Linn Street Cafe in Iowa City has been on my wife's short list of places where she wanted to dine. I had eaten there one time a number of years ago and I remember it as being very good. We had a special occasion going on and I decided to head over to Iowa City one evening with my wife to have dinner at Linn Street Cafe.
The little restaurant has been open since 1989 and current chef/owner Frank Bowman and his wife, Abby, have owned the place since 1996. The Bowman's rely upon locally grown meats and produce for the bulk of the foods they serve at Linn Street Cafe. Wine Spectator magazine has recognized Linn Street's wine selection as one of the best, not only in Iowa, but in the rest of the U.S.
Linn Street Cafe is located just north and east of the University of Iowa campus on, of course, Linn Street. (see map) They are located on the street level of a building that houses the Iowa City Press-Citizen on the second floor. Devotay, an upscale tapas/wine bar and cocktail lounge, shares the same building and is located just to the south of Linn Street Cafe.
It was a pleasant, but cloudy evening when we walked up to Linn Street Cafe. They had three or four tables on the sidewalk under a canopy that were empty. For a moment, I thought it would be nice to sit outdoors. But then I remembered that my wife will begin to shiver because she thinks 72 degrees is too chilly.
We were greeted by a young hostess who asked if we had reservations. We did not. There was a party of 12 in the dining area in the back, but there were a number of two and four seat tables that were open in both the front dining area and back dining area. She shepherded us back to a four-seater just inside the back dining area. She left off the menu for the evening and the wine list.
Pictured right - the front dining area at Linn Street Cafe.
Not long after we were seated and got settled in, our waiter for the evening, Aleksandar - or Alex, for short - came over to greet us. He said that he had a couple things he needed to drop off and he'd be back with us in a moment. In the meantime, we took a look at the drink menu and I perused the wine menu. The wine list - although not long - was pretty impressive containing a number of wines that I was not familiar with. Linn Street Cafe's wine cellar holds over 1500 bottles of wine including a number of reserve wines.
When Alex came back to take our drink order, I told him that we were going to get some wine, but I didn't quite know what right off the bat. In the meantime, I ordered a bottle of the Bell's Two Hearted pale ale. Cindy was looking at their martini list and Alex suggested a raspberry martini for her. She wasn't too sold on it, but finally said, "Yeah, I'll try that."
At the top of the menu was an Iowa beef tenderloin that came with garlic mashed potatoes, grilled seasonal veggies and then topped with a cabernet demi glace. I about quit looking at the rest of the menu after that. They also had a New York strip steak with grilled asparagus. But I wasn't certain I wanted steak that particular evening.
Seafood sounded good and at the bottom of the menu was a Japanese-inspired seared diver scallop dish with stir fried noodles, snow peas, carrots, red onions, pickled cabbage and topped with a Japanese broth. That sounded really good. They also had a grilled pork loin that was stuffed with a blend of three cheeses, fennel, dried cherries and herbs, and served with sundried tomato and white cornmeal polenta. The grilled pork loin was topped with a house-made hoisin barbecue sauce.
Cindy was seriously looking at the scallops, but she also was interested in the grilled rack of lamb. But she started to talk herself into a steak. To me, it was down to the scallops or the grilled pork loin. I was definitely having trouble.
Alex came back and asked if we wanted to start off with any appetizers. He was pushing the duck confit egg rolls, which actually sounded pretty good. But I was having more of a problem trying to figure out what I wanted for dinner. Cindy was asking about the scallops. "I'd really like the scallops," she said. "But a steak sounds really good."
He said, "Well, we can do this. We can do kind of a 'surf and turf' thing for you. You can get a steak and then we can get you three scallops for nine dollars more." Cindy was sold with that. She ended up getting the New York strip after hemming and hawing about ordering that or the tenderloin.
Since I was down to the pork loin or the scallops, I asked Alex if I could get the same thing - the pork loin with the scallops. No problem. For starters, we both got the roasted beet salad. And I stepped up to the plate and ordered a bottle of the Duckhorn cabernet. It was probably more than I wanted to spend on a bottle of wine, but it was going to be a very nice meal and we hadn't had one out for quite sometime.
Our salads came out and they featured sliced roasted beets with mixed greens and topped with Maytag blue cheese with a vinaigrette dressing. The roasted beets were wonderful. The lettuce was a little wilted, but the Maytag blue cheese and the vinaigrette dressing was a great combination. Cindy said, "Isn't it funny how much you hated Maytag blue cheese when you were a little kid?"
(For the back story on my initial hatred of Maytag blue cheese, click here.)
I said, "Yeah, I've only liked the stuff for about 25 years now. Better late than never."
After finishing up our salads, our main entrees came out. The pork loin (below left) was cut into slices with the hoison sauce and another white sauce that tasted like it had some anise infused into it. Two large scallops rested on the plate. Alex explained, "The chef said we charge by the ounce, so it was two for nine dollars, not three. If you want another one, I can get it for you." I felt a little monetary stab on that, but I just let it go and declined another scallop for $4.50.
Cindy's New York Strip was cooked to a medium and was served with what looked like a peppercorn sauce on the side. She cut into her steak and came across a large chunk of gristle and fat. She immediately said, "I knew I should have gotten the filet." I told her to be patient and her steak turned out to be pretty good.
And the first bite of the end of the pork loin was rather tough, dry and over-cooked. However, as I got into the center of the loin, more flavor and juiciness came out. The stuffing was pleasant enough, but I wasn't certain I liked the drizzled sauce on the top of the loin. It was far from a deal breaker and after a few more bites, I got used to it and decided that the sauce was fine.
I'm glad that I just got a couple of the scallops. The flavor was wonderful, but the scallops were a little gritty. Naw, not just a little gritty, but plenty gritty. Cindy felt her scallops were a little too gritty for her taste, as well. But other than that, they were great.
Cindy gave me a chunk of her steak and I thought it tasted fine. She said, "Yeah, I guess after that initial cut it did get better. You were right. I just needed to be patient."
About the only thing that I didn't care for was the polenta. I found the taste to be drab and dry. But I'm not big on polenta, anyway.
Alex was a good waiter. He had just finished with the party of 12 seated next to us when he was serving us our entrees, but he had another group of 10 coming in not long after we finished our meals. Cindy said, "He must be the top waiter here. He does a good job."
After we finished up, Alex came by with the dessert menu. The menu also featured a number of scotch whiskys and liqueurs. I contemplated getting a scotch, but we had an hour drive ahead of us. After a bottle of wine, Cindy said, "You can get a night cap at home."
We did decided to get a creme brulee to share. It came in a small bowl with powder sugar sprinkled on top and on the plate with a side of whipped cream and a chocolate-sauce drizzle. And I thought I needed a double espresso to help keep me alert for the drive back to the Quad Cities. It's only a 55 minute drive, but it had been a long day.
The creme brulee was good. It was a nice closure to a fine meal. Our final bill was a little stiff - the bottle of Duckhorn didn't help matters any - and Alex got a nice tip for his efforts.
We had few criticisms of our meal at Linn Street Cafe. My pork loin was good, Cindy liked her steak, the salads were fine, as was the creme brulee. Alex was an excellent server and the atmosphere at Linn Street Cafe was very relaxing and elegant. Like most people, Linn Street Cafe may be out of our budget for regular dining. But we can't see any reason why we wouldn't go back to Linn Street Cafe for another meal at some other time in the future.