Romance by any other name…1/31/2024
Romance has been defined more ways than there are to ask for a date to the prom. Hollywood and the merchants of St. Valentine brand our young minds with very sentimental trappings — chocolates, flowers, linen table cloths, candlelight and violins.
There is another more expansive definition, sometimes ascribed to James Joyce but usually credited to anonymous: “Romance is that which transports one to another time or place.” We went looking for examples.
Irina’s Steak and Seafood has bits of both kinds. It’s a lovely place with dramatic floor-to-ceiling curtains, tablecloths, subdued lighting, great music from another era, and fantastic presentations of both drinks and plates.
This is the third and finest incarnation of the restaurant for Irina, Dmitri and family. The couple met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. They know a thing or two about entertaining diners there.
On Russia Nights, the live entertainment is sung in Russian. Last month’s Lobster Fest featured live lobsters five ways, with one and a quarter pound crustaceans transported to another time and place by the magic of FedEx. They were reasonably priced, to say the least: Lobster chowder for $8 to crab stuffed whole lobster with potatoes and sweet corn for $60. Another event featured a whole crocodile. (It tasted better than chicken.)
Recently the restaurant has been offering slow night and happy hour deals that make it a bargain among fine dining establishments. Sunday and Monday, all steaks and most appetizers are half priced. Some nights, there is live music. Other times, the best soundtrack in town plays the music of the jazz era — Satchmo, Ella, Old Blue Eyes, Tony Bennet, Dino, Ray, etc.
The regular menu is purely classic with a Russian flare that is unique in Iowa. The oyster Rockefeller was served with caviar, bang bang shrimp with pickled ginger and seaweed. Ravioli are stuffed with short rib meat, spinach and blue cheese. Mac and cheese have truffles. The Caesar salad included roasted red peppers.
Irina’s steak de Burgo, which won CITYVIEW’s Ultimate de Burgo Challenge, is a creamy version. All steaks can be wet or dry aged. Desserts are special with my favorite carrot cake ever keeping me from further exploration.
Most of the dramatic presentations include fried pasta and flowers. The bar, of course, specializes in vodkas. A distributor told me Irina has the best vodka selection in the state. One can order flights from several nations. Contrarily, they make an old fashioned with high end tequila.
My favorite example of a restaurant that transports a subject to another time and place is Hessen Haus. That is the original edition of the Full Court Press gang’s efforts to provide unique experiential restaurants. Hessen Haus just does a better job than Royal Mile, Red Monk, High Life Lounge, Fong’s Pizza and Mullets.
Every time I enter, I am transported to a Bavarian bier haus. There are 13 beers on tap that are imported from Germany. You can try all the German varieties — Munich dark, Kolsch, lager, brauweisse, hefeweizen, Märzen, festbier, wit, etc. And you can drink beer from a 67.5-ounce boot.
All the trappings of Bavaria are here, and it does not look like any other place in Iowa. This is no theme park restaurant like PF Chang’s or Olive Garden; this is personalized. The food presents the best of German specialties, giving the lie to the idea (probably spread by the French) that German food is boring.
Jägerschnitzel is a superlative pork tenderloin. Sausages come in three German styles. Schweinshaxe is my favorite dish, a slow roasted pork shank. Sauerbraten is marinated 72 hours producing tender and tart roast beef. Potato pancakes, red cabbage slaw and German potato salad are all distinct from norms. ♦
Jim Duncan is a food writer who has been covering the central Iowa scene for more than five decades.