Datebook Diner: John & Nicks ranks as a winner
3.5 out of 5 stars: Worth a Visit / Highly Recommended
March 19th, 2014 - When Cityview recently released this year's results of its Best of Des Moines reader survey, I noted with interest that John & Nick's Steak and Prime Rib had garnered several awards, including best steakhouse.
It's interesting because the words "Best of Des Moines" imply that the winners are in fact the best in their fields. But isn't this more of a popularity contest? Readers vote for what they like; the place with the most votes wins. The problem is that expensive steakhouses — namely Fleming's and 801 Chop House — get stiffed. They get fewer votes not because they are inferior, but because many of us simply can't afford to eat at them.
So I went to John & Nick's to investigate. Located at the west end of Clive, the steakhouse is tucked into a shopping center and looks small from the outside.
But once you step in, the space seems to virtually swell in size with two grand dining areas: one, a bar with tables and booths; and the other, a dining area with granite-top tables, stone statuary, shiny chandeliers and miles of wood paneling. It's a bit overwrought, but nice.
In case you're wondering about the name, the answer can be found on display inside: a large framed picture of the namesakes, John and Nick Jaeger — John, the father, chef and owner; and Nick, his beaming tow-headed boy.
Ironically, it was not the steak or prime rib that kept my attention, but rather the salad bar, both for being so heavily promoted and as a focal point in the dining room.
While salad bars usually don't scream "look at me, look at me!" the one in John & Nick's is literally in your face: a massive lineup in the center of the dining room of 60 salad components that are replenished often and kept fresh on a bed of ice chips as long as a Lincoln Continental. Unfettered access comes with many entrees.
By the way, this also won best salad bar in Cityview's survey.
The beef at John & Nick's is good. Steaks are well-cooked but USDA choice grade, which is lower quality than USDA prime. This might be a problem at some restaurants, but the chef seems to have a knack for picking the best choice steaks, which narrows the quality gap considerably. Plus, choice grade is much more affordable and that is always appreciated when the bill arrives.
My favorite dish was the 12-ounce shotgun blackened rib-eye steak ($23.95), which comes with a choice of several starchy sides; I got the garlic mashed potatoes.
A pricier order of bacon-wrapped scallops and prime rib ($26.95) was tasty, although the bacon could have been crispier.
There is plenty to choose from on the menu, including many more grilled beef steaks, pork chops, chicken breasts and an ample selection of seafood, including salmon, walleye, roughy, mahi mahi, tilapia, crab, shrimp, scallops and lobster.
For a special occasion, you might consider the most expensive item on the menu, the lobster and prime rib ($34.95), which includes a half-pound lobster tail and a thick slice of prime rib.
Cheaper items include sandwiches, pasta dishes, and nightly specials featuring prime rib, steaks, kabobs and the like for $10 to $17.
So is John & Nick's the best steakhouse around? My answer is, define "best." While it's not in the same league as a place like Fleming's, neither does it intend to be.
Instead, John & Nick's occupies a mid-level strata that balances affordability and quality to create an enjoyable dining experience.
In that respect, John & Nick's is a winner, no matter how you rank it.