The Midwest solidly earned its reputation for harsh winters. After just a few days in Iowa, I can see that Utahns have it rather easy. We usually don't have that kind of cold until mid-January and only for a few weeks. In Iowa, it's so cold that the snow turns almost directly to thick sheets of ice covering almost every road, sidewalk and vehicle in sight. I think I liked it better in May. Having a cold for half of the trip didn't help either. I pushed myself through Friday and ended up staying home from church the following Sunday.
Despite this, I did manage to go out and sample some of the local fare. Every time I go to a small town, I'm always hopeful that I'll stumble across those small places that are worth the searching. Ames has a leg up on this one, being famous for it's presidential straw poll and large university campus. There were a few let-downs, but I think I'd do better with just a bit more searching.
The Open Flame
225 Main St
Gilbert, IA 50105
The Midwest is famous for its beef and you'd have to be nuts to make a trip to the Heartland and not grab a steak. You would, however, have to have something loose upstairs to enjoy dining at this restaurant. Part of the problem is that I had some inflated hopes. They had dropped a fair amount of money on advertising which lead me to believe that they might actually be vending a decent product. The hotel's guidebook had an ad and there were even official-looking road signs dotting US-69 pointing you towards the old building in "downtown" Gilbert. I suppose it should have been a warning sign that the restaurant was nearly empty excepting a raucous group of college kids at a nearby table.
Their shtick is a "grill your own meat" way of serving the food. An interesting concept to be sure, but I was in no mood to be cooking after a long plane ride. Given this, I opted for a steak sandwich for some cheap eats and a way to bypass the "we'll cook it for you" surcharge.
The only way it could be called a "sandwich" is that the plate technically included all of the ingredients necessary to make a sandwich. I would have had a hard time taking a 9oz piece of meat and making it into a sandwich using the two wedges of Texas toast on the plate. And the tomato was an unnatural color of read. Oh yeah, and the steak was tough with nearly no flavor. That's a real mystery; the conventional wisdom of beef is that flavor and tenderness are inversely proportional. Either this cut should have been fork-tender or loaded with enough flavor to numb my mouth.
Maybe I'm a bit spoiled, but I expect a bit more out of a steak sandwich, even one that's just $9. Just about anything would have improved it. Perhaps a bit of seasoning on the meat? Maybe a dry brine in koshering salt? I suppose there's a chance that the steaks from the back of the house would hold more promise, but I wouldn't voluntarily head back to find out. My verdict is 1.5 out of 5 as the decent service is about the only saving grace I experienced here. The "school cafeteria" krinkle-cut fries just didn't do it for me.
1404 S Duff Ave
Ames, IA 50010
It's no secret that I love me some BBQ and I love to sample as much as I can. I've sampled it in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Texas and plenty of states not as well known for their mastery of the flame. Given the proximity to Missouri and its affinity for the fine Southern tradition of slow cooking, I thought this wouldn't be a half-bad idea.
The inside of the restaurant is made up to look all "Old West", an elaborate show that's more cheesy than charming. Despite this, there's an extensive menu including a large list of sundaes on the place mats. I figured I should try out the dinner platter that came with a variety of meats and some sides rather than go for a sandwich.
The meat that came out was a bit on the dry side, not a good sign for this early in the day. It was also telling that this affected the brisket, pork and turkey equally. I suspected that they might have held them for too long. I remedied this with some of the sauce on the table, though the regular sauce didn't pack enough of a punch and the hot variety was a bit much after a while. I do commend them, however, for whipping up some of the tastiest french fries I've had in recent history. The cole slaw was also pretty good, something that's really hard to achieve in my book.
While the meat wasn't the best, it wasn't bad either and the sides were very good. Combined with an extensive menu and some really cheap prices (I think my meal was about $9), I'd dole out a 3.75 out of 5.
547 Main St
Ames, IA 50010
Every now and again, you find that one restaurant that you wish you could take home with you, the place that serves great food with an impeccable wait staff in a cozy environment. You know you can't eat there more than once in a blue moon, but you'll be talking about it for weeks or months each time you do. Aunt Maude's, I must say, is the place. It is a restaurant that would be a perfect fit in downtown Salt Lake City or nested in one of the Las Vegas Strip's megaresorts. It almost seems out of place in a college town in rural Iowa, but the city of Ames is richer for it.
The thing that really struck me with this food is that it was prepared in a way that blended the flavors properly. Instead of trying to overwhelm the senses by cramming several loud flavors into something at once, everything is balanced to be subtle and meld like a fondue, not like a tossed salad. Take, for instance, the Cheese Terrine, an appetizer I started with. Many chefs would overwhelm the taste buds with a combination of goat cheese, roasted red peppers, artichokes, walnuts, garlic and basil pesto. Instead, this let the cheese do the talking with the garlic lending a strong secondary flavor. I didn't feel like the ingredients were all duking it out for attention from my taste buds, a welcome change.
The caliber of chef in charge was only further confirmed with the turkey chili that followed. In this era of canned beans for everything, we've gotten way too accustomed to eating mushy legumes that have lost most of their structure. That's fine if you've making a puree, but it will not do so well in a soup or stew. This was a cook who knew that beans are supposed to have structure. Both the black and navy beans in the chili were firm yet tender, perfectly cooked without a hint of canned origin. I had already been very impressed without even getting as far as the main course!
It was, though, a continuation of the first two dishes. I opted for a chef's feature, prosciutto-wrapped salmon served with gnocchi, spinach, tomatoes, kalamata olives and a balsamic reduction. Believe me, it's as good as it sounds. The prosciutto perfectly flavored the salmon and lent it the right amount of saltiness. The vegetables on the plate paired perfectly with the tender dumplings. The balsamic reduction had no hint of sharp acidity, indicating that it was the real deal.
The good times just kept on rolling when the dessert came to the table. I'm a fan of creme brulee, and this one did not disappoint. It was thick like a custard should be, yet dissolved on your tongue like cotton candy (without the nastiness of being, well, cotton candy). It's hard for me to think of another serving of everyone's favorite French dessert that I've enjoyed more.
The entire meal was punctuated by a wait staff that wa
s punctual and right on queue without hovering. When I had finished with a course, it seemed that the next one was ready to go without about 5 minutes, never before. My water glass didn't approach empty either. It's nice to feel like a first-class diner since those dining alone can often be given the short shrift. This flawless execution of both meal and service is going to earn the rare perfect score of 5 out of 5. If you find yourself in Ames (or even in northern Des Moines), you'd do well to make this a required dining stop.
Lucullan's Italian Grill
400 Main St
Ames, IA 50010
I must admit, the trip to Italy has forever spoiled me when it comes to great Italian cooking. I already treated Olive Garden (and, to a lesser degree, Macaroni Grill) with a kind of contempt at their bastardizations of the best food on earth, but now I found myself looking suspiciously at many other restaurants as well. Despite all of this, Lucullan's had rave reviews online that seemed to beg a visit.
I have to admit, the decor is kind of hokey. White and red checkered tablecloths with red and green napkins on each table? It certainly did play up the stereotype a bit, but I figured I should go ahead and play along. After all, most of us don't know the difference.
What immediately struck me is the number of actual Italian dishes on the menu. It seemed that the proprietors had either done their homework or at least pulled out an Italian dictionary. I was immediately drawn to the nocciola di pollo; I mean, how can you go wrong with hazelnut-crusted chicken? It came paired with ravioli in an asiago cream sauce. The soup that I started with was great, a hearty lentil. Lentils just don't get the respect they deserve and it was refreshing to have them used somewhere other than an Indian daal. With the Tuscan-style bread (appropriately void of flavor of its own), it made a great starter.
The entree didn't disappoint either. The chicken was cooked just right (done without drying at all) and the cream sauce was so light and flavorful that I found it hard to believe that the chef thought that much would be needed on the plate. (In his defense, Americans tend to oversauce, so he might of just been playing to the crowd.) I grabbed some more of the bread to try and mop it all up in true Italian fashion. I finished with a dessert called La Pizzelle, a layer of chocolate cream nestled between a pair of crisp pastries and covered with raspberry puree. It was light, flavorful and a perfect size. Indeed, this kitchen was doing things as Italian as Americans would let them get away with.
Sadly, this whole experience was marred by some lackluster service. (Bear in mind that this evening was at the height of my cold and I was a bit crabby to begin with.) It took a good 10 minutes before a hostess was available to acknowledge and seat me despite there being only two parties ahead of me. I spent half of my time standing at the front of the line waiting for her to get back from wherever it is she disappeared to.
Once I was seated, it was right next to a column near the front of the restaurant. The hostess made it seem like she was doing me a favor by keeping me "away from the loud tables in the back", but it ended up feeling a lot more like I was being put away from where the server would notice me. Given the frequency with which my water glassed stayed empty, that doesn't seem like an invalid concern.
The server was also rather clueless. There's a rule for restaurants: if you're going to be an Italian restaurant with Italian food that has Italian names on the menu, your wait staff should know what those words are and how they are pronounced. From the look on the college girl's face when I ordered nocciola di pollo, you'd have thought I was speaking Hindi. I repeated myself once, then resorted to pointing on the menu when she asked "which one is that?" This repeated itself when I ordered dessert. I didn't expect her to take Italian 101 or anything, but learning a menu isn't tough work and should be expected.
Granted, none of these things by themselves would be enough to give me serious pause. That came later when I was half-way through my entree. I was obviously still enjoying the food very much, taking my time to savor it and enjoying not being rushed. Suddenly, my peaceful enjoyment of real Italian food is interrupted by the server asking if I wanted dessert! The blatant implication was that she wanted to leave the check on my table if I wasn't interested. I know this isn't Italy where you have to ask for the check or anything, but I felt kind of like I was being told to hurry up and get out of the way. I told her I hadn't decided but that I would look at the dessert list when I was done. She very promptly brought back the list and left it on the table.
While I'm busy sopping up that tasty cream sauce, she comes back to ask if I'd made a choice yet. By this point, I'm a little annoyed. I don't like being rushed out of a restaurant and especially not when I'm taking the time to enjoy my food. I replied that I hadn't had a chance to look at the list yet and she asked if she could clear my plate. I wasn't really done yet with sopping, but I obliged anyway just to get her out of my hair. Once she came back, the aforementioned "huh" occurred when ordering dessert (and it's not like "peets-el-eh" would be a commonly misunderstood pronunciation of pizzelle). After being all but given the bum's rush, I decided to do a very uncommon thing and tip 10% instead of my normal 20-25%.
This is where I have a conundrum. The food was excellent, but the server really rubbed me the wrong way and the hostess got things off on the wrong foot. What use is it to go out for good food and have the experience be annoying because your server is ruining the experience for you? Given my state of general crankiness, I have to adjust for that and come to a verdict of 4 out of 5. I'm hoping that the owners can correct the service problems to do their food the justice it so richly deserves.