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Sack lunch?

Anyone have ideas for tasty, healthy lunches that can be packed in the morning (or better yet, night before) work?

Jul 25, 2008
krcasper in Home Cooking

Rubaiyat: Poets and Corkscrews in NE Iowa

In Decorah, Rubaiyat acts like an upscale Cheers. They serve mussels in saffron cream sauce and New Zealand lamp chops with a pistachio demi glaze, but the attitude is casual - and if you've been there before, the hostess knows your name. If your table isn't ready when you arrive, sit tight and wait your turn. Have a drink while you're at it.

The dining room and bar are large, open and divided by a wall. The decor aims at Napa Valley wine routes, complete with paintings in rich, jewel tones. The Friday night our group chose was busy; our 8 p.m. reservation turning into an 8:45 seating. But at least we all had glasses of wine to tide us over.

The menu boasts an impressive, if not overdone, list of 20 entrées. All the classics are present from veal Parmesan to smoked salmon, jumbo shrimp to fettuccine Alfredo. Entrées arrive looking like they were plated by Jackson Pollock. Sauces are splattered in zigzags and nuts are pulverized to a dust to give the sauce some texture.

Our meals came with house salads; the Caesar could equally have been called "Garlic Lovers Greens." The dish was delicious but intensely garlicky. We were also served doughy, homemade bread with a hint of nutmeg - honestly, one of the evening's highlights. The grilled orange roughy was a hit at our table, however the hummus platter lacked originality and flavor. We had high hopes for the desserts made in-house, but unfortunately they didn't stack up. The crème brûlée was veneered with a crispy, burnt top. Sadly, its insides were a gooey, runny mess of cream and sugar, not the rich custard the dessert is known for. And the key lime pie, perfect in its cookie crust and tangy tart filling, was smothered with blueberries and syrup. The berries and lime didn't mingle well.

One thing Rubaiyat really does take points for is the wine list. The restaurant itself was born while owners Kim and Andy Bonnet were touring the California wine country. Over a bottle of Cakebread Cellars Rubaiyat wine the couple dreamed up their Midwest wine bar and eatery. One can choose from over 200 wines. A little daunting? Kim, the resident sommelier, will gladly help you find a pairing.

Rubaiyat is the perfect setting for a family or group dinner. Or go all out and pop a cork while trying a new bottle, chosen specifically to your liking.

A Taste of the Sea in...Iowa?

After having nibbled up our shrimp and scallop skewers, the complimentary starter, I cracked into the exoskeleton of my king crab legs and dug out the soft, white meat. Oh the tender, delicate, buttery flavor of crustaceans!

But wait, where am I? Oh right, Decorah, Iowa.

What used to be called Dayton House Norwegian Cafe is now referred to as Dayton House of Seafood and More. The former name can be attributed to the fact that the cafe neighbored Decorah's Norwegian-American museum, Vesterheim.

Lunch and brunch menus still offer Scandinavian favorites like smørbrød (open-faced sandwiches), varme polser (sausage wrapped in potato crepe), sandbakkels (butter cookies) and lingonberries. But what's new are dinner items like ciopinno (Italian fish stew), flaming mussels, wasabi crusted fish of the day, and those giant crab legs I mentioned. This Dayton House also serves such items as lamb chops, beef tenders, moo-shoo pork, stuffed capon and vegetarian curried samosa stew.

The cafe's ambiance is intimate; its 12 (or so) wooden tables fill the small space, dressed in white table cloths. The light is warm and the street-front windows feel welcoming. However, the decor is definitely kitschy, bordering on overdone. Starfish and nautical rope adorn cerulean blue walls. I mean, let's not try to kid ourselves.

The food, on the other hand, was scrumptious. Our starter was served with a tomato salsa that had some kick. The grilled vegetable side salad (greens, beets, balsamic and sharp cheddar) was flavorful and hearty. The grilled lamb chop with rosemary jus was moist and meaty. And my crab legs were perfectly, delightfully, delicious.

Though in a time of high gas prices and prophets of "eat local," I still find seafood restaurant in Iowa curious. But to each her own. And whether crab legs or capons, the Dayton House serves a tasty plate of food.

Augusta: Une Saveur Créole

Three miles off of interstate 80 lies Oxford, Iowa. On Sunday mornings the main street is quiet. A few cars drive by, and a few others sit parked, contently, near the curb.

But as you approach the restaurant Augusta, aromas of hot pepper and smoky grill float into your nostrils. The door opens to a full, store front dining space with a bar near the back. Tables and chairs are arranged in rows. The burgundy walls are warm and still feel freshly painted.

Augusta opened in January after friends from New Orleans joined forces with an Iowa native and collectively started the business. Their motto: Creole comfort food. They blend the seafood and spice of the Bayou with Iowa's pork tenderloins and prime rib.

The restaurant offers full lunch and dinner menus Wednesday through Saturday, but the Sunday brunch is what I've found exceptional.

To begin:

Coffee is quickly served in home-style ceramic mugs. It is hot and rich with a nutty, buttery finish. Brunch entrées include the aforementioned prime rib, eggs Benedict, biscuits and gravy, omelets, pancakes and French toast. All come with a choice of three, yes three, of the following: home fries, fried cheesy grits, sweet potato hash, bacon, house made sausage, house made Canadian bacon, one biscuit with sausage gravy, and one pancake.

The brunch is, needless to say, filling. But it's also delicious.

Head chef Ben Halperin trained with famed chef Susan Spicer at her much acclaimed New Orlean's restaurant Bayona. The guy knows Creole flavor. But what's more, the restaurant deals in quality. Augusta owners insist on making everything they possibly can in-house. They bake their own bread, whip their own mayonnaise, and pickle their own pickles.

Which is to say, I'll soon be going back for brunch...and dinner as well.

Breakfast in Cedar Rapids/Iowa City?

Augusta is great for brunch - flavorful, homemade food and HUGE portions (a tasty snack after returning home).

I've heard good things about the Lincoln Cafe's Sunday brunch. I like the idea of traveling to small towns on Sunday mornings for savory bites and strong coffee!

Iowa City: Motley Cow Café

Two months after a move from their small, rustic space on Market Street in Iowa City, the Motley Cow Café appears to be doing well in their swanky new digs.

The relocated restaurant is nestled in between two local businesses, T-Spoons and R.S.V.P., at 150 North Linn Street. Owner David Weiseneck did an honorable job of designing the new space, not to mention that he incorporated a number of environmentally responsible touches. Dining tables are made from recycled sunflower hulls, and the bar is reclaimed slate from an old pool-table. The kitsch salt and pepper shakers still grace each table.

As a nod to the Market Street space, the open-air kitchen serves an honest welcome. The dining room is vastly larger than the 26-seater from before, and aside from the tables, is quite sparse. The palate is earthy-industrial with shades of charcoal, lichen and cement.

The new Cow features a full bar with fairly priced, quality cocktails. Their wine list offers a range of full and half bottles, as well as a short selection by the glass. For the bargain wine drinker, try the house glass for $5 - you can't go wrong for that price.

Now for the food: it's still mostly local, still mostly organic.

My favorite dish is the kale salad. This starter is dressed with olive oil, dried cherries, walnuts and red onion. The leaves are soft yet lend a hearty base to the sweet trimmings.
The lamb sausage pizza with fresh mozzarella, fontina and topped with greens is light but full of flavor.
The roasted trout with chickpeas and beet-mushroom vinaigrette was disappointing. The fish was cooked to a perfect texture, but the whole plate tasted like it looked: beige, upon beige.

The Cow brought their famous key lime pie to their new spot, and thank God they did. It's true that we don't grow many key limes in Iowa, but if you're going to cheat in the "local" category, this is the place to do it. The crust is gritty and sweet, and the filling is tangy and tart. Quite perfect really.

Though not as intimate as before, the Motley Cow Café still delivers humble food with a touch of elegance.

Iowa City

If you're willing to drive, twenty minutes northwest of Iowa City you'll find Oxford, Iowa and Augusta. This restaurant specializes in Creole comfort food. They have everything from crawfish beignets and shrimp po' boys to grilled ribeyes and hearty burgers.

Augusta was opened two months ago by a foursome of Iowa natives and former New Orleans residents. Head chef Ben Halperin worked with chef Susan Spicer in her famed New Orleans restaurant Bayona.

Dinner options range in price from $7 to $24. They have a limited wine list and a selection of six beers on tap.

Their Sunday brunch was enjoyable and filling! The crab cakes eggs Benedict were skirted with house-made sausages, cheesy grits, and a pancake. The coffee was strong and rich; a perfect match to the savory breakfast food.

Quality is high on the list at Augusta. The owners make everything: the bread, mayonnaise, pickles, pies, etc.

Oxford is a bit off the beaten path, but the trip to Augusta is worth it.

Mar 14, 2008
krcasper in Great Plains