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Harbinger – Des Moines, IA

Another disadvantage to living in smallish-town Iowa is that my local airport (CID), only fifteen minutes from my residence, is generally insanely expensive. When it came time to book travel for Thanksgiving, CID was, of course, bananas $$$$, so Mom and I wound up booking a much cheaper flight out of Des Moines to Phoenix to spend the holiday with the Jensens at Mom's brother's place in Scottsdale. Hard to believe it had been over three months since I was last on an airplane!

Because our flight was so early the next morning (5:40 AM... 10/10 would not recommend) we made our way out to Des Moines the night before. I've heard of late that Des Moines is a burgeoning city––very livable, inexpensive, and loaded with excellent culture––but despite driving or flying through many a time, I'd yet to spend any meaningful amount of time exploring. As always when visiting a new city, I look for the best of the best places to snag some fantastic food and see what the city has to offer in its culinary scene. Harbinger was at or near the top of every list I read, so I made a reservation.

Mom dropped by the wine shop and we took the Cooper to Des Moines. It's not too terrible a drive––about 90 minutes from work and two hours from home––but we were reallllly hungry, which made the drive seem like an eternity!

Harbinger is the second restaurant of two-time James Beard winner Joe Tripp, a Des Moines native and U of Iowa graduate, who is passionate about quality ingredients, and produce in particular. The menu is focused on seasonal vegetables, consistent with Tripp's upbringing, experience, and culinary philosophy. He ran the kitchen at Alba, another standout food destination in the city, before starting Harbinger with his restauranteur partner Jason Simon.

The restaurant is situated in a nice district to the west of downtown Des Moines. We didn't explore much, as we just came to have dinner and then get to bed for our early flight, but it looked like a fun area with plenty of cool-looking restaurants, shops, and bars. The restaurant is very nicely appointed, especially the bar, with a minimalist and industrial but rustic look. The exception was the sort of strange vestibule that reminded me of one you might find at a bank or an LDS ward house. We were sat at the "best table in the house" in the corner with an excellent view over the dining room. I have to take a moment to note how dimly lit the dining room was, and yet how EXCELLENT my new phone camera handles and adjusts to the low light! Blogging elevated.

Harbinger offers Asian-inspired small shared plates, one of my favorite menu designs for tasting many different things, especially when dining with others. They also have a tasting menu, which was tempting, but probably a shade expensive for us on this visit, although the price wasn't actually listed!

We started with two snacks from the top portion of the menu. Believe it or not, Iowa actually has a robust mushroom-growing community, and Harbinger offered a tempura of local shiitake mushrooms served with a soy-caramel dipping sauce and topped with shiso, negi, microgreens, radishes, and a dusting of Japanese-style seasoning. The tempura was light as a feather, and the umami of the mushrooms was allowed to shine. The veg atop the mushrooms was crisp and refreshing, and the soy-caramel sauce was mouthwatering––sweet and salty, and perfect with the savory mushrooms. Could eat plates of this.

The other snack we settled on was absolutely sinful––a "pancake" of caramelized onions that enclosed some perfectly seared wagyu beef and local cheddar cheese, served alongside a shallot "marmalade," which was covered in chives. The pancakes were topped with perfectly shaved green onion and a drizzle of savory sauce. Pretty hard to ruin caramelized onions, wagyu, and cheddar. My mouth waters as I write this.

Our drinks arrived from the beautifully-designed bar. The drinks menu is very impressive, and provided us with two of the most interesting cocktails I've had. Mom had a cocktail called "Bourbon acting like pho," which was a combination of bourbon, mezcal, amaro, and Pernod, flavored with savory things you'd find in the famous Vietnamese noodle soup: black pepper, ginger, and garlic. Was similar to an old fashioned or manhattan, but with a smoky and decidedly savory kick. My drink, "The Golden Triangle," played off Thai flavors, and was a combination of a London dry gin and yellow Chartreuse (one of my favorite spirit combos) with Thai curry spices and kaffir lime. Another savory, nuanced, and evocative cocktail, exceptionally interesting and unlike anything I've had, though the curry spices tended to collect at the bottom of the glass, making the drink a little too intense by the last few sips!

Next to arrive was a melange of sunchoke preparations. The bigger ones were large chunks of the tuber "twice cooked," and accompanied by some sunchoke chips and purée. The stars of the dish, however, were the glorious, tender lumps of butter-poached king crab hiding beneath some frisée and pickled fennel. Rounding it out was preserves of paw paw fruit, something I'd never had, and was surprised to learn is endemic to North America. Fiercely tropical and added a lovely fruity acidity to the rich sunchoke and crab. Absolutely stellar.

Continuing with the seasonal veg, we were served a dish starring some roasted butternut squash in a smoky-sweet Thai red curry broth over "forbidden" (black wild) rice, topped with generous pieces of slow-roasted duck confit and topped with Thai basil and microgreens. A perfect little comforting dish for a chilly Iowa night, and possibly my favorite dish of the evening (although my worst photo!). The sweet squash was a match made in heaven with the rich curry, and the duck added some smoke and heft while the basil provided the necessary snap. Worked really nicely with the Thai curry cocktail as well!

We were intrigued by their selection of Asian-style buns to add a little twist to the dish selection, so we ordered two of each. They had three types on offer that evening: a steamed prawn with spicy aioli and unagi (eel) sauce, fried sweet potato with green tomato marmalade, savoy cabbage, and miso aioli, and grilled pork belly with house-made hoisin and scallions. The prawn bun was my least favorite thing I ate all night, though still a fine dish––I found it a little too sweet on account of the unagi sauce, and it kinda reminded me of something I'd get at a chain sushi place. The sweet potato was good but not particularly memorable, while the smoky pork belly bun with the sticky, salty hoisin was an absolute standout.

We closed with one of their bigger plates, Berkshire pork ribs slow cooked for 24 hours and served with Thai peanut sauce and a salad of turnips, mint, and greens. The ribs were, as you might expect, perfectly tender, and the sweet and funky peanut sauce had a rich spice that complemented the pork perfectly. Critical, though, was the salad, which was crisp and fresh and helped slice through the heft of the pork and peanut sauce.

The peanut sauce was sweet enough and our flight was early enough that we decided to skip on dessert, despite seeing some very appealing options on the menu. We finished our drinks, settled up, and headed to our pretty dismal airport hotel, up just hours later for a 5:40 AM flight. Of course, since it was vacation, we asked for a mimosa while waiting at the gate!

We were very impressed by this spot, and highly recommend for anyone visiting Des Moines. It is a testament to the fact that even under-the-radar towns in the "flyover" states can have food that can easily compete with some of the country's foodie hotspots. Hope they see a lot of business, particularly with all the political operatives in town these days!

I doubt I'll be in Des Moines again any time soon, since I have decided that the drive is only just too long to make the savings of flying out of DSM as opposed to CID worth it––by minute 90, you're ready to beat your head against the steering wheel. But if I find myself in the capitol again, I'd be very inclined to check out Harbinger again, especially if I have the resources to give the tasting menu a whirl!

The Maestro has a travel-filled couple of weeks coming up, with plenty of culinary joys about which to write!

In Salt Lake City this weekend, I'll be visiting Pago, a staple of the SLC dining scene, for the first time in a few years, and I'll also be doing a little gallivanting around Park City and Deer Valley, and have some cool ideas of places to go and blog about! I'll be in Chicago as well for a good amount of time, and among my adventures there will be a tasting of "The Seven Moles of Oaxaca" (mole, like "mol-ay," the Mexican sauce, not the burrowing rodent) and a much-needed omakase at what has been called the best new sushi restaurant in the midwest.

Stay tuned, and stay warm!

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