Restaurant review: 801 Chophouse coasts on pedigree and neglects what made its name
Located in Des Moines’ largest tower, 801 Chophouse has become perhaps our most venerable restaurant institution. It’s among the most likely places you’ll find local executives entertaining visitors or a swarm of politicians during caucus season.
But there are stumbles that may leave you wondering what the fuss is about.
Great steakhouses are all in the execution. The menus are packed with familiar mainstays. At their best, higher quality ingredients prepared by talented chefs paired with thunderous wines delivered by exacting staff can elevate the familiar to the transcendent, and leave you with a sense of fitful gluttony.
There are moments and bites to be found at 801 that hint at that possibility, but we found them too few, especially considering the astronomical price tag.
Cozy leather booths, white linens, sparkling glassware, and an abundance of woodwork are classic steakhouse — it leans unapologetically old-school, the servers fitted out in ties and tidy green jackets.
801’s wine list is deep, well organized, and heavy on pricey bottles. So we were a bit surprised when after we informed our server we were looking for a bottle, we were pitched bottles that were a “bargain” with no comment or question as to what would pair with our menu choices or the preferences of the diners.
Nothing against good value, but when we’re plunking down more than $100 on steaks alone, the gambit is not to save $10 on a bottle of wine.
We generally had good luck with cocktails, the best of which was the Winter’s Eve ($18), a bourbon, amaro and dry vermouth concoction that was bitter, rich and comforting. It’s worth noting that for a while now 801 has been featuring the similar-in-profile Cat’s Pajamas ($6) during happy hour, and it’s a steal. Lush, with a firm bitter finish following a fruity-sweet mid-palate, this Buffalo Trace bourbon with a touch of Luxardo Maraschino and a couple fortified wines (Dubonnet and Carpano Antica vermouth) is batched but you won’t complain.
A Blood Orange Manhattan ($11) gave a fruity punch to the classic without abandoning its balance, but a Gin High Fashioned ($13) fell flat, leaning on a citrus note that overwhelmed the gin component.
You can find fish, chicken and pork on the menu, but you’re at 801 for the steak.
The stunning wet-aged 42-ounce Tomahawk ($110, for two) with its protuberant rib bone is the kind of steak you order when you want to indulge your inner caveman. But nothing puts the shame back in your gluttony like the dull realization that it has been drastically underseasoned. And while we understand that steakhouses are increasingly cooking medium rare steaks more blue-rare than medium to avoid having to toss out steaks diners deem to be overcooked, ours was still cool in the center, unclear that it would meet even the more generous definitions of rare, and tough and chewy for it.
Despite having been cooked in a special oven that purportedly heats to 1,800 degrees that cracks the bone to release marrow, the heat had failed to put anything resembling a crust on our steak, just pitiable thin sear lines lost in an admittedly mineral-rich chew. And despite the lack of crust and thick center of what seemed mostly raw steak, we still had a solid third of an inch of deeply gray flesh.
It’s rare for us to wax rhapsodic about filet, but on a wet aged 40-ounce Porterhouse ($130, also for two) which suffered all the same offenses as the Tomahawk, the over-rare filet was tender enough, and the scant fat lines small enough, that it all melded together to approximate what we were hoping to get from the rest of the cut.
Various preparations for the steak were available and we tried several. The Bone Marrow Butter Bath ($4) was rich and full of umami, as was the Cognac Butter and Portabella Mushroom Ragout ($4). The Black Truffle Butter ($10) disappointed — the truffle was faint to the point of nonexistent and the butter didn’t taste salted.
While some sides were compelling, like the stellar Mushroom Pan Roast ($13) with garlicky, well-seasoned crispy mushrooms and a dollop of toasted Boursin cheese, and the lightly sweet sauteed French Green Beans ($13) featuring tender pods and explosively smoky cubes of Duroc bacon, most lacked in execution.
Boursin Mashed Potatoes ($11) were noticeably gluey. Fresh Asparagus ($11, ordered steamed with a thin but flavorful Hollandaise) was un-seasoned and a few stalks hadn’t been trimmed properly. And although the Hashbrowns ($11) were cooked perfectly, feathery light in the middle and shatteringly crisp on their exterior, the aged cheddar ($1 supplement) we added to the top looked, tasted and melted suspiciously like regular ol’ Colby Jack.
Starters showed a similar disjointed execution. Oysters (market, $17-19 for six), particularly the Irish Points from PEI that were wonderfully saline-heavy, seemed fresh (the massive Chesapeake Bays were notably clean tasting), but on multiple oysters the liquor had been spilled out, leaving them dry, and on most the bivalve hadn’t been separated from its bottom shell which, at best, makes an inelegant eating experience, and at worst, spilled even more of the briny liquor.
The Tomato Onion salad ($11) had a piquant vinaigrette, surprisingly ripe tomatoes and luscious Maytag blue cheese, but the rings of red onion were wildly variable in their thickness (all of them too big). The steakhouse classic Wedge ($10) had an excellently garlicky dressing that let the Maytag blue shine, but the Chophouse ($11) had nothing to recommend it aside from a large wedge of braised pork belly.
Despite some of these missteps, dinners ended on a high note. 801’s Creme Brulee ($8) was the best we’d had in many years — delicate, silky custard, crackling sugar crust. The Chocolate Souffle ($12) was both gooey and airy in a delightfully decadent way, and the trio of sauces (creme anglaise, raspberry and chocolate) each delivered on their promise.
As you might hope or expect, service at 801 is professional and attentive without being overbearing. You’ll hardly notice the staff until you need them, and then they’re there when you do.
801 Chophouse is routinely featured on lists of the best Des Moines has to offer — locally and in national publications. So maybe our expectations had been elevated, that in the heart of the Midwest, we’d find a steakhouse delivering on old-school charm and casually perfected execution.
We don’t look to steakhouses like 801 to be trendy. They definitely don’t need to be experimental or surprising. But we do expect them to nail the details. 801 can continue to coast on reputation and the expense accounts of the well-to-do, but if the intention is to stand out as exceptional, they’ve got some sweating to do.
- Underseasoned and inexpertly grilled steaks.
- Precise service and the occasional spot-on side hint at what could be.
- Wedge salad, mushroom side, and desserts were stand-out stars.
Critic's rating: 2 stars
Food: 2 stars
Ambiance: 2 stars
Service: 3 stars
Price: Most steaks in the $40-60 range; specials and steaks-for-two up to $150
Address: 801 Grand Ave., Suite 200
Atmosphere: Upscale, classic, refined
Sound: Muted, tasteful
Drinks: Full bar
- Monday through Friday 4 to 10 p.m.
- Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.
- Sunday 4 to 9 p.m.
Wheelchair access: The restaurant is all on one level and wheelchair accessible.
Kid friendly? Not particularly, though there is a children’s menu.
Allergen friendly/Willing to accommodate vegetarians? Will accommodate allergies. Plenty of seafood dishes to choose from, but true vegetarians will likely need to choose from the salads and sides menu.
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.