I’ve been to Alba Restaurant in Des Moines a number of times since it first opened. Each time I go I’ve been more impressed — that is a nicer way of saying that I wasn’t bowled over in my first visit. Alba has always gotten mostly rave reviews from my friends but after my first visit not long after it had opened I was not so sure that I would put on my list of “go to” restaurants. With the last two visits (2011 and 2012), I can safely say that I would rank Alba along with the better restaurants in Des Moines. I think that chef-owner Jason Simon’s menus have now achieved a maturity and balance that was not quite there at the beginning. From other reviews I would say that Alba is sort of a victim of some rave reviews when it first opened and the kitchen and staff could not keep up with the early surges of diners. Alba has always had a devoted set of followers.
I do not know what the purpose of the building was when it first built in the ’30s, (I’m guessing a car dealership) but the sweeping curved glass corner lends an air of sophistication that you cannot get today with new construction. From an architectural standpoint, this is one of only Streamline Moderne (a late version of Art Deco and an early version of the space-age inspired Googie designs of the ’50s) examples left in Des Moines. Other examples of that type of architecture include the Butler House and the Ingersoll Theatre. The interior design carries the curved glass corner through as a theme with many additional curves, though the interior designer did not carry through with the Streamline Moderne theme. When you visit, be sure to take in the architecture of the building before you step in. The decor is a combination of minimalist and “funky” with old doors suspended from the ceiling and large pieces of artwork on the walls. Having doors hanging from the ceiling has got to violate the principles of Feng Shui in a big way, but I doubt that many patrons care. I certainly don’t. It is interesting and may help with the acoustics. The tables are well separated, giving the place a kind of empty feel that also provides some privacy for each dinner party. Nothing puts the kabash on dinner time conversation quite like the feeling that the other people are listening to everything you say.
There is a full bar in an adjoining room. The bartender is well-known in Des Moines for her abilities and competence. Service was top rate, though in our most recent visit the server did not know the proper protocol for serving wine. The fact that the place was not packed may have helped, but our server and the Maitre d’ watched our table like hawks and were polite and knowledgeable. In the most recent visits our party of four and later seven tried a variety of different dishes. They were all very solid offerings and were great fun to eat. Note that most of the pictures below are from our 2011 visit. None of those dishes are currently on the menu.
In the most recent trip in 2012 I tried the Barbecue Pork Cheeks. This dish is described on the menu as including a warm German potato salad baked lentils and braised bacon with an apple slaw. I’d describe it more as succulent fatty barbequed pork on a bed of amazing BBQ Baked lentil beans. I’ve never had lentils served like this and I was quite pleased.
Des Moines Root Vegetable Gratin:This entree featured root vegetables in a mushroom soy sauce with kale, and breadcrumbs. It was a subtle and savory dish while not being heavy or cloying. Tender veggies were also offered with a layer of light sauce.
Sweet Potato Gnocchi: The gnocchi was chewy (in a great way) with the texture of the frisee and pecans to break through the density of the gnocchi. There was a sweet and savory interplay between the two flavors. For the side, apples frisee (a type of lettuce) with toasted pecans. The side was not overly sweet.
Venison Terrine: The venison terrine was offered with pita chips and spicy mustard and a spinach salad on the side.
Sweet Potato Wrapped Catfish: This was a very interesting and tasty dish. There were little pecan granolas with lots of brown sugar, a few sweet potato gnocchi, frisee, and properly cooked (not fried) catfish wrapped in a covering of sweet potato. It looks kind of like a tamale, only with sweet potato instead of corn and catfish instead of beans and meat. I guess that’s saying that a salad is like a steak, only without the meat and with lettuce instead. But you get the idea.
The wine list is on the pricey side. Do people actually buy bottles costing $150 at restaurants? Apparently, they do because there were only a handful of choices under $50. Other than a Altovinum Evodia Grenache that I’d had in in an earlier visit none of those choices were familiar. I did try the 2010 Evodia Grenache in the most recent visit and while it paled in comparison to the 2008, it did the job.
There were a number of desserts available, and it was pretty obvious that they were made there. Most restaurants that are not locally owned buy their desserts from food factories. That is why they taste the same. Alba clearly puts a lot of effort into making great desserts. Because the entrees were not gigantic it is actually possible to order a dessert. We tried the molten lava cake with buttermilk ice cream, the apple beignet the maple pot du crème. They were all divine.
524 E. Sixth St.
Des Moines, Iowa.
Tuesday-Friday 11 – 2