What’s in a name? Lots at Blue Tomato3/5/2014
Blue Tomato Kitchen is named after a new, cross-pollinated fruit that gourmets are comparing to the legendary New Mexican chile. Created in 1913 at New Mexico State, and improved 20 times, the New Mexican chile dominates that state’s agriculture and cuisine. Iowans flock to Hy-Vee each August when it imports truckloads. The blue tomato was created at Oregon State University 100 years later and was made available as a seed (Indigo Rose) last year. It’s distinguished by large amounts of anthocyanin, an antioxidant that gives color to blueberries and other fruits. Restaurant owner David Baruthio and chef Nick Illingworth already have a local blue tomato farmer lined up for the 2014 harvest.
In the meantime, the restaurant pays homage to its namesake with a Jaime Navarro mural that spoofs Belgian artist René Magritte’s “Son of Man,” replacing the iconic green apple with a blue tomato (which would translate as “blue love apple” from literal French). Navarro also painted a faux brick wall and another blue tomato mural to adorn the 60-seat café. Baruthio, who earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand at a restaurant in Belgian, realizes that the café is as much a work in progress as the tomatoes he plans to feature.
Its focus will be stone-cooked pizza and house-made pasta. The latter were scheduled to debut today. The place opened to full houses and used prepared pasta during my visits prior to this review. Antipasto and pizza starred for me.
Parmesan frites ($8) were hand-cut from Russets and twice-fried to glorious crispness, salted and treated to cheese baths. They were served with paprika aioli. All fries should be so lucky. Fresh ricotta ($6) was served in large ramekins with olive oil and cracked pepper, to be eaten on charred pieces of bread. Beef carpaccio ($15) rivaled that of Fleming’s for best in town. Super thin slices of raw tenderloin were served on a warm plate with freshly shaved Parmesan, olive oil, capers, winter arugula and fresh lemon. Tomato salad ($8) was a day-for-night improvement over one served in the restaurant that previously used this address. Blue Tomato’s version used red fleshed Romas cut and placed around a bed of arugula topped with five generous chunks of soft, fresh mozzarella. Another salad featured a preserved orange vinaigrette that should be bottled and sold. A Caesar salad ($7) featured white anchovy and creamy Parmesan.
Twelve-inch pizza were minimalist, Baruthio says, “in the style of Milan.” Cooked at 650 degrees, their thin crusts were crisp enough to qualify as “tavern-style” in America. If you like lots of sauce and cheese, these might disappoint you. If you must have sausage or build your own, they will surely disappoint you. Otherwise, they are quite wonderful. My favorite was a simple Margherita ($12) with fresh mozzarella, red sauce and basil. Baruthio’s favorite is a Romano ($14) with red sauce, garlic, black olives, anchovies, oregano and Calabrian chile. Illingsworth’s favorite is a Bolognese ($15) with classic beef Bolognese and ricotta.
A carbonara ($14), served with a raw cracked egg, bacon and Parmesan, introduced me to mezzani pasta. A seafood pomodoro ($20) included four shellfish. Blue tomatoes are out of season but other tomatoes were ubiquitous. They dominated that dish, as implied in the Italian word “pomodoro” but not in its English menu description. They even appeared in a water based “Milanese risotto,” so much so I could not see that saffron had been used. That risotto was served under a chicken breast kebab ($16). Excellent desserts were made for the café by Tami’s Tarts and Carefree Patisserie.
Bottom line — like it’s namesake, Blue Tomato should only get better.
Side Dishes Scooter’s Coffee and Yogurt opened in the Midland Building… Iowa Choice Harvest’s initial frozen products appeared in Dahl’s stores. Its corn and apples are GMO free… Billy Joe’s Lounge closed, but the breakfast offerings will continue with the same cook and menu at The University Tap. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.