"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.
117 First Street West
Mt. Vernon, IA 52314