Datebook Diner: Book a staycation at Trellis
We've reached that point of the year when winter just seems to drag on. One more occasion that calls for shoveling and I might just drive right over to the airport and book a ticket to somewhere — anywhere — south of the border. Who's with me?
Luckily, we have saunas and hot tubs and Bikram yoga studios around Des Moines...and the Botanical Center. The clear dome that pops into the skyline near the Capitol is home to a tropical, humid climate (ahh...), hundreds of varieties of plants and Trellis Cafe.
Pro tip: Mention that you're visiting to dine when you scurry in from the chilly parking lot and reach the front desk. You'll get free entry and can stroll around the wildlife while the staff prepares your meal.
Opened in December 2013 by chef and owner Lisa LaValle, the garden-inspired menu at Trellis changes on the first of each month. Each refresh ushers in new, local ingredients fitting with the season. LaValle and chef Rose Punelli focus on a limited selection of soups, salads, sandwiches and pastas, and the setup of the menu allows ample customization. Pick any two half portions, sample all three soups or nibble on a smaller portion of any entree if you're saving room for dessert.
The February menu includes chicken tortellini soup ($4.50 for a cup, $6.50 for a bowl), that's packed with herbs and fall-apart tender roasted chicken, and a less impressive, slightly watery tomato bisque. Opt for the former, or the soup of the day (vegetarian black bean during all of our visits), to keep cozy on a frigid day as you peer out the expansive windows onto the snow-covered gardens outside.
Speaking of meatless options, the plant-forward menu does feature a handful of items for carnivores (see the fully loaded slow-cooked pork banh mi sandwich, $11.50), but has plenty of Lent-friendly recipes, too. Any dish can be made gluten-free, so Trellis is a picky eater's dream, while still highlighting a variety of global cuisines. Now if only eating each would truly transport one to Italy, Korea or New Mexico.
If you're itching to head south, consider the Santa Fe couscous salad ($11.50 as an entree or the same price as a choose two combination paired with a half sandwich or cup of soup). The Tex-Mex blend starts with a bed of lettuce and the namesake tiny, round pasta that's mixed with corn, black beans, chiles, queso fresco cheese and pepitas. While it could have used more salt and perhaps garlic to amp up the flavor, it's surprisingly satisfying for a meat-free meal.
Even better is the superfood turkey quinoa red salad ($11.50). Crunchy walnuts and sweet beets complement the earthy quinoa and hearty shredded turkey. The parsley-sage vinaigrette and craisins harken back to Thanksgiving dinner — without causing a case of the meat sweats.
Choose the quinoa over the colorful but cluttered curried lentil salad ($11.50), which would benefit from the over-the-50-pound-limit "purge all the excess" airport mindset. With lettuce, black and green lentils, turmeric brown rice, carrots, celery, parsnips, broccoli, coconut, raisins, cashews and honey lime yogurt dressing (phew!), it feels a bit jumbled.
Simpler and appropriate for heartier appetites: the eggplant parmesan pasta ($11.50). Slices of breaded eggplant blend with marinara and rotini for an Iowa-meets-Naples lunch.
If you saved room for something sweet — we are on a staycation, so it's totally appropriate to indulge! — go with the rhubarb pie ($6). The buttery streusel topping alone is worth the price. For a triple-decker frosted cocoa cake, the chocolate zucchini layer cake ($6) is very moist and surprisingly not too sweet. Both would be ace with a glass of sparkling wine or coffee.
Skip the gluten-free lemon cake ($6), which pains me to say since it's the only winter-appropriate flavor on the sweets tray. The citrus glaze tastes like it includes a blended lemon (seeds, rind and all), and is overpowering to the point of tasting similar to the way certain cleaning supplies smell. The texture is a bit grainy as well, so for a wheat-free treat, I'd ask for a fruit plate topped with fresh whipped cream.
During each of our three visits, the service was first class. Friendly, quick to offer drink refills and as speedy as possible despite the bustling lunch crowds, the servers seem genuinely pleased when you hop aboard. The none-too-comfy plastic chairs, which seems to be a common problem in Des Moines, won't make you want to linger all afternoon. But I'd take one of those chairs, and the botanical, airy vibe, over a middle seat on a plane any day.
So go ahead: Keep those shoes on and skip the hunt for the cheapest ticket. With spring on the way, March's menu might be even better and it's hard to beat the Iowa Nice staff at Trellis.
After one bite of that rhubarb pie, you'll agree with Oz's Dorothy. There's truly no place like home.
Critic's Rating: ★★1/2
Address: 909 Robert Ray Drive, Des Moines
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
What the stars mean:
★★★★: (Extraordinary) Transcendent. A one-of-a-kind experience that sets the local standard.
★★★: (Excellent) Superior. Memorable, high-quality food; exciting environs; savvy service; smart concept.
★★: (Good) Solid example of restaurant type.
★: (Fair) Just OK. A place not worth rushing back to. But, it might have something worth recommending: A view, a single dish, friendly service, lively scene.
No stars: (Poor) Below-average restaurant.
Karla Walsh is a digital/social media manager at Meredith. Follow Walsh on Twitter at @DatebookDiner and on Instagram at @datebookdiner and email her at email@example.com.