Alba was recommended to me by a good friend. This friend is quite the food connoisseur, and so any recommendation from him carries serious weight. A few weeks ago, my wife and I were able to line up a baby sitter for our two daughters, so we could pursue a great dining experience. That night, we had hoped to go to Cafe di Scala but it was closed, so determining a backup wasn’t difficult. Enter Alba.
Alba is located in Des Moines’ East Village, which is home to an area that has been experiencing quite the revival lately and is home to many notable restaurants and shops. In fact, Alba is just a short walk to the acclaimed Raygun T-shirt shop that my wife and I adore so much, and to George Formaro’s famous Zombie Burger.
My wife and I have become fans of the the cheese and meat plates offered by many local restaurants. We’ve had the one at D’Jango and Sbrocco, so we felt it was only fitting to try Alba’s Chef Plate.
The Chef’s Plate is a combination of chef selected cheeses (in this case, Manchego, Pecorino Pepato, and Gorgonzola Dolce), meats (Rabbit Terrine, Salmon Mousse), Fruit, Pickled Vegetables, and Homemade Crackers. My wife isn’t a fan of Salmon so naturally she didn’t enjoy the Salmon Mousse. I generally do enjoy Salmon but in this instance it was very “fishy” tasting so I wasn’t too keen on it either. Call me an uncultured swine, but I wasn’t a fan of the Rabbit Terrine. It had a chunkiness to it plus it had a gamey flavor. Needless to say, my wife wasn’t a fan either. On the upside, the cheese was astounding as were the Pickled Vegetables and Fruit. They had sliced grapes that were coated with olive oil… a great pairing of flavors. Next time we’d go for just their cheese plate and ditch the meat altogether.
We both ordered a few drinks. The problem with not taking notes is at the time you’re convinced you’ll remember exactly what you had. I failed to remember clearly what I had. I know the first was a fabulous Moscow Mule, the second one is a bit hazy, but nevertheless, I remember throughly enjoying it.
Growing up in San Jose, California, bread has always been a food group to me. I’m not sure what was harder when I first moved to Iowa, leaving behind friends and family or moving to an area where bread is an afterthought. Fortunately, it feels there is a change in the air. If you know where to look you’ll find bread that rivaled the stuff I grew up on. The best of the pack is undoubtedly South Union Bread Co, the genius of George Formaro. It seems whenever you get great bread in the area it’s from South Union. I’m only speculating here, but the complementary bread that came with our meal must have either been George’s or they’ve worked tirelessly to reverse engineer his creation.
Until recently I had never been a fan of pork loin. I’ve found that it generally lacks flavor or is overcooked and tough. My first experience with a great pork loin was last year at the Bass Street Chop House in Moline, IL. I still find myself daydreaming about that pork loin. It was thick, juicy, and perfectly seasoned and seared, with the bone left in. It was a work of art on a plate. I’m still amazed they were able to cook such a thick piece of meat thoroughly, without overcooking the edges.
I didn’t think it could get any better until I visited Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. That has now become the pinnacle of pork loins. The sauce had a touch of heat to it. It was perfectly season and cooked. Plus, it included a side of sweet potatoes in a corn husk that could have fooled me as the most amazing corn bread. It doesn’t get any better than this.
So, I decided to put Alba’s pork loin to the test. How would it stand next to these heavy weights I wondered? Could it really be as good as Mesa Grill? Was it possible it was even better?
The answer, is sadly no. It was damn good, no doubt, but it wasn’t Mesa’s nor was it Bass Streets. But, it did settle in nicely to the number three spot. It just didn’t have the same flavor, the same originality and presentation as the others. It just didn’t feel like it was quite as loved. But, I will admit it had two very tough contenders. Pairing each bite of the loin with some of the mango salad helped. In fact, it was the mango salad that saved the loin. Not all was lost as the bacon mashed potatoes that I had were outstanding. We felt like we were eating a little slice of heaven with each bite.
Based on our friend’s recommendation my wife chose the Hangar Steak.
Now this beauty, encrusted with espresso beans was the highlight. I have a hard time with steak, because it feels so often they aren’t done well. But for both of us, this steak is a representation of our perfect steak. It was meaty, yet it melted in your mouth. We both felt that the espresso beans were such a clever idea.
We felt we couldn’t stop there. So we ordered the molten chocolate cake (duh!). I’ve had “molten chocolate cakes” before. But none like this. It stood out in three ways: 1) the outside was perfectly crunchy, begging to be cracked open, 2) the chocolate was so molten, so runny, so gooey, and 3) the outside was slightly encrusted with salt, yes salt, and said salt created the perfect balance with the sweetness of this dish. Pièce de résistance? You better believe it!
In the end, the experience was priceless. In many cases, the food exceeded our expectations. Sure it was pricey, but I do believe that so often you get what you pay for. Would the kids have fared well? Not at all. The atmosphere is more akin to serenity, than to loud angry child. But that’s OK, for it was refreshingly peaceful, something we should all treat ourselves to every once and a while.