Restaurant review: Downtown gem Proof dazzles ... mostly
Proof, located on the western edge of downtown, was recently visited by our Datebook Diner. Wochit
- Artful plating and surprising flavors
- Superb food, but suffers from some consistency issues
- Knowledgeable and attentive staff
Every restaurant can have a bad day, which is why food critics make multiple visits in an attempt to gather the true measure of the restaurant and evaluate its consistency.
One of my visits to Proof, on the western edge of downtown, was excellent. Precise, skillful and creative dishes with Mediterranean, Southern and North African influences were on full display, matched by a warm and inviting staff that softened a modern, minimalist décor. Minor issues felt trivial compared to the heights the meal reached. On another night, inconsistencies in execution were more stark.
At Proof, I had one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten: the Grilled Ribeye ($40). The steak was spice-rubbed and seared to a crisp, precise crust that transitioned immediately to a glowing red medium rare, no lines of gray in between. It was accompanied by balsamic-braised cippolini onions that melted under the fork, slick cloves of roasted garlic, and crisp fingerling potatoes. Three accompaniments held court in little ramekins: pimento a la vera dulce, a sweet Spanish paprika mixed with an elusive array of other spices, a bright, tart chimichurri brimming with lively green herb and a subtle heat from red pepper flake, but the showstopper was the mojo rojo — a magical elixir of paprika, garlic, cumin and red pepper. The balance of richness, acidity, pungent onion and garlic, and warm spices built on each other but never outshone the steak.
If this had been my experience the second time I visited, I could recommend this dish unequivocally, but on a subsequent trip the steak lacked its intense sear and the mojo rojo sauce tasted faded and old, and someone had forgotten to salt the potatoes.
On my first visit, mild missteps never interrupted the flow of the meal. If the Sea Scallops ($31) and Pork Chop ($27) were both lightly overcooked, they were still juicy and well crusted. The collard greens accompanying the pork hadn’t quite finished braising, but their smoldering heat married so perfectly with boiled peanuts and a bright celery slaw that their extra toothiness didn’t get in the way.
On my second visit, failures in execution did. My fillet of Atlantic salmon ($27), the market grilled fish was completely overcooked, the top half a wan pink, the bottom half gray. Lightly fried lemon wheels were a tangy accompaniment that made the dish passable, the pistachios in the sauce were soggy. Atlantic salmon was a dubious choice given that it is prime Copper River Sockeye season.
We started that meal with the Kebab Board ($25), which arrived on a thick wooden platter, arty swipes and dollops of sauces, and skewers of chicken shawarma, marinated steak, and lamb kefta triangulated over an Israeli couscous dotted with pickled onions. The date ketchup was rich and unctuous, acidic and sweet. The sorghum mustard was piquantly hot, as was the creamy harissa aioli, but the meats were lukewarm at best, which our server promised to correct. The kebabs returned adequately hot, but woefully dried out, re-plated on a smaller board, and the sauces — the best part of the dish and the only hope for redeeming the dry meat — were absent.
Better, and more consistent, were the tiny red, purple and orange beets, fork-tender, in the Roasted Beet Salad ($13). The beets played off a faintly sweet passionfruit marshmallow, while ground pistachio, wisps of radish, and baby greens mirrored the earthiness and provided some crunch. The briny tang of feta crumbles tied the elements together nicely.
The Sorghum and Seared Haloumi ($15) was also a triumph. The cheese was blisteringly seared and the various elements — sorghum seeds, puffed wild rice, pea tendrils, a mustard-almond vinaigrette — each contributed to an interesting, complex, and satisfying result. The Batter-Fried Cauliflower ($9) was close to greatness. Tender florets were encased in a crisp, lightly curried crust, perched atop a rich feta fondue, but seasoning varied wildly from one piece to the next. When a bite contained the appropriate level of salt, the dish came alive.
The Cast Iron Grits ($17) were oozing with melty pimento cheese, studded with tender sweet corn, bits of bacon, and peppers. With the optional sunny-side up egg, it was a meal unto itself.
Cocktails at Proof are creative and beautiful. The Smoked Rose ($11) provided a heady clash of smoky, herby and fruity, playing gin against blueberry, ginger and pomegranate, and a smoky mezcal. A splash of hibiscus and a faint dusting of sumac brightened the champagne cocktail, The Hummingbird ($10). Even better was the C’est la Vie ($9), which played with anise notes over a fruity and faintly smoky backdrop. The best was the Dirty Centaur ($16), which was rich, complex and intensely bitter. The 6 Weeks Early ($12) had the most complex and interesting sounding ingredient list, combining three different rums with fresh lime and grapefruit, a Thai chili tincture, served over a ginger ice cube. It was delicious, but most of the complexity was lost behind a bracing wall of tartness.
Desserts were amazing. A coconut-honey ice cream balanced the tartness of the silky filling in a Lemon Curd Tart ($10). The salty-sweet Oatmeal Cake ($10) was a dense, chewy little slab, rendered unconventional by passionfruit mousse, funky goat cheese sorbet and earthy notes from beet curd and candied beets. The Chocolate Cremoso ($10) was meltingly smooth, paired with wee cocoa nib merengues that dissolved on the tongue. Pickled raspberries were an inspired addition that kept the dish from being overwhelmingly rich.
Though I love the open space at Proof, the restaurant can get loud. The level of service, however, was superb. Water glasses were filled, plates cleared and questions answered, quickly and efficiently, whether it was our server or another passing by.
The majority of dishes were creative, thoughtful and nuanced with many levels of flavor and surprising touches. I won’t hesitate to go back.
Emily Ekle is a senior acquisitions editor for an academic publishing company in the area of psychology. Emily dines anonymously for her reviews in efforts to capture the authentic experience of a customer. For questions on Des Moines Register reviews, contact storytelling coach Lisa Rossi at lrossi@dmreg.
Critic's rating: 3 stars
Food: 3 stars
Ambiance: 3½ stars
Service: 3 stars
Address: 1301 Locust Street
Atmosphere: Open, airy, modern.
Recommended orders: Beet salad, cast iron grits, sorghum and seared haloumi, grilled ribeye
Sound: Background music.
Drinks: Full bar.
- Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday 4 p.m. to midnight; Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight
- Happy Hour: Tuesday-Friday 4 to 6 p.m.;
- Late Night Happy Hour: Friday-Saturday 10 p.m. to midnight
Wheelchair access: The restaurant is all on one level and wheelchair accessible.
Kid friendly? No children’s menu. But they will accommodate children upon request with special menu requests. One high chair available. No changing table.
Friendly/willing to accommodate vegetarians? No separate menu, but happy to accommodate any aversions, allergies or dietary restrictions.
What the stars mean
4 stars: (Extraordinary) Transcendent. A one-of-a-kind experience that sets the local standard.
3 stars: (Excellent) Superior. Memorable, high-quality food; exciting environs; savvy service; smart concept.
2 stars: (Good) Solid example of restaurant type.
1 star: (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.