Friday, June 24, 2011

Loving the Des Moines Life: Alba

Welcome to Loving the Des Moines Life, my ongoing series of exploring my new hometown. Mr. Nomadreader and I had been hearing wonderful things about Alba, a restaurant in the East Village, so we decided to try it out on a Thursday night.

A tasty summer martini!
As usual, the first thing I want to explore at a restaurant is the wine list. Although Alba has their food menu (albeit an outdated one) on their website, they don't have their wine list. The wine list is long, but it's not terribly impressive. There are two major shortcomings. First, some of the price points are exorbitant. Of the wines I was familiar with, the lower-end wines tended to be 400 to 500% of the retail price. I balk at anything over 200%. The higher-end wines were priced appropriately. Even more odd to me were the prices of glasses. Typically, the maximum a bottle should cost is four times the glass price. At Alba, it was four times the glass price plus $2, which doesn't encourage diners to order a bottle. The high-end bottles were nice, but there were hardly any options for wine in the $30-$50 range. I was baffled.

Thankfully, the cocktail list was more exciting (and reasonably priced.) Mr. Nomadreader and I both started with the same cocktail (the horror!), which involved muddled basil, gin and lemonade (I think; my notes are a little blurry.) Regardless, it was fresh and delicious, and a delightful summer treat. I appreciate stemless martini glasses, and this one was the perfect weight in my hand.

(Top) asparagus salad; (bottom) seared scallops 
We had an easier time deciding on food than our drinks. For appetizers, we opted to share the sea scallops and the asparagus salad. The scallops were cooked absolutely perfectly and tasted fresh. They were a hit, but I wasn't wowed by the dish as a whole. The puree and sauce didn't enhance the flavor of the scallops for me. Granted, they didn't detract, but it didn't taste cohesive to me. The asparagus salad was good but not great. It was topped with an egg, which was also cooked perfectly, and it all tasted good (despite only barely being able to discern a taste of the promised truffle oil), but nothing wowed me. There also wasn't very much asparagus, which is fine, but I wouldn't call the dish an asparagus salad if the menu hadn't. Both dishes were good and well-prepared, but neither had me hankering to try them again.

Chive potato gnocchi with prawns
Hanger steak with Chorizo frites
The entrees were the highlight of the meal for me. I opted for the chive potato gnocchi in a creme freche sauce with prawns (you may get it with chicken instead, if you're so inclined.) The dish is available in two portions, and I was glad to have the larger one. The gnocchi were light and flavorful. The prawns were unbelievably flavorful (and perfectly cooked.) The sauce was lighter than I expected, which made for a delicious summer gnocchi. It was a broth-like consistency and had the complementary flavors of truffle oil (hooray!) and coconut milk. I would never think of pairing them together, but this dish is worth eating over and over again. There were an abundance of carrots and radishes, which were nice and crisp. The vegetables brought a nice texture to the dish, but they didn't contribute much flavor. I wouldn't have missed them if they weren't included or if there were fewer.

Mr. Nomadreader opted for the hanger steak frites. The steak, like the rest of our meal, was cooked perfectly (rare). The frites at Alba are Chorizo frites. They were tasty, but the portion was huge. I especially enjoyed the fresh scallions on top, but I could have lived without the chorizo (or the frites, really).

Grape martini
The pacing on the food was lovely. I was invested enough in eating that I didn't order a second martini until we were almost finished with entrees. I opted for the grape martini, which features Ciroc vodka, white grape juice and fresh grapes. It was refreshing and tasty. It would be easy to drink many of these, but I would have loved another twist (such as muddled herbs, fresh citrus, or making it with a unique gin, such as Death's Door). I'll be experimenting with at home.

I'm not much of a dessert eater, and I was quite full, but Mr. Nomadreader ordered the apple beignets. They were tasty, but he jokingly disdained them as apple fritters rather than apple beignets; I agreed. I would have loved an herbacious creme freche dipping sauce with them too.

Overall, the meal was nice, but it wasn't nice enough to entice me back frequently. I appreciated the use of seasonal ingredients, and I would like to revisit in autumn, which is my favorite time of year for seasonal eating and drinking. The service was good. It was a relatively slow night with only one server, but the manager was prompt in refilling waters. The pacing was nice, and we were never in need of anything. In another city, Alba might shine more than it does in Des Moines. The wine list needs attention. The food is perfectly executed, but only one dish wowed me with its flavor combinations.

Service: 4 stars (out of 5)
Food: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

Next week in Loving the Des Moines Life: a recap of the Des Moines Arts Festival


  1. Your entrees sound like they were wonderful, but the issue with the wine is puzzling. I also don't think I would have liked the asparagus salad, though my husband might have. I think it's interesting that they had a grape flavored cocktail and used actual grapes in the glass as well. This is one restaurant that I would like to try, and I love that the serving sizes were bountiful. Great post today!

  2. This is a really fun idea for a series! Its a bummer the food didn't wow you, but at least everything was cooked well -- that's a big beef for me.


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