November — the best month for dining out11/19/2014
In the local food scene, November anticipates the holiday season with a bevy of special events. Nonprofits try to squeeze fundraisers in before people’s discretionary income is distracted by Christmas shopping. Chefs need to adjust their menus for what is available after the first hard freeze of the year. These motivations add up one of the very best months of the year for dining out.
Iowa Public Radio’s annual Battle of the Chefs fundraiser sold out at West End Architectural Salvage. This year’s event drew the best lineup of star chefs yet — Kamal Hammouda (Iowa’s original farm to food pioneer) from Grinnell’s Relish: Eric Bill from Hoq Table; Sam Auen (coming off a visit from Food Channel’s Guy Fieri) from Tacopocalypse; Nic Gonwa from Eatery A; Joe Tripp from Alba in Des Moines; and Lisa LaValle from Trellis.
Some folks complained that the venue was too crowded to find and sample all the foods they were looking for, but no one said it was not a superb evening. Some guests told me that desserts (Nic Gonwa’s apple beignets with salted caramel and almonds, and Lisa Lavalle’s pear tarts) were so good they used all their sample tickets on sweets. They also asked that their names be withheld so their mommies don’t find out. Joe Tripp won with his Early Morning Harvest consisting of a corn meal blini, pork shank confit and apple cabbage slaw.
Table 128 premiered its first chef’s tasting menu last week. In its second year now, T128 offers upscale comfort food with some innovative risk taking — squash risotto with veal, rabbit and sausage; mussels with anchovy butter; and scallops with sweet corn emulsion. Cocktails (only called martinis here if you want a real martini) are also adventurous. They are now featuring Cynar, an Italian amaro (liqueur) that takes its name from the artichoke, one of 13 herbal and vegetable plants included.
New happy hour specials include a trout pâté with foie gras and duck confit ($10); buttered heirloom radishes with homemade lavish ($4); fresh cut fries cooked in truffle oil ($5); macaroni and cheese ($5); and a burger with fries ($7). Wednesday’s happy hour offers a $26 unlimited wine deal. The scotch list has been upgraded considerably. Dewar’s and Chivas Regal are on the bottom shelf, with several rare single malts ranging from 10-15 years of aging and even an organic single malt.
The initial chef’s tasting menu debuted at $38. Smoked trout with a cippolini onion puree, house-pickled onion, frisee and sherry vinegar marvelously mixed all five tastes. Half a roast pheasant was so domesticated that even its leg meat was white. It was served with chestnut puree, brussels sprouts and wild rice in a pinot noir foam. Sweet potato bread pudding with toasted pecans and burnt marshmallow sauce might be the best thing I taste all month.
This year’s third annual Comfort Food Cook-Off raised money to feed homeless families. Chefs representing 10 area churches competed for an impressive trophy, which outgoing Des Moines Register columnist Bryce Miller called “the Stanley Cup of church food.” Some cooks were quite serious. Peggy Palmer-Johnson of Walnut Hills United Methodist led a team baking sweet breads that would compete for ribbons at the Iowa State Fair. Chris Tucker of Lutheran Church of Hope made chicken and noodles with a double-bone broth cooked in chicken broth. Colleen Armstrong and Peg Armstrong Gustafson won the grail for Windsor Heights Lutheran with a four-layered casserole of chicken, wild rice, peas and a cheese topping as thick as an entire toasted cheese sandwich.
Side Dishes: Baru 66 has a November tasting menu that offers two or three choices of four different courses for $40. They also will have a truffle dinner on Sunday, Dec. 7. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.Table 128 12695 University Ave., Clive 327-7427 Mon. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.