Looking at the name of the city, you’d expect Des Moines to have a strong French background. After all, the city’s name literally translates to “of the monks” in French, a connection to the River of the Monks (the Des Moines River) during colonial days, and Des Moines itself was part of the Louisiana Purchase from the French during the Jefferson administration. It’s also one of only a handful of major cities gained in the Purchase to have a French name, and the others (New Orleans, Baton Rouge and St. Louis) certainly have a strong French influence.
But in Des Moines, the French influence, if there is one, really isn’t apparent in any of the visits we’ve made. Don’t get me wrong, Des Moines is a city I quite enjoy, easily my favorite thing about the Hawkeye State that isn’t either Amy or our cat Willy. It’s got a lot of things going for it, including a great sculpture park, a gorgeous state capitol building and some excellent restaurants to boot. But European, it doesn’t appear to be, and French it isn’t, at least from what I’ve seen. Apparently, Des Moines didn’t even have a real French restaurant until the 2000’s…and it took a man of Italian descent to fill that void.
Wait a minute, what? A chef of Italian descent tackling French cuisine? Well, George Formaro isn’t exactly your typical Italian chef. A lifelong resident of Des Moines, Formaro has never been one to let himself be defined by any one cuisine, which is why his name has become possibly the most respected in the culinary world of Iowa. He’s been part of the Des Moines restaurant scene for nearly two decades now ever since he opened South Union Bakery in 1996 to fill a need for freshly baked Italian-style bread, and through 19 years, he’s held to a simple philosophy: do it right and be creative while doing it.
It’s a philosophy that Des Moines has totally embraced, as evidenced by Formaro’s six restaurants in Des Moines, several of which are among the biggest names in the state capitol. For instance, Zombie Burger, thought by many to be the best burger in the Hawkeye State (at the very least, it’s definitely one of the best) as well as the home of creative shakes, is a Formaro creation. So is Centro, his Italian restaurant that consistently wins top awards. And so is Django, a French restaurant that Formaro opened in 2009 to fill a void downtown next to the Hotel Fort Des Moines that has become the place to go to find some high-quality authentic French meals. Popularity usually means run far away in our part of Iowa, but Des Moines actually has a pretty legitimate restaurant scene and its residents know good taste. That was enough for me and Amy, as we needed a new place to stop on our way to a friend’s wedding in Kansas and decided this would be perfect to experience.
Being attached to a nice hotel certainly means one mark on the positive side of the ledger, because it sets the mood right from the beginning of the meal. Decor isn’t exactly key to a quality restaurant, but it’s always a nice touch that certainly doesn’t hurt anything. In a place like this, the French are well-known for being high-brow, so the look works perfectly with the atmosphere that Django is trying to establish. When you visit a place that looks like this, you tend to expect quality, and quality is exactly what you get.
For us, that started with something that I was quite familiar with, but Amy had never experienced before: duck-fat fries. Basically, they’re exactly what the name says they are: french-fried potatoes cooked in duck fat instead of oil. If you’ve never had them before, think french fries with more flavor. Here, they’re called frites instead of fries in keeping with the French theme, but these are definitely the smaller fries that Americans are used to rather than the giant steak frites that originated in Belgium. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because thin fries can work just as well as thick ones.
These fries certainly do. The duck fat means that the fries don’t even need to be seasoned to be full of flavor, but rather than resting on its laurels, Django offers a nice spectrum of choices by featuring four different dipping sauces available at your disposal. The standard ketchup is of course one for those who just aren’t that adventurous, but if you’re willing to try something new, Django also includes curry ketchup, harissa aioli (second from left to right) and Béarnaise sauce for your pleasure. Curry ketchup is self-explanatory, but harissa aioli is a new experience if you’re not familiar with the Rocky Mountain condiment known as fry sauce. Basically, aioli is a mix of garlic and olive oil with egg yolks, kind of similar to mayonnaise, and harissa is a chili pepper paste, which isn’t like ketchup but is close enough to make this kind of a high-brow version of the ketchup-mayonnaise combination.
Béarnaise sauce, on the other hand (furthest right), is best described as kind of a lemon butter sauce. Basically, it’s made by emulsifying egg yolks with clarified butter and some herbs and flavors, with vinegar usually involved. Truthfully, this was probably my favorite of the four sauces, as the lemony flavor just worked perfectly with the crispy and flavorful fries. The aioli was also excellent, and Amy and I both very much enjoyed the appetizer. Definitely something that we would get again.
As far as a choice of entree, this menu has a lot of options going for it. I wouldn’t expect to see burgers in a French restaurant, but you can definitely order one here with no worries, considering that Formaro has more than proven that he knows what to do with burgers elsewhere in the city. The sandwiches are definitely a closer fit to a French place, and I debated quite a while about the possibility of getting a Croque Monsieur or Madame (which, much like the Polish Girl, is kind of interesting that the female version is bigger and better than the male version), which would have fit perfectly here. But in the end, my choice came down to between the two most creative sections of Django’s menu: pasta or crepe.
When one thinks high-brow pasta, macaroni probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but Django manages to make the dish that most of us knew as children into something that fits perfectly in a fancy establishment. Consider, for example, the spinach and goat cheese macaroni gratin, which adds Parmesan, tomatoes, fresh thyme and bread crumbs to the spinach and goat cheese. Yeah, we’re not exactly dealing with the stuff out of a box (granted, that does have its place sometimes), these are legitimate culinary creations.
But when it came down to it, I knew that for my first visit to Django, I had to get something French, and that meant a crepe. I’ve only had really good crepes in one other place, and they’re very difficult to find because of how tough it is to make a thin batter and have it hold together on you to allow you to properly fill the crepe. But if any place knows how to master it, a French restaurant would be the place, and so after going through a lengthy process, I finally decided on the mushroom crepes, which feature spinach and goat cheese underneath a red pepper cream sauce. Basically, there’s no part of that description I didn’t like.
There’s also no part of the crepe itself I didn’t like, because these things are simply incredible. Holy cow, are they awesome. The goat cheese is perfect, providing the signature creaminess, the crepe itself is light and does not overpower anything, the vegetables are done perfectly and oh, man, that sauce. It’s a nice little kick combined with creaminess that really gives this dish its full flavors, and I really wanted more sauce as soon as I finished this, it is that outstanding. Egg-based dishes simply don’t come in quality for this unless it’s breakfast, and even then, the places that are on the level of these crepes are very few and far between. The salad also adds a nice bit of freshness to everything and gives your palate a quick change-up so you’re always ready to have more of the crepe.
That wasn’t the only thing worth savoring here, because I also had to try some of Django’s Onion Soup Gratinee. Truthfully, it’s a fancy name for French onion soup, but it’s very well deserved. The keys to French onion soup are a flavorful and onion-filled broth, a quality bread component and a good amount of melted cheese on top. Django absolutely delivers, as this hot soup is one of the best I’ve had. The only French onion soup I can think of that might be better is at Bern’s, and that’s pretty elite company here.
Amy chose to go a different path, opting for one of Django’s daily specials. We came on a Friday, so that meant the special was crab cake sliders, which come with the aioli from the frites as well as lettuce and tomato. They’re filled with great crabmeat and great flavor, and Amy really enjoyed both the sliders and her house Caesar salad, which is exactly what you would expect from a standard Caesar.
If you’ve still got room following your meal, Django has you covered with a nice cheese tasting menu, which features 13 different cheeses, most of which are imported from Europe and can either be set in a predetermined pairing as to similar styles, or you can pick your own. You can also follow Amy’s lead and get some cafe au lait, which was a lot like what we remembered from New Orleans. No beignets, unfortunately, at least not from what we could see. Django does offer a very extensive dessert menu, but I just didn’t have room. What can I say, I had to make sure I had space for that crepe.
Des Moines probably isn’t going to get national accolades as a foodie paradise, but it’s really an underrated city as far as its restaurant scene goes, and a lot of the credit for that has to go to George Formaro. Whatever the man has touched in the kitchen has turned to gold, and he’s definitely got another hit on his hands with his foray into French cuisine. Maybe the NCAA tournament’s arrival in 2016 will allow Des Moines to get some of the national recognition it deserves for its restaurants, but I certainly won’t mind if it doesn’t. As long as Amy and I are living in Iowa, I’m absolutely fine with Des Moines being my hidden gem as long as it continues to deliver the great food, and Django certainly does. French by name, DSM now has a place that’s worthy of representing French cuisine.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner, unless it’s a Saturday. Django is dinner only on Saturday as it doesn’t open until 4 p.m. that day. Otherwise, Django will always be open by 11 a.m. and close no earlier than 9 p.m.
Wait during my visit: None. Friday lunch isn’t the busiest time to be in Des Moines if you’re a little bit behind the lunch crowd.
Location: Django is at 210 Tenth Street in Des Moines, part of the city’s downtown.
Cost: For a nice place like this, it actually isn’t that bad. The soup and salad can get a bit expensive at roughly six dollars each, but otherwise, appetizers are close to $10 and entrees around $15. Plan on about $20 per person and you should be fine.
Parking: This could be a problem or not too bad. Des Moines has metered parking near Django, and garages are not that far from its location. If you have change, feed the meter, you should only have to pay for about an hour.
Seating arrangement: Tables, chairs and open booths are options, plus a bar.
Specialty items: Crepes, frites, crab sliders, French onion soup