Sunday, January 17, 2010

Lincoln Cafe

In a surprising show of romantic inclination this weekend, my husband took me out on a date at a restaurant that I had been eying ever since we first moved to Iowa. Lincoln Café (and the nearby Lincoln Wine Bar) are run by chef and owner Matt Steigerwald. His charming description on his website reads as follows,

"chef/owner matt steigerwald opened lincoln café in july 2001, after arriving in iowa from north carolina. before that fateful move, he cooked and/or ran the show at several restaurants, including helen's in richmond, va; vertigo in raleigh, nc; and magnolia grill in durham, nc. he lives with his sweetie michelle, a professor and belletrist, in mount vernon, where he is finally adjusting to the weather."

That pretty much says it all. I also have a sweetie professor who moved to Iowa, so I understand weather thing.

In any case, I was super excited to try out the food. I had heard many good things from a variety of sources, all saying that Lincoln Café is one of the best restaurants in the state of Iowa. Having been to a number of good places in Iowa City, we were eager to branch out to neighboring towns. The restaurant does not take reservations, but if you call ahead they'll put you on their waiting list to try and get you a seat. Of course, if you find there is a wait, the wine bar down the street looks like the perfect place to kill some time (with a glass of wine and some bar snacks). We got lucky and ended up at two counter seats (a perfect spot to watch the action in the kitchen.) Lincoln Café is small, but the high ceilings make the place feel more spacious. The combination of old brick walls, featured local artists, and diner style booths and tables, made the place feel comfortable and unpretentious. The specials (3) were on the board along with the list of desserts. I love a place that has only a few offerings because it means they are probably done quite well (like in many Iowan restaurants, the emphasis here is on fresh, local ingredients.) After much debate, I opted for the steak with sunchoke puree, fried lime, and some sort of mushroom confit with cubes of parsnip or potatoes, octopus and grilled baby lettuce. This dish was fantastic. The steak was perfectly cooked (medium rare) and very tender. There were some grisly bits I wasn't a fan of, but I am fairly picky when it comes to steak. The puree perfectly complemented the steak, the mushrooms were wonderfully seasoned, and the octopus was perfectly cooked. I've never had octopus before and worried that it would be tough and rubbery. Instead, the octopus was tender and delicious. I could have eaten a bowl of the stuff.

For dessert we opted for the bread pudding with cranberry ice cream and some sort of crunchy caramel topping. This was also fantastic. The bread pudding was moist, and not cloying, the ice cream was smooth, creamy, and surprisingly not overtly tart. The sauce was also delicious. If I had room, I would have tried the other desserts as well (the apple pot pie looked divine.)

Overall, I was very impressed with the food. We were close to the kitchen so I got to see all of the dishes that went out. The prawns with grits looked amazing, as did the stuffed quail. If only I had a stomach for three people. The restaurant is quite small so they do not have a liquor license. Fortunately, the wine bar is just a few steps away and they encourage you to bring bottles or glasses of wine over to have with your meal (the nominal cork fee is waved if you buy wine from their wine bar.) The only downside to the place is that vegetarians are not well accommodated. Every entree had meat, poultry or fish so my sweetie professor opted for a soup/salad combo, which was quite good, but not the same as an entree. The chef/owner was in the kitchen at the time and offered to adjust one of the main courses for us, but many of the components contained seafood or chicken broth.

Still, for those of us who do eat meat, Lincoln Cafe might be one of the best in Iowa.

Happy dining!


Lincoln Cafe
117 First Street West
Mt. Vernon, IA 52314
(319) 895-4041

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The American Bald Eagle winters in Iowa City

This morning we saw our first (20+) Bald Eagles. Who would have thought that Iowa City is a prime place to view the American Bald Eagle in the wild?

I had heard that these magnificent creatures migrate south for winter feeding down the Mississippi (and up the Iowa River.) A bridge next to the Iowa River Power Restaurant is ideally situated for eagle watching. Having accidentally spent three days with some avid bird watchers in Ecuador last summer, I know how patient one must be to catch a glimpse of a rare bird in its natural habitat. Not so with the Bald Eagle. Simply park at the restaurant, walk a few feet across the well shoveled bridge and you'll be among them. These birds were ENORMOUS with wingspans reaching up to 6 feet in length. They were perched in the trees lining the river, soaring overhead and fishing in the river right in front of our noses.


...and to think these birds were once considered "endangered species."

Happy birding!


Image lifted from

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ricotta (from scratch)

On a whim, I decided to try a hand at making homemade ricotta this weekend. I had heard that it is uber-easy to make. I have had it at one of my favorite restaurants in Boston, La Morra, where they serve it soft, in a pool of nice olive oil and topped with freshly grated black pepper (perfect for spreading on homemade bread!) Seeing as my trips to Boston are few and far between I figured I should try and replicate this yummy appetizer at home.

A few items are required to make ricotta-making easy:

1. a cheesecloth
2. a colander
3. a meat/candy thermometer
4. a large pot

I basically took a gallon of whole milk, heated it to 200 degrees (whisking to keep the milk from burning on the bottom of the pot), then added a little salt, and about a 1/4 cup of white vinegar (you can use lemon juice as well). The curds formed immediately and all I had to do was pour the mixture through a cheesecloth covered colander to separate the curds and whey. You can actually keep the whey and use it to make biscuits.

The ricotta was soft and delicious just as is, but I happen to like it with a drizzle of olive oil and some salt and pepper. I've heard you can freeze the cheese (although it will not be as good as fresh), but my plan is to make some ricotta gnocchi with the bulk of it and to eat the remainder on toast.

Authentic ricotta cheese is made from whey left over from the cheese making process, but this takes several gallons. Using whole milk is a faster, easier way to make a good substitute. A gallon of milk produces a large hunk of ricotta - maybe about a pound. Be sure to have a recipe or two lined up because it won't last in your fridge for long!



Friday, January 1, 2010

Sportello vs Grezzo

After a lunch at the one raw/vegan restaurant in town (see previous post), it seemed only right to try a place that does not have such stringent cooking restrictions. I had a chance to visit Sportello, one of Barbara Lynch's creations. Remarkably enough, a highly recommended dish on the Sportello menu is very similar (sounding) to the "gnocchi" I had at Grezzo. Here is my direct comparison of the two dishes:

1. Grezzo's home-made "gnocchi." So long as you are not expecting these to taste like anything too familiar, they are quite good. The nut paste "gnocchi" were soft and a little bit gooey in texture and tasted like creamy nuts and sesame. The "rawmesan" sauce made with coconut milk was creamy and cool (food at Grezzo is not heated above 112 degrees), and the very crisp English peas and pea shoots were a good counterpart to the creaminess of the sauce and the soft texture of the "gnocchi". Because this dish lacks just about any kind of starch, I ended up feeling full but not quite satisfied.

2. Sportello's potato gnocchi with porcini, peas and cream. This was heaven in a bowl. The gnocchi were light, perfectly shaped dumplings with a bit of chew, the peas were fresh, crisp and delicious in the creamy, yet surprisingly light cream sauce drizzled with a bit of truffle oil and sprinkled with teeny bits of sliced chives. The food was served steaming hot in a warmed shallow bowl. If I had not just eaten a large basket of bread with whipped ricotta I would have snarfed this up even quicker than I did.

On it's own, Grezzo is certainly a worthwhile foodie experience (but only for the open-minded). Sportello, on the other hand, is much more accessible - especially for anyone who appreciates freshly made pasta. Given the choice, I would almost always choose the Sportello gnocchi dish over the one at Grezzo, but mainly because during the winter I like my food steaming hot and starch-laden. Maybe in the dead of summer I would make an alternative choice, but I doubt it.


348 Congress Street
Boston, MA 02210-1236
(617) 737-1234

Image lifted from