Motley School Tavern11/6/2019
Serving common dishes uncommonly well
Motley School Tavern does not take itself too seriously. Its name plays on Shakespeare’s motley fool, and the stock market analysis company of that name that reminds customers not to take any guru too seriously. The idea at the restaurant is to serve common dishes uncommonly well. As Shakespeare’s fools often hid great wisdom in gibberish, Motley School hides superb cooking in common American recipes. “All that glistens is not gold.”
MST does not brag about it, but they make a lot of difficult stuff from scratch — pickles, pastrami, bread, smoked chickens, smoked trout, hummus, pancakes, biscuits, grits, horseradish, sauces, cavatelli, jams, mortadella, pierogis, kimchi, slow beans, buttermilk mashed potatoes, etc. They execute most everything with patient care. For instance, their breakfast potatoes, the best I have ever had, are first cooked confit, slowly at low heat for a long time and then finished in a deep fat fryer at high heat. This process produces an incredible crispness on the outside and a decadent texture inside. They are seductive. Though only on the breakfast/brunch menu, the restaurant will substitute them during dinner for a dollar surcharge.
I first met those potatoes on a simple breakfast platter that included slow beans, homemade slaw, toast, jam, two eggs and a choice of meats ($10). I have since met them hanging out with pastrami hash, pickled chow chow relish, eggs and the same beans and slaw ($11), with a pork belly benedict with gochujang (a sweet and spicy red chili paste) and greens, and with a pastrami sandwich with wonderful pickles, onions, fresh dill, slaw and Dijon aioli ($13).
The appetizer menu is full of dishes large enough to share with one or two others. Onion rings were delectable with crisp breading and large sliced rings, served with two sauces and Romano cheese ($8). They are not quite like any others in town that I have tried. Pierogi (East European dumplings) were stuffed with potato and cheese and served with horseradish cream, Brussels sprouts, pickled mustard and dill ($11). Hummus was served with lavash (oven roasted flatbread), roasted zucchini muhammara (a hot pepper dip) and yoghurt ($9). Wings, pretzels with cheese dip, lettuce wraps and nachos were also on this menu.
Grinders were made with n’duja, a Calabrese sausage with hot pepper flavor, prosciutto, burrata, olives and onions ($12 with fries or salad). The house burger, pronounced fabulous by a young friend, was served with white cheddar plus fondue cheese, smoked chilies, bacon and onion rings ($14).
Cornmeal crusted walleye, the best-selling entrée, was fried in butter and served with a house take on tartar sauce, fried greens and a choice of two sides ($17). If you don’t like your fish well done, be sure to tell your waiter. I also tried the chicken fried steak, because I always do. This version was as tender as any I have tasted. A sirloin cut had been marinated in buttermilk a long time before being breaded and fried ($17). Short ribs of beef were also superb and off beat. They were barbecued in honey and gochujang for an even sweeter taste ($16). Pasta, bacon wrapped lake tout, vegetable curries and cherry wood smoked chickens finish off the entrée menu.
The dessert menu was short with three choices a day. A strawberry rhubarb crumb was superb but perhaps seasonal. Beignets were quickly devoured. There is also a menu called after school snacks that includes things like deviled eggs, kimchi, chips and dip, roasted Brussels sprouts, and bologna sandwich, all for $3-5.
The rectangular bar is a seating option, and cocktails are adventurous. ♦
MOTLEY SCHOOL TAVERN
1903 Beaver Ave., 279-0075
Sunday and Tuesday – Thursday, 9 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Friday 9 a.m. – 10 p.m. Brunch is served till 2 p.m.
Jim Duncan is a food writer who has been covering the central Iowa scene for more than two decades.