07 November 2011

Weary dinner at Lucca in Des Moines

In October, I traveled to Des Moines to attend the World Food Prize activities. My company, Land O’Lakes, helped sponsor a panel discussion on women in agriculture in the developing world. (Click here to read about the panel. Click here to view a video of an African woman who formed a dairy cooperative to help her family and her village succeed as dairy farmers.)

My trip to Des Moines was one problem after the other. It’s only a four hour drive from the office. But when I checked airfares, there actually was a pretty favorable fare available, so I decided to fly. However, when I went to the gate at the time to board the plane, all the passengers and I learned that our plane had a mechanical problem. They didn’t have a spare part in Minneapolis. So they had to fly in a different plane from Detroit. So the four-hour drive that I was avoiding turned into a five-hour delay at the airport.

When it became evident that I was not going to arrive in Des Moines in time for our group dinner, I started thinking about where I would have dinner when I finally did arrive. First I pulled up the address for my hotel (Embassy Suites) on Google maps. Then I searched for restaurants in walking distance. After I’d identified a couple interesting ones, I checked the reviews on Yelp. And that’s how I ended up at Lucca.

Des Moines is an interesting city. They have this nice, clean downtown on the west side of the river and this absolutely beautiful state capitol on the east side of the river. But in between is about 12 blocks of gritty industrial buildings. They’re trying to give the area some cache by rebranding it Historic East Village. As I walked to Lucca at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, with hundreds, if not thousands of visitors in town for the World Food Prize, East Village was a virtual ghost town. I saw several interesting shops. But there were no other pedestrians on the sidewalk and very few cars.

My research showed that Lucca serves dinner until 10 p.m. When I walked in, there were only two other tables of diners in the place. I decided to be charitable and asked the person who greeted me if they were still serving dinner. He looked uncertain and asked the hostess. She assured me that they would serve dinner.

I’m glad they did. I had a great meal. Lucca has a very interesting menu concept. Everything is prix fixe. The menu lists several ‘primi’ courses and several secondi courses. It’s $30 for a starter and entrée, $7.50 more for dessert. The other thing about the menu – most of the items are designated by a one or two word listing. You have to ask the server to describe the preparation. It reminded me of Bar La Grassa in Minneapolis. In a way, it’s kind of annoying. But I guess it serves the purpose of stimulating a discussion with the server before you decide what to order. For me alone at 9 p.m. in Des Moines, that was all right. But it could also be distracting if you wanted to focus your attention on a discussion with dining partners or a date.

I started with the gnocci. Several Yelp reviewers raved about them, and I agree. They were light and flavorful, dressed in burnt butter with sage. For my entrée, I ordered scallops. These were four beautiful, large scallops, seared and served with mélange of crisp sautéed vegetables. I realized that both courses consisted of pillowy food. I guess after my distressing travel delays, I needed something comforting on my plate.

After I finished, I asked the woman who appeared to be the hostess about the menu concept. “What if a diner doesn’t want to order both a primi and a secondi course?” She said it hasn’t been a problem. Sometimes people will share, and she assured me that they could accommodate a diner who really didn’t want to order both courses. I also asked about the particularly enjoyable music mix that was playing through dinner. She told me it was a jazz ‘station’ on the internet radio service Pandora. Cool.

I hope East Village thrives and Lucca survives until the next time I’m at loose ends in Des Moines for dinner.

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