Cindy's son had a birthday recently and we decided to meet him, her daughter and her grandson for dinner over in Iowa City. Cindy let her son pick out where he'd like to go eat. She mentioned a couple three places and then she mentioned Monica's Italian Bistro on the strip in Coralville. He stopped her right there. "Yeah, I'd like to try Monica's," he said. On a Friday evening, we all met there for dinner.
Monica's is owned by local Iowa City lawyer/restaurateur/high school basketball coach/summer basketball league commissioner Randy Larson. Larson got his start in the restaurant business working in the summer for his uncle at the Maid-Rite in Newton back in the 70's. When he moved to Iowa City to go to law school, he started a late-night small street cart that sold hot dogs and brats on the Iowa City pedestrian mall to hungry bar-goers. In 1993, Larson and former Iowa basketball player Brad Lohaus, who was then playing for the Milwaukee Bucks in the National Basketbal Association, bought the venerable Airliner in downtown Iowa City. Larson sold his share of the Airliner to Lohaus in 2002 and started a pizza place called Bob's Your Uncle on the southwest side of Iowa City.
Pictured right - Randy Larson. Picture courtesy Cedar Rapids Gazette
Larson opened a second Bob's Your Uncle near the intersection of Iowa Highway 1 and Interstate 80 in what was once an old Howard Johnson's restaurant. Not long after, he switched formats and the restaurant name at his original Bob's Your Uncle restaurant, making it an Italian restaurant and naming it after longtime manager Monica Meyer.
In the summer of 2008, floods of historic proportions hit the Iowa City/Coralville area and one of the businesses that was severely impacted was Sluggers Bar and Grill on the Coralville strip. After the floodwaters receded, the owners of Sluggers decided not to renew their lease on the building. It sat vacant for over a year before Larson decided to lease the building and move Monica's in there. Larson shortened the name from Monica's Italian Bistro to just Monica's after the move.
(As an aside, I've known Randy Larson for over 30 years. When he was working with his uncle, Dan Holtkamp, at the Maid-Rite in Newton, IA, we played summer league basketball on the same team for three years. Larson had played briefly at Iowa State and was a pretty good basketball player. I thoroughly enjoyed playing with him as he had a great court sense and was sort of the defacto coach of our team. He basically led our team to the Newton summer league championship one year where we lost in the final game. All I know is that he made me a better basketball player.
When I moved to Iowa City in 1980, I'd see Randy from time to time - mainly hawking hot dogs at 12:30 in the morning when I would come out of one of the bars in downtown Iowa City. But our relationship after that was nothing more than, "Hey, how's it going?" when we'd run into each other.
Larson ran with the elite crowd of Iowa basketball players - present and past - in the early to mid-80's. He organized summer basketball pick-up games and was eventually asked by then coach Tom Davis to organize an NCAA-sanctioned summer league for college and high school players. Randy told me some years ago that he used the basic idea of the Newton summer basketball league as his blueprint. Earlier this summer, the Prime Time League celebrated it's 27th year of existence - the longest sanctioned summer league of its type in the United States.)
Cindy and I pulled into the parking lot at Monica's around 6:30 p.m. (see map) Her son was there waiting for us and we went inside. Randy Larson was standing at the hostess booth and he did a double take when I walked in the door. After exchanging pleasantries, Cindy told him that her daughter had made the reservation for seven people at 6:30, but only five of us were showing up. Randy was going through the reservation sheet and he couldn't find a name listed for any of us or any reservation for seven. He said, "Ah, that's no problem. I've got a place for you guys right back here." He led us back to a large booth along the far wall of the restaurant. He dropped off menus and we looked them over while we waited for Cindy's daughter and grandson to show up.
The interior of Monica's was certainly upgraded over the sports theme that Sluggers had in their hey-day. One of their former servers, Lyndsi Benjamin, is now an interior designer in the Chicago area and she helped with the design of the new Monica's down to the lighting scheme, floor tile and woven grasscloth wall paper. Not totally abandoning the sports bar concept, Monica's has a number of flat screen televisions interspersed throughout the place.
The executive chef at Monica's is Rod Bowman who was the former chef at the University Athletic Club in Iowa City. Before that, Bowman was the head chef for the University of Iowa Memorial Union's catering and food service.
A young waitress by the name of Ashleigh came over to let us know that she'd be waiting on us tonight. She asked if we wanted anything to drink and Cindy got a glass of wine, her son got a draft beer and I ordered a Boulevard Pale Ale. She brought the drinks back and as she walked away I noticed that she had brought me a Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat. I'm not big on wheat beers and I had Cindy flag her down to get me another beer. Ashleigh apologized and said, "I thought I ordered a Boulevard Pale Ale, but this is what they put up on the counter for me." It wasn't long before I had my right beer. She also left off a basket of fresh Italian bread with a small container of cinnamon-honey butter. It was pretty good on the bread. But I liked going the olive oil/parmesan cheese route to dip my bread into.
One thing that I noticed on the menu was a personal message from Randy Larson. In part, it basically said, "If you have any suggestions, complements or complaints, do not hesitate to contact me." And he gave his phone number and e-mail address. I'll have to say that I don't believe I've EVER seen a restaurant owner give out both his personal phone number and e-mail inviting people to contact him for whatever reason. I'll have to say I was pretty impressed.
Cindy's daughter was 20 minutes late - a combination of getting off work late and having to deal with a three-year-old. Before her daughter arrived, Cindy decided she wanted an appetizer. She ordered the crab and artichoke al forno dip that came with house-made rustic flat bread. The appetizer was showing up as Cindy's daughter and her grandson showed up at the table.
The crab and artichoke dip was creamy and rich. Fresh chopped parsley topped the dip. With the housemade rustic flat bread, it was a good start to the meal.
I wasn't really certain what I wanted to get that evening. They feature wood-fired pizzas at Monica's. A number of the specialty pizzas are named after former University of Iowa athletes. The Nate Kaeding, named after the former Iowa football and NFL place kicker, was very close to my standard pizza of sausage, mushroom and pepperoni, but Monica's added onions to the toppings. There were a number of eclectic toppings that you could choose for the pizza at Monica's including portabella mushrooms, Cajun-grilled chicken and roasted red peppers.
When Monica's moved to the old Sluggers location, they garnered about 50 percent more floor space and a larger kitchen, so they expanded their menu to include American-style comfort foods including Grandmother's Meat Loaf; a boneless Iowa pork chop topped with a white-pepper gravy; beef stroganoff made with sirloin tips simmered in a sauce of mushrooms, onion, brandy, chicken and beef broth, then poured over egg noodles and finished with lemon and sour cream; and a slow-roasted short rib pot roast. Many of the comfort food items came with chef Rod Bowman when he switched from the University Athletic Club to Monica's.
I was more into getting something Italian that evening and I was torn between the black fettuccine with lobster - chunks of Maine lobster and mushrooms that are sauteed in butter and then tossed with a lobster alfredo cream sauce; and the rigatoni bolognese - rigatoni noodles topped with a red sauce with a blend of ground pork and ground beef that also has a hint of the alfredo sauce. Cindy's son said that he'd get the black fettuccine with the lobster and he'd let me have some. I got the rigatoni bolognese.
Cindy got the parmesan encrusted flat iron steak and her daughter got the cedar plank-grilled salmon with a side of polenta. She also asked our waitress if she could get a small dish of butter pasta for her son. Our perky waitress Ashleigh said, "No problem!" Both Cindy and her daughter wanted wine and I thought I'd have a glass, as well. I ordered up a bottle of the Ruffino chianti from Italy.
After finishing our salads, we got our food. First of all, the pasta portions were pretty big. My rigatoni bolognese was brimfull in a deep-dished, wide-brimmed bowl. Chunks of ground pork and beef were swimming in the thick red sauce with large rigatoni noodles. The taste was very good.
Cindy's son had an equally large portion of the black fettuccine with the sauteed lobster chunks and mushrooms. Actually, his pasta heaped over the top of the brim of his bowl. He said, "There's no way I can eat all this." That's what I wanted to hear because I wanted a couple bites of his.
Cindy was a little confused by her flat iron steak that was surrounded by asparagus and a medley of vegetables. She said, "Isn't this a little thick for a flat steak?"
I figured out that she confused the flat iron cut with flank steak. I said, "No, no. Flat iron is just the cut of the meat." Flat iron steak aficionados say its the best cut of steak you can have. While I think it's pretty flavorful, I don't think it beats a good tenderloin filet or a good New York strip. Flat iron steaks are big in the U.K., but when colleagues from Great Britain come to America and go to a steak house with me, they aren't ordering a flat iron steak (called the Butlers cut in the U.K.).
Cindy's daughter got her cedar-plank salmon. It was topped with a honey-balsamic glaze. The only problem is that Ashleigh forgot both her polenta and her son's butter pasta. While she was nice, Ashleigh did seem a little overwhelmed and scattered at times. Once that got resolved, we were ready to eat.
As I said, I was extremely happy with my rigatoni bolognese. Cindy's son told me about his black fettuccine and lobster, "Oh, man. This is so rich. But it's so good." He eventually put some of his black fettuccine and lobster on my bread plate. He was right - it was rich and very good. He got full early and there was enough left in his bowl for Cindy and her daughter to try.
Once Cindy got past the confusion about her cut of meat, she said that her steak was very good. And Cindy's daughter said her salmon was equally as good. She works down the road from Monica's and she's in there quite a bit for lunch. She said she's never had a bad meal in the place. But for what everyone had on their plates, we all said the black fettuccine with the sauteed lobster was the best.
Now, Cindy's grandson does not have any of my blood in his body. But he showed some promise that he somehow channels some of my family's traits when it comes to eating spaghetti. This was a normal thing for my brother and I to do when we ate spaghetti when we were young, much to the consternation of my mother. The kid can actually work a fork with pasta pretty well, but he found that it's much more easy - and fun - to eat spaghetti noodles this way. It sort of embarrassed Cindy, but her kids and I got a large kick out of it.
Always the perfect host, Randy Larson was making the rounds asking people at various tables how their meals were. He stopped by for a bit and asked how we were doing. I told him that I didn't think we'd be calling or e-mailing him anytime soon about the quality of the food. He smiled and said, "Great! That's what I want to hear."
Quite honestly, there wasn't much to complain about with our meal at Monica's. Our server, Ashleigh (she was one of many younger people working in the restaurant), was friendly and effervescent, but a little scattered at times. I thought my rigatoni bolognese was very good and the bites I had of the black fettuccine with lobster were outstanding. Everyone liked their food and everyone associated with Monica's were very friendly. Before I left, Randy came over to shake my hand and thanked us for coming in. I told him that we'd be back. And we will.