Somewhere along the line Des Moines has become the de facto city for a night on the town. I’m not entirely sure how that happened, or how I feel about it. Back home, trekking two hours to the nearest city would put you at Philadelphia, PA: a journey that not only crosses two state lines, but transports you from one major eastern seaboard metropolis to another. Two hours out here feel somehow less accomplished.
It’s not that Iowa City lacks hip restaurants and a happening bar scene — it has truly has both (even if I’m behind on review posting). And not that we’ve been to Des Moines a lot — just twice. The most recent trip was a quick one last weekend. We hopped out for a Friday night dinner and right on back after a Saturday morning trip to the sculpture garden. Des Moines may not present anything groundbreaking or better than Iowa City’s offerings. The allure may boil down to: a change of scenery.
Dinner was at Lucca, an Italian-leaning Continental restaurant in Des Moines’s East Village neighborhood. We may or may not have picked it entirely for its location and our nostalgia. Or maybe because the NYT called it a “vibrant restaurant.” But either way you spin it, New York made us do it.
Here’s one difference from most New York restaurants I’ve been to. We made an 8 o’clock reservation and had to wait ten minutes — and they felt bad enough to give us free wine. With free guilt wine on the one hand, and exposed brick, white settings, and a stylishly bare-bones menu on the other, this restaurant both embodies the Midwest/New York divide, and seamlessly combines the two.
The food was lovely — richly flavorful and gracefully presented. The meun changes nightly, but follows the main ingredients and combinations listed on the restaurant website. Our risotto and gnocchi appetizers appear every night, just not in their respective shrimp and olive oil dressings. The chicken and rice that Billy ordered was, on Saturday night, a chicken breast folded over prosciutto and assorted cheeses with lightly tomato flavored rice. My scallops and vegetables had a ginger-orange, Asian flare. For dessert, we split a slice of flourless chocolate cake and a lemon sponge-type cake. From ambiance to service (!) to the food, Lucca is delicious must-eat for all Des Moines-bound visitors.
Saturday morning, we spent some time at the brand new, four acre sculpture park in the heart of downtown Des Moines. Officially (and lengthily) called the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, a branch of the Des Moines Art Center. Lots of construction around it; the park is meant to “contribute to the ongoing revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood,” according to the website, so perhaps that’s part of it. It’s a beautiful, slightly hilly space with large-scale outdoor pieces by Louise Bourgeois, Willem de Kooning, Richard Serra, Tony Smith, Sol LeWitt and others.
We were tickled to find Juama Plensa, of the letter-man above right, who had a similar sculpture up in Prague while we were there this summer. There’s space to walk around inside the letter torso, which gives a new perspective on the skyline.
Tons of fun to explore and (though I didn’t know Des Moines before it), a fantastic, clever addition to the cityscape. The Iowa City visual arts scene is still reeling from last summer’s flood and trying to recoup both exhibition space and money — and here I don’t mean “visual arts” in the usual sense, but rather “art in the open,” like sculpture parks and museums. Sure, it’s not the city’s fault, and it’s quite irregular. Iowa City’s visual arts scene, in both senses, is normally bumping. But it’s still really very nice to visit a city where it’s not so hard to find.