From what I'd read before-hand I was really looking forward to eating at Proof in Des Moines, Iowa. It was rated no. 4 out of 509 places to eat in Des Moines on Trip Advisor and its chef, Sean Wilson, was a 2013 James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef in the Midwest. The James Beard Award is the most prestigious cooking award in the U.S. The website notes that it takes "its influences from the Mediterranean and Northern Africa," blending "old world with the new by using local ingredients in all of its dishes." When we made a reservation we answered some questions including "how adventurous of an eater are you?" Of course I noted "very," and imagined them coming up with some very exotic combination for us. I thought this would be our best meal of the trip. We ended up having several other meals I thought were better (see Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue in Kansas City and RowHouse Restaurant in Topeka). We did have a very good meal, I'd rate it a five, but it did not "wow" and I was hoping to be wowed.
|Proof, in downtown Des Moines.|
Proof is located in downtown Des Moines and what actually did wow us were several locations nearby, one of them right next door. The Pappajohn Sculpture Park, full of incredible modern art sculptures by world-renowned sculptors, set in a 4.4 acre park, will get a post all by itself from Judy. We walked off our dinner afterwards in this park. Then the amazingly beautiful Iowa capitol building several blocks uptown will probably get a full post from both Judy and me later. We went there after our walk in Pappajohn Park and again the next morning.
Back to Proof. The best dish, by far, was a Spanish grilled ribeye and I have to say, it was great in every sense of the word. It looked fabulous and tasted even better. To start with, it was a great piece of meat, a thick fatty ribeye grilled medium rare with several sliced strips leaning against the main mass and suspended lean-to like, like fissures, over a bed of asparagus, lending color and the suggestion that it was a volcano spewing wonderful sauces in rivulets all over the plate. Roasted potatoes were spread out like molten rocks. But what really made the dish work were the multiple sauces with different colors and tastes fanned out and then coming together at the edge of the plate, like multi-hued lava. One of the sauces was a chunky green sauce called a chimichurri, made of Italian parsley, cilantro, garlic, crushed red pepper and olive oil, and used on grilled meats. It was overshadowed by a Harissa mayo which dominated the left side of the plate. Harissa is a Tunisian hot chili pepper paste using roasted red peppers, serrano peppers and other hot chili peppers, herbs, spices garlic paste and olive oil. Mixed with the mayo it was creamy and rich with a little bit of heat. The best sauce, which was a light red, almost orange, was a mojo rojo, my favorite of the sauces. At least one recipe I see for mojo rojo contains dried New Mexico chiles, smoked paprika, garlic, cumin and olive oil and it really lent the most significant, oily, heat. Finally, there was an olive caramel sauce which was a dark red and slightly sweet. This dish was all about cutting off small bites of ribeye and rubbing them in one or more of the erupted sauces. Each bite was different, depending on the blend, with different levels of creamy, oily, salty, spicy and sweet. One of the best steak dishes I've ever eaten.
|Spanish grilled ribeye - eye candy.|
The next best dish, but significantly lower on the Richter taste scale, was the prosciutto and artichokes served with "farm" style cheese and a caper-honey dressing. It was visually very pleasing with different colors, shapes and textures. It also had nice mouth-feel with different soft textures. It would have been an all-star dish if I hadn't tasted it, but the taste did not live up to the visual. The farm cheese was so bland that it even counter-acted the capers and prosciutto which normally have such striking flavors. Still a good dish, but one that really could-have, should-have, been great.
|Prosciutto and artichokes|
Note that we're starting to go downhill. The roast pork belly with garlic scapes, bok choy and mushroom/bacon broth sounded so good, but alas was disappointing. I LOVE pork belly - how do you make it bland? I don't know, but they did. The garlic scapes were interesting, the flower bud of the garlic plant. It was something I'd not eaten before, but did eat something similar, later, on my trip to the Sierras with Sam and Andrew. I would not order this dish again.
Continuing downhill, I left the worst for last. By far the biggest disappointment was the duck confit served with orange sauce. I love duck, probably more than pork belly, and this dish is a sort of shredded duck, breaded and fried. By itself, the duck McNuggets (the pejorative term is intended) were dry and tasteless, everything duck should not be. Only liberal spreading of orange sauce made it edible. It is one thing to make pork belly bland, but another to ruin duck, and in such a good restaurant. Inconceivable. When given an opportunity to try duck McNuggets at another restaurant later on our trip, I could not run the other way fast enough. Some day I may find the courage to try it again, somewhere else, but I need time.
|Duck (McNuggets) Confit|
We had a cheese plate with three cheeses. I don't even recall what they were. I think one was some sort of an aged goat, another a hard cow or sheep and another some sort of brie. Cheese is always good, but it doesn't really tell you anything about the restaurant.
|We had more cheese than this. I just didn't get around to taking the photo until the plate was depleted.|
We also had a beginning appetizer which was kind of a spicy cucumber slice rolled over marinated onion perhaps? It was good.
It was a good meal, the Spanish grilled ribeye was worth going for all by itself, but should have been so much better. My expectations were very high and I'm sure that did not help (but I still can't get over the duck McNuggets).