Garden fresh at Chef’s Kitchen8/10/2016
After 29 years of weekly columns in Cityview (and its sister publications), this is my first monthly column. I chose Chef’s Kitchen because it represents what is best about both the old and new in Iowa restaurants — neighborly, small-town service and a third millennium emphasis on fresh ingredients.
As most traveling salesmen can tell you, the best dining in Iowa in the last half-century featured family-run places that opened for breakfast and kept their menus simple but executed recipes from scratch. They were creative but not fancy. Mickel’s in Harlan (1950-2013), Cronk’s in Denison (since 1929), Green Gables in Sioux City (1929-2014), and Stones Under the Viaduct in Marshalltown (1887 – 2006) were all civic institutions. Service clubs met there for breakfast, and families went there for special occasions.
Bud Mickel invented one of Iowa’s most famous dishes, “chuck wagon steak” (smoked ground beef wrapped in bacon). On its last day of business, they sold 700 of them. Mickel’s greasy rolls were uniquely deep fried. Cronk’s was the first place I found French toast made out of cinnamon rolls. Ann Landers learned dining etiquette at Green Gables. Stone’s immortalized “Mile High Lemon Chiffon Pie.”
Before chains found their way to smaller towns, restaurants outside Iowa’s biggest cities were mostly three-meals-a-day operations. Chef’s Kitchen is the city gold standard for such comfort food. It’s a true mom and pop, operated by husband and wife hostess/chef Kristy and Steve Little. Chef’s gets overlooked these days compared to Beaverdale’s more cutting edge cafes. They have a slew of loyal customers who do not care about cutting edges. They show up for the classics, which no one does better than Steve Little. As in small towns, seats at the bar fill fast, though booths and tables are comfortable.
Breakfast is never called brunch at Chef’s. That would just be wrong. There are many creative ideas on the menu: caprese omelets made with mozzarella, smoked chicken sausage and seven fresh vegetables; French toast stuffed with Marscapone and fresh fruit; breakfast deBurgo with poached eggs. The stars, though, are more basic. Chef’s hash brown and home fried potatoes rank with Latin King’s as the city’s most famous. They are even sold as an entrée for dinner with a choice of 26 toppings. Chef’s makes three Depression-era breakfast inventions that are increasingly harder to find — creamed chipped beef on toast, corned beef hash and country fried steak.
Steve Little was the chef at Johnny’s Vet’s Club before he bought Winston’s and then Chef’s. His version of deBurgo is the Greek style with a touch of creaminess. He also features a facsimile of Italian style de Burgo that he calls bistecca a la Fiorentina. It’s sauced with olive oil, fresh garlic, sage and rosemary. Chicken de Burgo is also featured. Little also was chef at Prime Time where he first made the clam chowder that would star at Wellman’s Pub for decades. He also makes a new soup of the day. Recently that meant fresh strawberry soup.
His menu highlights a “chef’s all-time favorite chicken dish” that includes chicken marinated in lemons, herbs and garlic then cooked and served on rice with vegetables. Another highlighted item is my favorite dish, particularly this time of year when most of its ingredients are garden fresh. Chef’s calls it eggplant lasagna, but it’s a veritable ratatouille. Eggplant is smothered in a sauce of tomatoes, zucchini, beans, carrots, onions, garlic, herbs and whatever is in season. It’s also covered with fresh mozzarella.
Courtesy chocolate chip cookies are served each night until they are gone. There is a full bar and an ample parking lot. Corkage is free.
1903 Beaver Ave., 255-4411
Tuesday – Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; Saturday, 7:30 a.m. – noon; and Sunday 7:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.
DMACC Newton campus has attached a garden to the kitchen of its culinary school. Look for farm to fork dinners soon.
Wallace House, where all dinners are farm to fork, has a new format this year with only one discussion group a month, plus music, a chef’s table and theme nights.