beard Award semifinalist at Bistro Montage, became head of Pillar Technology’s Forge Des Moines. ♦