Magnolia and Marlene know what ladies like10/5/2016
Before dinner after a high school homecoming in the mid 1960s, my date advised me on subjects I knew nothing about. First she told me that it was unseemly for a lady to order for herself. Since I would be ordering for both of us, she also added that no lady should ever eat in public with her fingers, so fried chicken and french fries were out. Thirdly, whatever I ordered, my serving should always be larger than hers. Two excellent new restaurants have reminded me how differently people think about what women want to eat.
The buzz around Magnolia Wine Kitchen is that the place focuses more on female diners than any other in town. People compare it to the long-gone Younkers Tea Room where ladies frequently powdered their noses when I worked there in the 1960s. I imagined a restaurant of quaint antique china, likely mismatched, and an old-fashioned tea room menu. The people running Magnolia are far better informed about what women want than I ever have been. This place has been packed consistently for lunch and dinner, and staff who also worked for former Lurra Cocina in the same location told me business “skyrocketed” after the changes.
The dining room looks fantastic with mint green walls, antique and floral art and the most comfortable overstuffed furniture west of Splash. Acoustics dictated some décor, but one really only notices that at lunchtime. On my visits, the crowd ranged from overwhelmingly female to dominantly female. They are not coming for old-fashioned notions about what ladies like to eat. This menu would be at home in a sports bar — huge burgers, sandwiches, wraps, tacos, sliders, truffle fries, pizza and bruschetta overwhelmed a few non-finger foods.
Everything I tried was well executed. A French dip sandwich — the messiest sandwich one can order — was inspired with grilled and buttered bread, coated in cheese with tender, juicy prime rib with a divine cup of jus. A hummus trio included an edamame version appropriate to this soy bean state. Cabernet Sauvignon was served very cold to my taste (55 degrees Fahrenheit), but I was told no one else had complained. I clearly still know next to nothing about what women like.
Marlene’s at Sevastapol Station reminds me of a number of southern themed restaurants that opened in old depots soon after Fannie Flagg’s bestselling book “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café” and the blockbuster film it inspired in the early 1990s. Female owned, it also has a feminine focus. Wine dinners are featured in a burgundy and black dining room with an attached patio. A wine rack is made out of a cello.
Lunch and dinner menus differed considerably, but both featured unusual treatments of familiar sounding dishes. Stuffed mushroom caps were filled with chevre rather than the ubiquitous Boursin. Caesar salads were treated in a dressing of coarse mustard seeds and anchovies with whole, folded leaves of Romaine hearts. Beef stroganoff was made with filet trimmings in marrow stock; it was a once-popular special of the day that customers demanded become a regular. Crab, duck and salmon seemed to be the house favorites with many different applications of each. The house soup is a bisque made with smoked lump crab; it’s as good a soup as Des Moines offers. Duck frites were drizzled with hot duck fat.
C.J. Ryherd of Django won the Peoples’ Choice Award in the Iowa Restaurant Association’s Mixology Championships.
Josh O’Connell from Black Sheep Social Club in Cedar Falls won the judges award with Ryherd finishing as runner-up.
|Marlene’s at Sevastapol Station
1938 S.E. Sixth St., 288-0898
Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. and 4-9 p.m.
Magnolia Wine Kitchen
1420 Locust St., 635-0952
Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., Monday – Thursday 3-9 p.m.,
Friday – Saturday 3-10 p.m.