Cityscape solves the traveler dilemma5/28/2014
Hotel restaurants operate with conflicting ambitions. On one hand, most travelers want consistency and seek familiarity. But there are also an increasing number of travelers who want to taste the local flavors of places they visit. So, how does a hotel room keep everyone happy? One answer comes from an unlikely source.
Holiday Inn is the chain that once forced an Ames outlet to paint over a specially commissioned mural by Iowa artist Bill Hamilton. It was not considered consistent with the décor of other company stores. They seem to have lightened up. The main floor of the Holiday Inn Downtown – Mercy Campus now features one of the best art collections in town, including works by many regional artists. Recently remodeled, the once dark and secluded bar has been opened up by an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows facing the downtown skyline from its perch on a hill above the freeway. It’s probably the best ground-level view in town now. Potted pansies sit in front of each window, too. The interior offers an eclectic mix of high top and low top tables, giant booths and average sized booths. Kaleidoscopic lamps hang from the ceiling.
The hotel’s solution to the traveler’s menu dilemma is only partially mandated by the company. Breakfast must be the same as at all Holiday Inns, but the lunch and dinner menu reaches out to embrace local flavors. After its massive remodeling, this hotel hired Kris Van Tuyl to take over the kitchen. He’s a young Iowan who cut his teeth working at La Mie, Le Jardin and his own place, Luna. His menu seems to have found a comfort zone with customers. His duck confit ravioli, a finalist in Cityview’s Ultimate Noodle contest last year, has been replaced by more familiar pasta — baked potato gnocchis with bacon, scallions, white cheddar and crème fraiche; and carbonara with smoked chicken and goat cheese. Overall, this menu offers a fair mix of local and southern-style comfort foods.
An Iowa plate was the most generous cheese and charcuterie offering I have seen with large pieces of Frissan Farms smoked gouda, aged gouda, Maytag blue, La Quercia prosciutto, sliced tart apples, candied walnuts and nearly an entire loaf of baguette. Chicken yakitori were open-grilled and soy-glazed. Prince Edward Island mussels were served with a marvelous sauce of white wine and butter with scallions and grilled tomatoes. Those stood out on an appetizer menu ($9-$13) that also offered wings, onions rings, bacon-wrapped shrimp, yakitori, quesadillas and fried cheese.
A burger delivered half a pound of house-ground beef with excellent fried pickles and horseradish cole slaw. The star on the sandwich menu ($9-$12) was grilled asparagus, served with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, tomatoes and a side of creamy green onion mac & cheese. Among entrée dishes ($16-$29) a “from the locker” menu seemed to offer good value. I tried a 14-ounce ribeye, perfectly seared, yet rare. It came with five fat, grilled spears of asparagus, sweet, house-made Worcestershire sauce, a choice of starches and a marvelous grilled Romaine salad — half a head of lettuce stuffed with cheese, bacon, tomatoes and onions and dressed with marvelous, light Dijon vinaigrette. I’ve been charged an extra $10 for similar salads in steakhouses. Even the starches were most interesting, with red beans and rice, potato-zucchini gratin joining the previously mentioned mac & cheese.
Desserts ($7) included pots de crème, berry compote, ricotta cheesecake and banana pudding.
Side Dishes Drake Law School volunteers began operating a program to recycle leftover industry and restaurant food to homeless shelters. Their pre-launch project on Drake Relays weekend saved $5,000 worth of food. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.