On a return trip to Trader Joe’s in West Des Moines, I was again drawn to the wine section like a moth to a flame. My hope is that I might be able to find a really good bottle of wine for less than it costs elsewhere. I found that Trader Joe’s markets its own Cabernet Sauvignon on its own label. Its only $10. I thought to myself, ”how bad could it be? It might be great.” As they say, one never knows unless you try it. So, I bought a bottle to try. It is hard to find any cab that cheap.
Monthly Archives: December 2010
A Trader Joe’s recently opened in Omaha, an event apparently so shocking to the rest of America that NPR’s Morning Edition mentioned it, in the same way people talk about indie bands selling out to a big record label.
I don’t know if any national company deserves a cult following, especially one successful enough to open in Omaha, the towering yardstick of corporate fortune that it is. Nonetheless a cult following does exist for Trader Joe’s, and more specifically for their “two-buck chuck” house wines (the name is a bit of a misnomer given that it costs more than two bucks). I was in the area last night and picked up a case of the stuff. Six bottles ran me under $25, which by any standard is pretty incredible. The first of the wines I opened was “Nouveau,” presumably Trader Joe’s take on the suddenly popular Beaujolais Nouveau trend.
I’ve had some terrible wine in my time and Trader Joe’s Nouveau isn’t nearly as egregious as Crane Lake, Franzia, or an especially infamous boxed wine called “Killer Juice”. It might even be pretty good, depending on your preference. The head is very fruity and fresh and smells a little like weeds. The taste reinforces this with a really acidic, fruity taste. I suspect some of this is due to the Nouveau designation, which means the wine has been bottled within a year of the grape’s harvest. La Buvette has a huge crate of real Beaujolais Nouveau and I’ll have to get a bottle to do a comparison.
I suspect it won’t be too much different than the two-buck chuck. It’s light and fruity, and anyone who likes zins and lighter reds will definitely enjoy it. I enjoyed it, mostly. During winter my preferences run to the smelly, dark, Old World, the quaffing of which is reminiscent of being wrapped in a sweaty armpit.
Well, its December 8th, the day after the heavens were supposed to open and Templeton Rye was supposed to fall down into our local liquor stores like alcohol-infused manna. Hate to break it to you, but the stores have already run out of Templeton Rye. I was talking to an acquaintance of mine and we both agreed that at this point, after a full-page spread in the Des Moines Register, we would both feel ashamed to even ask if there is any Templeton Rye available. Well, no worry, its gone, at least for now. Supposedly, this is the fault of the Iowa Alcoholic Beverage Division, which is rumored to be metering out its supplies so it does not run out half way through the year. Well, I have to say that because of the lack of Templeton Rye in the bars I’ve experienced some other premium rye whiskeys and they have, honestly, left me wondering how much of this Templeton Rye craze is just that — a craze, a marketing craze at that. Of course it is a craze that other small batch distillers can only wish for.
It is also worth noting that small batch distilleries are starting to pop up around the Midwest. Here in Iowa we have Clearheart Spirits which makes “super-premium” distilled vodka, gin and rum in a 35 gallon copper pot. They advertise their distillery as being the first post-prohibition distillery in Iowa. The NY Times has raved about the triple-distilled vodka. I’ve not found it for sale anywhere yet, but I only recently started the search. Website: http://www.clearheartspirits.com/
Nebraska has both Coopers Chase and Sòlas Distillery starting up production of new lines. Coopers Chase claims it is the first federal and state licensed distillery, with its vodka being the first in its line to be produced. Their website is interesting if only because of the spooky age-check first page and its very odd use of the English language. I don’t think that they hired a professional to write the copy for that website (but they should): http://www.cooperschase.com/
Sòlas Distillery makes Joss Vodka, which is the first in that distillery’s planned line of products. In contrast to their local competitor, their website is a work of art and actually makes me want to buy and try their vodka. http://www.jossvodka.com/. Sòlas Distillery is the brainchild of Zac Triemert, who reportedly has plans for additional spirits, including a bourbon and a rum. Sòlas Distillery is associated with Lucky Bucket Brewing. Our Man in Omaha has previously written about Lucky Bucket beer. Lucky Bucket is available in local Hy-Vee stores in Iowa. Trust me, you will be hearing more about Joss Vodka, Solas Distillery, and Lucky Bucket.
I am hoping that the crazy fervor devoted to Templeton Rye will spill over to these other local distilleries who actually make their product around these here parts and not in Indiana!
As far as I’m concerned there’s no diner experience more greasy, raw, quintessential, or delicious than Lisa’s Radial Cafe (The Diner downtown might come close, but this review is about Lisa’s).
It isn’t so much the classic diner fare that brings me back to Lisa’s so often. And it definitely isn’t the absurdist collection of I Love Lucy posters and memorabilia (although a more complete collection of Lucy posters will be hard to find). It’s rather that the place is an Omaha icon, cherished for the many groggy mornings I’ve spent with headaches and dear friends. Even when I don’t stumble there with friends or bike there with my sister, it’s a certitude that I’ll know someone (although this is more broadly a phenomenon with Omaha in general).
Coffee is one of the yardsticks with which I measure the quality of a diner. The bar for success in this department is either the quality or the amount of coffee, as far as I’m concerned. Lisa’s definitely succeeds by the amount of coffee (especially if you get counter seating), and a passing grade with the quality. Fresh-ground locally roasted Cultiva this is not, but neither is it Folger’s Vak-Pak, with which my office breakrooms are kept in great and dubious supply. And perhaps my judgement has historically been clouded by the lingering haze of a raucous night out, but I’ve always found the coffee to be just fine.
The food is pretty great too. They have a rotating selection of specials, one of which was white-chocolate cashew pancakes, a delicious-sounding name if nothing else. Even their normal pancakes hardly fit on a plate. In fact, the best pancake I’ve ever tasted was a chocolate-chip pancake from Lisa’s. The pancake strangled the plate it arrived on and was so thick that the fork disappeared inside. It soaked up gallons of real maple syurp (which we brought in ourselves expressly for this purpose) and filled my brain with angels and butterflies.
Well, not quite. But it was still pretty good.
A few caveats: It’s small and cramped (I prefer “cozy”) and you’ll probably have to wait if you get there during peak hours or with a large party. But Lisa serves free coffee in the waiting room and the wait is definitely worth it.
Most Americans, especially Midwesterners, prize restaurants for consistency, fast and friendly service, value, and even how filling the meals are. By these standards La Buvette is something of a black sheep in Nebraska. It’s hard to imagine how an off-beat European transplant can survive in a region where big-box chain restaurants are king.
That La Buvette thrives speaks to the diversity of Omaha and probably to fact that it’s owned by a German family who manages the entire Old Market. Their service is not always fast, neither is it terribly friendly or obsequious (don’t expect the servers to write love letters on your receipts). “Brusque” is a good word that comes to mind. But this is an advantage, to my thinking. Most of the time the wait staff will leave you alone until you get their attention, much like a European cafe. When you’re three wine bottles deep in conversation with a table of friends you don’t really want a server interrupting by asking “how everything tastes.”
La Buvette is unabashedly my one of my favorite restaurants in Omaha. The restaurant opens up to the Old Market and during a warm day or evening it’s wonderful to sit on the patio and enjoy the bustle of the crowds. Browsing their extensive wine selection is a joy. They must have more than a thousand varieties in all price-points. There are so many that they don’t have a wine list. You just wander around and pick the one you want. Because La Buvette is also a grocery, you can always buy a few bottles and bring them home.
Value is definitely a Midwestern standard at which La Buvette excels. Looking for an after-dinner drink and a snack? Try a $15 Old-World Cabernet and a cheese plate for $9. Split among 3 or 4 people, it’s less than $10 per-person for several glasses of wine, as much bread and butter as you can stomach, and a wide array of delicious cheeses. And try to find gourmet French cafe food for $10-$15 a plate anywhere else in Omaha. Dario’s in Dundee might arguably have better French-style food, but it’s also more expensive and a much more formal dining experience. La Buvette’s relaxed and cozy atmosphere makes it one of the few places that I’m comfortable getting coffee or lunch by myself.
As a titillating bonus you will notice a hanging on the walls a rather scandalous biography of “Kiki,” a 1940′s French porn star, such as they were.
I do enjoy my visits to Mojos. Whether it’s cocktails on the patio during a late summer evening or ensconsed in the private wine room with my family, I’ve never had a bad meal at Mojos. Eating out at a restaurant involves more than just food. It also involves having a good time and fun conversation. A good place to eat out should be a place where you forget about the passage of time and get lost in the food, the talk, and the ambiance. Mojos is that place for me. All of a sudden after a couple of hours you see that most of the other guests have left or are leaving and you have had a great time. A great restaurant should also be a place where the wait staff knows when to stop by to check up on things and when to come back later.
And the food! The food needs to transport you, to let you taste something that you can’t duplicate. I believe I have tried nearly entree on their menu and I have never been disappointed. The grilled beef shoulder tender is a real treat if you (like me) love well-prepared beef. What makes Mojo entrees special to me are the sauces, and the fact that the meats are not over-cooked, which is something that happens more often than not in busy kitchens. But the sauces are complex, rich and full of flavor. I just really like them.
Drinks. I won’t get into the wine list as you can check it out online. The cocktails I have ordered are always a delight, with the basic ingredients included in the list, so you don’t have to guess what a “Pecan Pie” is.
Entertainment. During the summer Mojos hosts a number of local jazz groups to entertain the folks on the patio.
Location: Mojos should be well known to residents of Johnston, Iowa but for everyone else it may be hard to find. It is tucked away in Foxboro Square at the corner of 86th and 62nd Avenue in Johnston, catty corner from the huge John Deere Credit Services headquarters.
Supporting local products. Iowa is full of great local producers who put their heart into making great wine, meats, cheese, vegetables, and even mushrooms. I do know that Mojos seeks out some of these producers and includes them in the preparation of their meals, including Snus Hill, Maytag Dairies, Northern Prairie Chevre (going out of business I hear), and Iowa Farm Families.
6163 NW 86th St.
Johnston, Iowa 50131
If you are like me, you think that eggnog is great with a thanksgiving meal, or maybe before or after the meal. But that thick sweetness is just too much and you have some eggnog sitting in the fridge. Well, here is a way to get rid of it quick. Add 1.5 oz of bourbon whiskey per pint (16 oz) – about a 1 to 10 ratio — and it goes down in a flash!
This red table wine is an excellent example of a dry red Iowa wine. Not all wines made in Iowa have to be sweet, even if that is the regional preference. The wine itself is garnet, has “legs” (an indication of higher alcohol content), and is semi-transparent. It has a fruity smell, but the taste is oak, tannin, pepper, and then fruit. It is somewhat opinionated oaky and strong. This is not a pinot noir. The bottle says that it is barrel aged for 10 months. I sometimes judge a wine by whether two of us down the whole bottle in a single sitting. We got about 60% through this bottle, but that isn’t bad considering that this is a strong wine.
Just a quick note. Frontenac is a hardy French-American variety. According to the label, the grapes are indeed grown in Iowa. The term “table wine” means that under TTB regulations (formerly known as the ATF), the wine has between 7 and 14% alcohol. It does not mean, as it might in Europe, that it is a lower quality wine.
If you are fond of dry oaky red wines but have had trouble finding a Iowa red wine to try, I recommend the Frontenac.
My Scottish friend was delighted to learn that Omaha had a neighborhood named Dundee. I think she’d be further delighted to discover the offerings of the Dundee Dell, a delightful bar in the heart of the neighborhood. Although it styles itself as an Irish bar, complete with thick coats of green paint and dubious numbers of retro Guinness posters, it’s a common trope that I’m willing to forgive in the light of all the delicious food and drink that the Dell provides.
They say the Dell has the largest selection of scotch whisky in the world. Indeed, the floor to ceiling stack of scotch bottles is quite impressive. My friend speaks fondly of the rare Oban 14-year which I’ll have to try next time I’m there. Luckily they do monthly scotch tastings just for this purpose.
Their classic pub food is also excellent. Of particular note are the fish and chips. I had some last night, along with a few glasses of New Belgium’s 2-Below. They come in a paper bag much like they do from street vendors in the UK. The fish is fried light and airy, with a delicious fluffy texture, while the chips are homemade fried potato slices – soft and hot. Is there any better kind of pub food? The answer is no, and I’ll have another 2-Below, thanks.
As a bonus, the building was fire-bombed by the Japanese in WWII.
Azalea is a Des Moines restaurant and lounge on the street level of the Hotel Kirkwood at 4th and Walnut. This is just an informal review of just the lounge, or bar, if you prefer. First, the setting. The bar faces the east wall, facing away from the main dining area. Nearby tables can double for drinks unless the restaurant is really full. The liquor supplies are adequate with high-quality liquors. If you are looking for a particular single malt scotch whisky, then this may not be the place to go. However, the drinks are generously poured in large glasses. Azalea offers happy hour pricing, so you can get twice as much drinking for half the price as, say 801 Grand — that’s four times the value!
Another feature is that some of the cocktail drink ingredients are prepared by the Chef himself. So, when you order a Manhattan, you don’t get the classic Angostura bitters. The drink is actually called a “Des Moines.”
The bartender was friendly and knew how to mix the drinks. The place was not very busy the last two times I stopped by, but there were people there. Overall, I’d judge this to be a top bar for the quality and value of the drinks. Ambiance is OK, but it does not have the mighty wall of bottles (801 Grand may have the prize for that) that some establishments have – if that is your thing. On the other hand, it is the lounge portion of a highly rated restaurant, so I have to assume that on some nights the main traffic in the lounge will be from people waiting for a table. You don’t need a huge liquor cabinet for that market. Witness the Centro bar area, which does not wear its inventory on its sleeve. One advantage that Centro’s bar has is that it is walled off, so you can stay in that lounge without the feeling that the diners are looking at your back the whole time.
By the way, the Azalea web site rocks. I love the animated background of the place in action. You get a pretty good idea of the lounge layout from the web page. www.azaleadsm.com
UPDATE: Azalea’s low happy hour pricing has increased the crowd and that has resulted in a hike in the prices. Drinks now cost a buck more than they used to during happy hour. But I’ll take a more crowded bar over cheaper prices any day. The place was packed last Friday. Azalea still uses (ri)1 rye whiskey in its drinks upon request, so you are getting some high quality booze for fairly low price. This is a $50 bottle and it was getting kind of low last time I checked, so you might not find it.
UDPATE: Azalea’s is closed. A new “concept” restaurant will go in its place. Too bad. It was a great place for a downtown happy hour. According to the voice mail, it will reopen as a new “concept” restaurant. This blog also has some details: http://locallygrown.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/news-azalea-gusto-a-new-recipe-site-icr-tacos/