The thrill starts with the view. Is there any restaurant in Des Moines that more dashingly frames our cityscape? The eye sweeps the graceful curve of the Wellmark Building, the copper glow of the library, the honeyed stone of Allied Insurance. Beyond, our signature skyline looms in the distance, the precise edges of the Ruan Center outlined by glimmering lights; the ornate Equitable Building dwarfed yet echoed by Principal Financial Group’s sleek homage.
Doc Wilson’s cocktails will only lift you higher. Doc, of course, is the alter-ego of chef/owner Sean Wilson, who is as artful behind the bar as he is in the kitchen; he house-infuses spirits, crafts his own vermouths and bitters, and best of all, comes up with cocktails that distinguish themselves through sheer sophistication.
Take, for instance, the Moroccan 75, a heady turn on the classic French 75, with Tequila, Cointreau, passion fruit, and orange juice swirling around subtle hints of Fresno chile—a touch that registered more as a spark of refreshment than the kick-in-the-head of sheer heat. (And, let’s not forget that chiles, like alcohol, can be mood-enhancers.)
Or try the questionable-sounding but utterly delightful Harrison Tonic, with bourbon, lemon juice, and—of all things—celery syrup, which brings unimaginable smoothness to the drink.
Wilson’s cocktails do exactly what a signature pre-dinner drink should do—they set the tone for what’s to come: in Proof’s case, vivid combinations that astonish the eye and bring revelations to the palate, time after time.
Hence, I've enjoyed an array of refined small plates inspired by the northern reaches of the Mediterranean, including Spanish-inspired fresh anchovies with piquillo peppers and Marcona almonds; roasted eel glazed with saba (a thick, sweet Italian condiment made from concentrated grape must); foie gras with French horn mushrooms; and a Spanish blue cheese served with French vermouth.
What lingered most in my mind, long after my evenings there, was the kitchen’s commitment to well-placed spices. Wilson concocts his own versions of the ancient spice blends of the Middle East, such as za’atar, baharat, ras al hanout.
“We roast, we toast, we blend,” says Wilson, adding that he buys his spices in small batches to ensure they’re never on his shelf longer than a week.
At Proof, spice is less about fire and more about a toasty warmth here, a fruity astringency there, the occasional smoke and sweetness. Wilson’s plates show what spice can do for a dish, without being all about the spice.
That’s how, in Wilson’s hands, something as blunt and Flinstone-esque as a marrow bone comes off as refined and exquisite: the way the spices animate the creamy, unctuous marrow makes it so.
A touch of sumac—a spice made of dried and ground purple-red berry—added brightness to the deeply flavored, bacon-wrapped warm rabbit terrine. Piment d’Espelette—made from dried peppers grown in France’s Basque region—adds its subtle spicy-fruity kick to a velvety-rich scallop.
Even the pepper sprinkled on a steaks isn’t just pepper—it’s a blend of ground pink and black peppercorns and coriander.
As a front-of-the-house pro (and famed tomato horticulturalist) Jennie Smith once put it more succinctly: “Sean does great things with fat and spice.”
Not every plate is a home run, however. Sometimes, I've felt that the dish's pleasures were diminished by the weight of too many ingredients. The hangar steak pictured below, for instance, seemed a bit convoluted with braised endive, pickled onions, anchovies and a pesto-like condiment, plus a sauce rimming the dish.
As for service, Wilson has developed a front-of-the-house staff of eager, food-loving professionals; in fact, he has said, in the past, that he cares more about his staff than his customers.
A downside of that is that the staff can, at times, feel somewhat too into themselves. I was taken aback, for instance, when a server interrupted my dinner guest to tell my guest that she was mispronouncing the name of a wine that she was describing to our table. (The server was not, until that point, part of the conversation.) There have been other times when I felt some staff members were more enamored about telling you everything they knew than they were about simply effecting an expert flow of a terrific meal.
Nine times out of ten, however, Wilson's affection for his staff works—especially when it results in pros working together to pull of the best experience possible for the kitchen's vision. When all of us feel the love, it's a great thing.
1301 Locust St.
Originally appearing in dsm Magazine, this review was updated on September 7, 2016.