If that’s a little harsh, it’s only because I want to love: the owners are from Iowa, which is where I met the Director, a Des Moines native himself. So I had sentimental hopes they’d be sprinkling a little of that Hawkeye magic all around in the form of hearty home cooking. But based on my first visit, I agree with Westword’s Laura Shunk that at this early date it’s still half-hearted home cooking, not nearly up to par with the excellent craft beer list (which is several pages long). Considering the repertoire is mainly comprised of simple snacks & sandwiches, it shouldn’t be that hard to execute.
Take the appetizer sampler—your choice of 2, accompanied by “spudpuppies.”
We opted for the pretzel bites & the cheese dippers said, somewhat confusingly, to be both “dredged in a strong ale batter & crusted in herbed crumbs.” If virtually herbless & ale-flavorless, the latter were just fine—containing a mixture of cream cheese, provolone, parmesan & monterey jack. The former, however, were stale, & the fried spheres of mashed potato nice & fluffy but bland—nothing salt & pepper couldn’t fix, but that much should’ve been obvious to whomever sent it out. As for the dips: the 4-cheese blend for the pretzels contained the same mixture as the dippers, so it could hardly fail. The smoked-onion ketchup just tasted like ketchup, but the cashew pesto was interesting; it made me realize how carefully balanced classic pesto is between the pinenuts, basil, parmesan, garlic & olive oil. Strong, sweet cashews tilted that balance in their favor, so it was a bit heavy—but pleasing nonetheless.
I wish I could say the same of the cheese-crusted Iowa pork tenderloin.
Looks ridiculously good, right? Afraid not. It was the toughest, grayest piece of meat I’ve been served in some time; each bite took several plate-scraping seconds to saw off. The fries were good, but good fries are easy to come by. (By the way, the menu has 2 sandwich sections: one titled Small-Plate Session Sandwiches & another titled Medium Plates, defined as “lunch-inspired sandwich-style plates”—a phrase so meaningless it’s bound to catch on.)
Ditto the B.A.R.—a Reuben with sauerkraut cooked in bacon fat & “caramelized apple Russian dressing.” Looks great, but the corned beef required more chewing than the pal o’ mine who ordered it had the energy to muster. That’s a problem.
The beef on the French dip wasn’t tough—just lackluster. I didn’t try the French onion soup—(“a trio of slowly caramelized onions & garlic”—??)—which looks as tasty as everything else, but looks are clearly not everything here.
Still, because they’re Iowans, because they’re new on the scene, because the superb beer list suggests they have a genuine vision of “freshcraft,” I’d like to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. Besides, a few dishes partaken during a single visit is not even close to sufficient for a final verdict. So I’ll give this place another try, starting with the soup. But my initial experience hasn’t got me lost in lascivious daydreams about a return; for now, I’ll reserve those for the greasy taste of home at Iowa City’s Hamburg Inn.