By Jim Duncan
The Café: overcoming word abuse
Like people, words that are frequently abused often behave perversely. Consider “the.” The
Oxford English Dictionary ranks it the most common word in our language. When
used emphatically to mark a noun as a categorical superlative, it’s the
most overused word in marketing, too. For every legitimate use, like “Chow’s
is the school for gymnasts,” it’s used a dozen times as hyperbole,
as in “the place to be seen.” Call yourself “the” anything,
and you risk becoming a joke. However, if you coddle your “the” with
enough respect, you can create a meaningful signature. Consider The Café.
Along with sister restaurant Aunt Maude’s, this Ames company has graduated the most impressive chef alumni in Iowa, including James Beard Award winner Eric Ziebold (The French Laundry, CityZen). Maude’s sprung from 1970s fern bar culture and owned its niche as “the place in downtown Ames for visiting parents to take their kids to dinner.” The Café was a child of 1990s real estate bubble culture and anchors a faux downtown amidst a faux small town real estate development, several blocks north of the Iowa State campus. Authentic trappings compensate for whatever might be perceived as ersatz about this French country style venue. The façade is real brick, the interior is dominated by plank floors, cork board table tops, brushed nickel ceiling fans and brick ovens burning fires of real wood. Three distinctive rooms specialize in bar, bakery and dinner services.
The bar featured large jars of vodka infused with fresh fruits, peppers and other vegetables. Juices were freshly squeezed, and infusions were “buddled,” a bartending term (borrowed from mining) for a trendy method of filtering. Though the wine list has been upgraded over the years, it still disappoints oenophiles compared to downtown Des Moines standards. However, its wine by-the-glass list ($4-$6) would cost a few dollars more in the 50309.
The bakery was totally scratch — every bread, pastry and ice cream was made in house from fresh ingredients. French toast ($4.95) used raisin walnut bread, farm fresh eggs, real maple syrup and real butter. Sourdough griddlecakes came with an option of chocolate chips and strawberries. Bruschetta was served with house-cured prosciutto and Hollandaise sauce. Deli sandwiches ($4.45-$5.25) featured house-cured charcuterie. Desserts were better than I ever remember here. An almond cherry “galette” featured an unexpectedly flaky crust and cherries soaked in cardamom and citrus. Mascapone bread pudding starred intense banana bread and deep cream flavors. Chevre ice cream was as good as it gets north of Baru.
Dinner kept the “fresh & local” faith of old-fashioned, small-town Iowa. A “plowman’s platter” showed off house charcuterie with cured pork belly and home-stuffed sausages surrounded by eggs, imported cheeses and homemade giardinera. Pork belly tacos were served with sesame slaw, sweet chilies and pickled mushrooms. Shawarma was a disappointing use of the wood-fired oven. Its chicken was overcooked throughout, not thinly sliced quickly from the outside as its name implies. A Philly-style leg of lamb beautifully captured a wood sear without becoming overcooked. It was a star, served with artichokes, salty Manchego cream, crisp fried chard and homemade potato chips. A flat iron “churassco” also defied implied expectations for seared, skewered meats sliced repeatedly tableside. Instead it was grilled, overcooked and served as a single piece of meat with good chimichurri and chipotle cream.
Bottom Line — The Café is the place for old-fashioned, small-town café fare — three meals a day with scratch-made, fresh and local foods at bargain prices.
Long-time The Café sous chef Mike Holman will be head chef when Americana opens on Locust Street in late May… Ancient White Park cattle were upgraded from “critical” to “threatened,” thanks to Heritage Farm in Decorah. CV
Caption: Ploughman’s platter shows off homemade charcuterie at The Café, 2616 Northridge Parkway, Ames, (515) 292-0100. Hours are Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.