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AJ’s pays double

AJ’s, an abbreviation for the ultimate hand in Black Jack, represents Prairie Meadows big bet on the good taste of Iowa gamblers. With one exception (Milwaukee’s Dream Dance), casino restaurants in the Midwest entice customers with big calories-per-dollar payoffs rather than distinguished dining. But the Altoona casino is playing the odds on the culinary cutting edge with its new 130-seat restaurant. The chips in this pot are normally found in small bistros, if they are found at all in Iowa: Kobe or prime beef only; foam essences; organic juice reductions; 48-hour bone stocks; scratch artisan baking, etc.

In less than a month, AJ’s has birthed four culinary legends, all now verified. 1) The total investment in Prairie Meadows’ new kitchen and dining concepts, which includes a second new restaurant, exceeded $15 million. 2) AJ’s all-union restaurant jobs were the most sought after in Iowa in decades; Auditions were held for the top eight talents. 3) As soon as the casino brass tasted Scott Bailey’s “scallops gremolata” the job was his. 4) During the blizzard-forced shutdown of Interstate 80, AJ’s became a haven for gourmet truckers, a group so adept at Wi-Fi communications they can build reputations in a ping. I talked to two such road foodies who said they dined twice a day at AJ’s, which is only open for dinner, while recruiting other stranded “good buddies” by streaming video of their dishes.

Ambiance resembled an heirloom Iowa steakhouse, and service was attentive, but short of four-star status. There were linen tablecloths and classical music, but no fresh flowers. Waiters crumbed tables, expertly answered menu questions and filled water glasses quickly, but did not replace dirty napkins when guests got up from their tables in mid meal. A courtesy breadbasket included four “artisan breads” that seemed too consistent and uniform in their soft, light textures. Ciabatta, French and olive-focaccia mostly differed only in shape. A fourth bread looked like twisted pizza crust and best accommodated the honey butter.

Soups were heavenly. Bailey’s house soup combined five onions, in various stages between raw and caramelized, in a nectar of both chicken and veal stocks, topped with Grand Padana cheese and croutons. An evening special wild mushroom soup was made with four kinds of fresh mushrooms, producing a milder flavor, but more interesting textures than with the more typical dried mushroom soups.

Steaks too were divine — flame broiled or pan-cooked after a minimum of 90 days aging and five hours of dry aging in the kitchen’s unique, temperature and humidity controlled “garde manger.” That produced a perfect sear. Prime rib was a personal restaurant epiphany. I asked for “an end cut, rare.” I am normally thrilled to get one or the other, but this is no normal restaurant — I got both. The tail-on ribs were herbed in a mix heavy on rosemary and lavender. As requested, it was served with side sauces of: mirepoix au jus; a wild mushroom Madeira and Cabernet-thyme reduction, all complimentary. The dish that won Bailey his job presented large, seared scallops under micro greens (mint-coriander), garlic and the zest of two citrus fruits, in caper-accented buerre blanc, on a plate of beet and carrot reductions.

Bailey is his own pastry chef and shows off on desserts, reducing sugar to caramel in Earl Grey tea on one and sprinkling gold leaf on another. His homemade berry sorbet was the best dessert, rich as gelato. Tiramisu and “strawberry short cake stacker” were lovely to look at, but too light in texture for their sauces.

With 128 seats to fill, there are some odd concessions on the menu, such as broasted chicken and sandwiches. Diners can spend less than $8 on a sandwich, $14 to $45 on an entrée (all of which include bread basket, salads and sides) and $5 to $250 on wine. Desserts are priced $4 - $6. All are good bargains, which is about the only thing AJ’s has in common with most Midwest casino restaurants. CV

By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
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