Luna Bistro+Catering is a new bistro-style restaurant on the north edge of the East Village. What is a bistro? One common definition is that it is “a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting.” I believe that definition captures Luna perfectly. The place is so new that it took some research to find it. I knew that there was a new place somewhere in the East Village; I just could not remember where it was or what it was called. So, I turned to twitter and asked. @dirtfarmerlarry (Larry Cleverley of Cleverly Farms) was kind enough to suggest Luna as the place that I was probably trying to remember. It was.
Location. When we pulled up to the front of the building I had to say to myself “You got to be kidding!” The front of the Northland Dairy Building is something only a mother could love. Still, upon closer inspection it has a certain loose “hipster/hippy” look. If you really want to see a picture of the outside of the place, click here. Luna is located in the old Northland Dairy Building just east of Alba on Des Moines. It is obvious that over the years the building has gone through several campaigns in which it has been altered to meet a variety of needs.
Menu. The menu is divided into Small Plates, Salads, Sandwiches, Entrees, Soup and Desserts. The Small Plates provide an opportunity to try several dishes in the tapas style. We started with the Chicken and Mozzarella Ravioli, with tomato confit and olive oil. The ravioli was obviously handmade. The pasta was a bit juicier and lighter than some of the more chewy (but good chewy) versions we have found at the old-line traditional Italian restaurants in Des Moines. I really liked it. The chicken appeared to have been grilled and was still moist. The combination of mozzarella and chicken went well with the ravioli.
Next we split a salad which was easy since we went with the House Salad which comes with two large and crunchy romaine hearts. They are finished with scrumptious cherry tomatoes, white cheddar cheese, peppered bacon, red onions and Dijon vinaigrette. I’ve had some similar romaine heart salads around town and they had nothing on this preparation. It was very good.
We skipped the sandwiches on this trip and went with the Pork Cheek Tacos. The menu states that they are “Korean style” with braised pork cheeks and spicy cucumber relish. I assume that the spicy cucumber relish and braised pork cheeks make up the “Korean” part of this dish. But the whole assemblage was very tasty, wrapped in a soft and doughy tortilla. The pork cheek meat had that special element that makes me thankful that I’m a carnivore.
For the finish, we opted for a couple of desserts (why not, we only live once), a Tiramisu Crepe and a Vanilla Panna Cotta. Wow. They were both stunning. I saw the chef flipping the crepe, so I know that it did not come from a freezer. The filling was light without being overly sweet or cloying. The Panna Cotta was lighter than some we have had and leaned more toward “refreshing” than heavy and creamy. That might be a result of the blue agave nectar drizzled on top. The result is what I might call simply divine. After having had great desserts at Baru 66, Gusto Pizza and now Luna I have to say that the cabal of the refrigerated dessert delivery trucks may have been broken in Des Moines.
Service. Service is similar to the two Lucca locations, Gateway Market and Noodle Zoo. You head up to the counter, place your order, pick up a number and wait for the staff to bring each course to your table. Tables are cleared by the staff.
The interior works quite well. The new flooring ties in well with the multi-colored brick walls. The matching chairs and tables are actually better than you usually find in small restaurants. The artwork goes well with the overall appearance of the place.
Other Observations. Before I close, I wanted to venture some additional thoughts on a topic upon which I am uniquely unqualified to offer any opinion. It is just an observation, but if I was a chef who wanted to open my own restaurant I would head over to Luna and duplicate everything that Kris Van Tuyl has done. Allow me to explain. First, the location is perfect for a startup restaurant. Though it is not in the high rent “downtown” section of the East Village, it is close enough to be a part of some of the hottest retail turf in the City. Second, though the outside looks butt-ugly, the inside makes the best of the old brick and beams construction. The floor is new, which avoids one problem found in some older buildings, namely floors so uneven that the tables and chairs won’t stop tipping. The minimalist art on the walls went well with the “restoration hardware” look of the place. Despite the dive bar exterior, some real money was spent on the interior and I personally think that the dollars were spread perfectly. Next, the staff setup looks like it works. Two in the back and two up front, one working the register and one bussing. It does not get much simpler than that (unless you go totally simple like Tamales Industry with one in the front and one in the back). Luna is about as perfect and simple a setup as a chef-owned place could dream up. The challenge will be to keep from trying to do too much too quickly. Right now, I’d say that this is a very low-key but classy, interesting and satisfying place to have a meal.
Open for lunch: 11:00 – 3:00 M-F
11:00 – 2:00 Sat.
621 Des Moines Street
Des Moines, IA 50309