Review: Mint Mark

19 June 2022

I headed out of Milwaukee early in the morning, spending a little time in Fond du Lac before turning south-west and rolling into Madison mid-afternoon. I always enjoy visiting Madison, and have had many a good dinners here.

Sadly my usual place in Madison, Forequarter, is no more, so I had to find another. After that lacklustre dinner last night at Amilinda, I almost decided to just go get BBQ or something. But it was relatively early in the evening, and having skipped lunch again, I decided to give Mint Mark a try.

I got a ride there and goodness it was getting very warm. I had a long hike in the afternoon as well in the sun, so I wanted some relief. Inside Mint Mark was comfortable, and I plopped down at the bar. My friendly bartender showed me the menu and I went with a cocktail to start.

I relaxed and followed the barman’s suggestion by ordering just a pair of things to start. I like the vibe of this place, and it was quite busy too this Sunday early evening. Soon the first item arrived, the biscuit.

Oooh, this was good, lovely honey with that salty butter. Only problem is that it made my hands a sticky mess! But I got it sorted just before the terrine appeared.

Again, excellent, lovely quality stuff. Now I’m glad I decided to come out for dinner!

I enjoyed another cocktail, feeling liberated for not having to drive (I miss having Lyft!). I ordered some more stuff and soon they came.

The turnip dish was quite delicious, the chili crisps adding just the right kick to this dish — unlike last night’s blandness. The miso-ish broth was also quite nice, complementing the nicely-cooked turnips perfectly. More cocktails, and more food!

The pierogi was a unique Polish-Korean fusion, with kimchi ramps. Fabulously odd, but fabulous.

More cocktails! And I heard there was an off-the-menu special sausage, so I went with that to close the night.

Excellent stuff, you can always get great meats here in Madison, even if my meal tonight was less focused on meats. But finally I was full and happy.

I had a bit more booze, enjoying High West’s “bourye” as a nitecap.

This was a wonderful evening, but I’ll be paying for it in the morning I’m sure! But again, Madison comes to the rescue for a mediocre Milwaukee experience.

Mint Mark
1929 Winnebago Street
Madison, Wisconsin

Review: Amilinda

18 June 2022

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve visited Milwaukee, a city I’ve always enjoyed. Now with my car behaving somewhat nicely, I decided to take the long weekend away north. Slowly snaking through the Chicago suburbs and avoiding toll roads, I eventually hit the shores of Lake Michigan and headed north.

Ah, got there just in time to fuel up. It’s about 50 cents a gallon cheaper in Wisconsin…

I eventually rolled into Milwaukee and headed to my rather shady motel next to the airport. Why did I choose this? Well, it’s next to the bus stop straight into downtown, so why do I need anything luxurious if the only thing I need is to sleep? It’s safe enough, no bugs or anything, so…

I took the aforementioned bus towards downtown. Oops, I forgot there was a mask mandate on public transportation here…amazing how when you live in no-mask Peoria you forget people still use them elsewhere…

Got to downtown and dropped into my dining destination for the evening, Amilinda. I read some nice things about this place and it was convenient. I thought of going to my usual, always-safe Ward’s House of Prime, but I decided to take a chance.

I sat at the not-too-busy bar. Strange this place isn’t more busy on a Saturday night. I told my friendly server I was hungry, so I looked through the menu and he brought me my cocktail…but no bread. He forgot. Oops. Oh well, after a quick reminder it came.

I wolfed it down. Hungry.

I ended up ordering two mains as I hadn’t eaten since an early dinner the night before. I asked them to not bring them out together. So soon the first arrived, the braised beef tongue.

So so, a little neutral. I’m never a fan of tongue sliced too thin like this. You lose all the unique flavours that the tongue offers by doing it this way. No texture either. Blus it’s mostly lentils and greens beneath, an inflation-driven portion I guess. Overall so so, I just wish it wasn’t this bland.

But two things that started to bother me. In an unbusy restaurant, it’s annoying when you have to try so hard getting your server’s attention. Friendly, but he seems to be talking to his friends now. And secondly, they brought out my second dish while I was eating the first — when I asked them not to…

And this duck rice was also rather bland. I can see it being good, but it was extremely bland. Even the slices of duck breasts really didn’t do much for this dish. Sigh. And of course, I couldn’t get my server’s attention again with an empty wine glass…

That’s that. I decided to forego the dessert and just get out of here. What could have been a nice experience turned into, sadly, a rather sub-par one. I really should have gone to the reliable Ward’s

315 East Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

* I decided to walk the few blocks to the aforementioned Ward’s. Too full to have a prime rib of course, but had a few drinks and snacked on some goodies, so the night was saved. Should have come here in the first place…

Review: iNDO

7 May 2022

I had been planning this return weekend overnighter to St Louis for awhile now, with the priority of catching the performance by violin great Akiko Suwanai at the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. Sadly, a COVID outbreak within the symphony kiboshed those plans at the last minute, so will have to go without hearing her magnificent rendition of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1, as well as the underrated Symphony No 1 by Mahler.

But with a hotel room prepaid, I decided to just go down anyway, as I needed a weekend away after a rather crazy week at work. Isn’t it all crazy these days? Sigh… Looped around on another route that took me across the river at Louisiana (Missouri) and went slowly into the STL-area early afternoon. It was already getting warm…

But when I had planned my weekend earlier, I had already made a booking at highly-regarded iNDO — albeit at a very early hour (to accommodate my concert plans). I nevertheless got there as they opened at 5pm, and it was already quite busy. A good sign?

I was a little hesitant about tonight, having been burned at Hinata in Indianapolis. I chose to sit at the counter when I saw Chef-owner Nick Bognar working there. A good move. I relaxed and chatted with my friendly server and Chef, and ordered some stuff to start. I’m not all that much of a fan of the 2-hour ticking clock, but when dining solo it’s relatively easy — especially when much of the food is made to order in front of you.

I ordered a set of nigiri and it actually began to appear before my cocktail, as Chef Bognar got to work quickly. The hamachi wasn’t bad at all, nor was the saba.

The latter was a little light for my taste, cured in-house for a day, but that’s just because I miss the absolutely intense mackerel prep I used to get in Japan. And finally, some toro.

Quite good, but the first piece was extremely fibrous, which is always a possibility with this. But so far so good. And my cocktail had arrived just before the saba, so enjoyed all of this to start. Nice.

I nursed my cocktail a little before switching into wine. I had put in some hot food order as they bussed my sushi plates, and soon the first arrived — fried tofu.

This was delicious, done perfectly — crispy outside, soft inside. Lovely with the black bean sauce too. Shows this kitchen is quite good too. Then some ribs…

Delicious, sweet without it being overpowering, the meat done perfectly without it falling off the bone. Reminds me of the ribs my friend and business partner Chef Akhtar Nawab did back in our beloved Elettaria…

Another excellent dish, is my St Louis curse being lifted? I’ve always had trouble finding food that blew me away here that wasn’t BBQ, and after over a dozen trips this may be the best dinner I’ve had in this town.

I was chatting with Chef a little and he ended up comping me this kinmedai, which was quite nice of him. Good, but the various Japanese breams never really resonated with me. But I decided to switch back and have another set, and Chef Bognar got to work alongside his assistants as it was getting busy.

The set arrived and it looked good. First was hotate, which was pretty good.

A nice little treat from Hokkaido. Then we have some seared hamachi belly.

Delicious, perhaps even better than the raw one I had earlier. The torching was done quite well here by the assistant chef. Then finally, some Santa Barbara uni.

I chose these over the Hokkaido ones partly due to price, but also I think SB ones are as good in a different way, and after a night of eating various dishes it worked better. And it was quite nice, the first urchin I’ve had since I came out to the Midwest perhaps, and my eyes got watery…

This was an excellent night, and since I am not rushing for the door for the symphony, and the bar wasn’t filling totally up yet as it was a lot of reservations rolling over, I had a little more time. Reverted to a cocktail…

Oh, I didn’t have 2, just a composite of my first and this… But I still had time, and the weather demanded it…

Ice cream on a warm day, whisky in one hand, black coffee in another. This was a wonderful way to end the evening, albeit it was just after 7pm. I was spent, after this long week. But what a wonderful treat to end it on — and my St Louis curse has officially been broken!

I thanked Chef and the wonderful staff for the awesome service. It was definitely not inexpensive here especially if you go nigiri, but it was not as high as Hinata and the food was so much better. I’m more than happy to spend my limited funds if a night goes as well as this, so I walked out the door extremely happy.

Ah, if it wasn’t for the cancelled symphony this would have been a perfect evening…

Highly recommended!

1641D Tower Grove Avenue
St. Louis, Missouri

Review: Edge

It has been about a stupid of a week as it gets, it’s like sprinting downhill with a rolling boulder nipping at your heels. Just absolutely uncomfortable, draining, and ripe for a shitty end any second. At least it ended in a semi-cluster way with a mutual gripe session that left everyone off a little more relaxed than the start of the week…

I, however, needed to unwind. I left the location where my colleagues and I parted and walked up the road. I had thought of going somewhere to eat a block or two up, but I looked into the window of a place I had looked at before — Edge — and it was not busy at the bar, so I walked in.

Wow, this looks pretty good. My idiotic Google Maps told me it was crazy busy, which usually means I avoid. But I lucked out, and set myself down at the bar. A cocktail was in hand soon, and I ordered from the nice-looking menu. Relaxed and gabbed with my two excellent servers and soon my first arrived.

Ah, now this is more like it! An excellent dish, pasta cooked perfectly, and a nice assortment of seafood. Always a good test of a kitchen, and this kitchen more than passed. A fabulous first! Now for the second, which arrived alongside a generous pour of red, is the pork chop.

Again, cooked very well, the sourcing of the chop from the relatively local Kilgus Farmstead shows how important that aspect is for true farm-to-table restaurants. Beautiful dish, love the selection of asparagus and peas as well. Another excellent dish!

Well, this was a good discovery by chance! I am so happy I stopped in this strange evening! I have been doing more dessert courses lately, which I’m not sure why — am I getting a sweet tooth after almost 50 years? Anyway, I do always pick ones that are not as sweet…

This was a delicious slice of carrot cake, channelling my inner bunny I guess. Quite nice, especially with a wonderful rye to go with it. A perfect way to end an evening!

I thanked my two excellent servers and headed out in the warm evening, just before the downpour was due to start. With this crazy week now gone, I’m glad it ended so nicely. It needed to end so nicely…

Highly recommended!

4500 North Prospect Road
Peoria Heights, Illinois

Review #2: Epiphany Farms

17 April 2022

After that very lacklustre dinner at the “kaiseki” restaurant in Indianapolis, Hinata, I was not thinking of doing any more serious food on this trip. I was snaking back towards Peoria from Indianapolis, including many stops like Terre Haute. These drives are my saving grace these days…what’s keeping me sane.

But as I rolled back into Illinois I decided to have an early Easter dinner, stopping at Epiphany Farms in Bloomington (Illinois). I had a rather nice dinner here a few weeks back, so I thought why not.

A quiet night when I arrived at about 4.30pm, and I parked myself at the bar. Nice to see some familiar faces! I relaxed with a cocktail as I looked through the menu and pondered my choices. I made them, and chilled out.

It’s so nice to have some time to enjoy my cocktail before they throw food at you — unlike at Tempus in St Louis a fortnight ago. I switched to a nice white when my starter arrived, the mussels.

Now this is a good dish. Lovely flavours, the mussels cooked perfectly — unlike at Cobble Hill in Cedar Rapids a few weeks earlier. Lovely fries too, which is saying something because I usually detest those things. Really enjoyable, I’m glad I made this stop!

I relaxed with a glass of rose before my main course arrived. Nice sufficient timing again as I switched to a red for the day’s pork special, pork loin.

Oh dear, the holiday curse hits. This is cooked way, way too overdone. Sawdust stuff in the centre. Pork doesn’t need to be cooked beyond white these days, folks… Oh well, a holiday short-staff mishap perhaps. But the crusting was nice, and the parts that had some fat were quite nice. Oh well, could have been an excellent dish.

I switched to a nice brown liquor for my dessert…

Oh this is nice! The chocolate was rich, but the jalepeno sorbet had some wonderful kick to it that really made it stand out. So good!

I relaxed, finished my drink, and hung out a little to enjoy some coffee before I headed back to Peoria to close out this very long 38-hour trip. 750 miles later I am home, just beating the downpour.

But I’m really glad I stopped here for dinner, even if the main course was a bit of an exercise in overcooking. It was far more enjoyable than last night’s overpriced mess, that’s for sure. It’s always good to know I have a safe place to drop into east of Peoria when I head back on future excursions.

Epiphany Farms
220 East Front Street
Bloomington, Illinois

I So Miss Japan… (Review: Hinata)

I was not planning an escape during Easter weekend, as I was tired and needed to catch up on some much-needed rest. But as I was playing around online, I got a booking for the Saturday at Hinata in Indianapolis — a coveted slot for a tough-to-book place.

Hinata is a rare kaiseki place in the Midwest, and the reviews have been glowing. However, looking at the menu, I wasn’t as impressed — especially compared to something as awesome as Nasime back in the DC area.

They seem to have monthly offerings, and for April the “Sumire” 9-course menu was the sole choice. I stayed east of town for once, having rolled into the city mid-afternoon. I was knackered, having woken up at 5am and setting off not soon after. I snaked around using small roads as usual, so what was normally a 3hr drive turned into something closer to 7hrs. But it was worth it.

I arrived in downtown Indianapolis on a busy Saturday early evening, and luckily found parking right away. I walked the block to Hinata and I smiled — it’s in an office building. How Tokyo is this? So once I walked in, I was seated at the counter.

The excellent sommelier came and I agreed on the pairing. I relaxed and looked over the menu and soon the pre-appetizer arrived.

The first item was a seasonal carrot soup, which was a nice little treat to start the evening. A little smoke, very tasty. Good start. I guess the pairings will start soon.

Chef Aki Tanigawa makes a very quick appearance to unwrap the already-prepped starters. And quickly disappears even before it’s served. Strange…

The appetiser set sadly was quite disappointing, especially for those who are used to kaiseki dining. This was the first alarm bell of the night (also from the chef disappearing). The bamboo shoot was pretty ordinary, as was the tamago with some very underwhelming mentaiko. The chicken breast (probably not jidori) was also boring in a very strip-mall-typical sesame thing, while the eggplant under the zunda was probably the best of the very underwhelming start.

The pairing of a very good champagne was nice, but for a person who does not like champagne this was wasted on me. But this was not a great start for the food, I must say. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but this was very mediocre — especially for the price of the experience.

The third course came quickly, and this was a dumpling of littleneck clams and assorted other things. Not bad, but this dashi was ridiculously boring. It’s like they took little care to make this broth. That says plenty about the quality and effort put into this experience from the kitchen. I’ve had more than my share of similar dishes in Japan, and although the dumpling was nice, the dashi was really sad.

My mood was starting to sour, even despite having a nice tasting of txakolina with the acid cutting through…tho it would have been far, far more useful if the dashi was better! Oh well. Then we switch to a good sake for the sashimi course…

Again, it was ALL PRE-PREPPED so all the chef did was to take it out of the fridge and hand it to one of the servers. No personal touch at all. And walked off. Is this a pandemic thing or he’s just disassociated from his customers?

Nothing too impressive. The maguro was so-so, the hamachi was quite nice as was the hotate. The best dish of the night, but really piss poor to not see any counter preparation. Do these people realise we’ve been to Japan? Sigh…

That was a treat for me since I’ve not had any sashimi since I left the DC area six months ago, so it was needed. Then back down to earth with the next dish, sakuradai.

Now cherry bream is one of the many breams that you are offered. I’m not the biggest fan of them, but when done well they are excellent. Sadly not today, very meh. It’s like they fried up a piece of it and dumped it into tempura dipping sauce. The fish was thick and slightly overcooked (it was starting to “sawdust” if you know what I mean) but at least the coating protected it from getting soggy. Good idea as always, but executed less than perfectly with a rude chunk. Again, something you don’t see in Japan…

I need to stop comparing this place to Japan and remember I am in Indianapolis. A quick drop back down to earth. But why is this priced like Tokyo then? Sigh… Next up with some nice red we have the beef…

Very ordinary beef. Not anything special at all. And was this sous vide pre-grill (or blowtorched)? This was extremely ordinary and boring, and rather tasteless. When it needs the sauce, then I know I don’t like how my beef is done. Sigh.

This is not just not good compared to Japan, this is not good compared to most Japanese places in the US. This is really a false imitation of kaiseki, compared to what Nasime does in the DC area for example. Now that is a real kaiseki place, this is a poor rendition of it, with a terrible Midwest twist.

I was not in the mood when the next dish showed up, the tempura dish. It’s actually the 2nd best dish of the night, done very well. Lovely visuals. I love how they warned people about the curry salt when it has zero kick whatsoever. I. Am. In. Indianapolis…

Then we get to the “rice” dish, and again, this is a great reminder of not being in Japan. This is just a skewed way to end the savouries. Not the traditional rice dish, this is just a sad depiction of this meal in a nutshell…

I was very uninterested in the almond milk panna cotta, although it was not bad at all. I had lost all interest in this dinner. The drinks were done well, so that’s good — but a very expensive pairing. I excused myself to the bar since there’s no one behind the kitchen counter anyway. Had a few drinks chatting with the sommelier Shane, who was excellent. Frankly he’s more Japanese than anyone else in the restaurant.

I’m sorry, but for such an expensive experience — way more expensive than Nasime — this was a total joke. Nasime had top quality ingredients, today was a joke. You know when they don’t exhault the specifics of the ingredients that they are getting it from almost anywhere. This is a sad sign of the times, to be honest.

They say they’ll change the menu once a month and hope to see me again. Nope, no thank you. I’d rather fly back to DC and eat at Nasime and it may still be a cheaper experience. And WAY better and more authentic.

130 East Washington Street
Indianapolis, Indiana

Review: Tempus

9 April 2022

As I mentioned last week, I take these weekend overnight trips to help clear my head. And I sorely needed another one. And I timed this weekend’s trip to St Louis to enjoy one of my favourite symphonies, Dvořák’s 9th (Z Nového světa), performed by the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. The perfect piece of music, let’s hope the performance lives up to the SLSO’s reputation!

I took some winding roads towards St Louis, crossing over a lot of rural areas and entering via Alton. A warm day already, so after a few stops I dropped into the venerable Schottzie’s Bar and Grill for lunch. It’s been years since I had their brain sandwich. After a rather long wait (for the last brain), it was not really worth it. It’s even less tasty than the last time I had one here. I miss the excellent fried brain in Vienna

I headed out, making a few more stops before I got to my hotel to quickly shower and change and head back out. Before the symphony I was having an early dinner. I read about Tempus, and it intrigued me. The prepay system intriged me far less, but that’s fine. The two-hour limit intrigued even less than that, but I have to get out in that time anyway tonight, so…

I got there and was told that Saturday street parking was metered until 7pm. Damn. Had to quickly move the car, but at least my cocktail was waiting for me.

Delicious. No, I didn’t drink two, just formatted the photo like this. The cocktail on the right was what I had with dessert (see below). I ordered then as well, then relaxed…

Very soon the bread came out, accompanied by butter and sorghum. Nice. I enjoyed a small piece of bread, the sweetness of the sorghum worked very well with the butter, but the bread wasn’t very warm inside for some reason. Then just as I was about to take a sip of my cocktail, my starter comes out…

Sigh… Do they ever let you relax and enjoy a cocktail BEFORE dinner these days? I asked my very capable barman and he basically said “our kitchen is really on” — whatever that means. I guess they don’t anticipate people wanting to relax with a cocktail. Sigh…

Now this was sadly very, very ordinary. The beets were in nice chunks, and the goat cheese done well. But very skimpy, to be honest. Compared to last week’s starter at Cobble Hill, this was negligeable content… At this point I also switched to a nice orange wine and just as I was sipping it, my main course comes out.

What is this, do they want me out of here in 45 minutes? Sigh… Again, all I heard was “our kitchen is really on” and I just sighed… Now this crab dish is quite good, with a generous amount of crab. Good flavour, just enough kick for it to be interesting. So despite all the rush rush stuff, this was a good main. But that still bothered me as I finished and I told my bartender I need a break.

Now I’ve heard this “our kitchen is really on” thing at more than a few places lately. Sadly that just tells me that the front of the house failed to communicate to the back, or the front just don’t care. I just don’t know anymore…

At least now there’s better understanding with my barman on my preferred pace. Too bad it’s almost over. I finished my wine and indicated I’m ready to move on. So nicely, a rum-centric cocktail and a piping cup of black coffee appear. And soon after, my dessert.

Pineapple. Honestly this really was nothing to write home about. The pineapple wasn’t bad, but for someone who eats pineapple all the time this really isn’t anything special. The banana sorbet was rather bland, and there’s not much of a coconut hint anywhere. Oh well.

I was a little early for my event, so I enjoyed a small tipple of rye before I headed out for the symphony. Honestly the food is pretty good, but nothing special. Definitely wasn’t worth the hassle of prepayment, especially feeling so rushed all night for absolutely no reason since I finished with half hour to spare in their two-hour time limit (which also annoys me).

Do people still remember this is the hospitality industry? A cookie to close the night…

Oh well. It’s a once and done place for me. My poor luck with STL continues…

4370 Manchester Avenue
St Louis, Missouri

* Unfortunately the St Louis Symphony Orchestra did not wow like Orchestra Iowa did the previous week. Reminds me of Paavo Järvi’s “emo” take on Dvorak’s 9th, with some very odd tempi. Missouri did not do this most Iowa of symphonies too proud.

Review #2: Cobble Hill

2 April 2022

I has been many years since I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Cedar Rapids. It was a weekend overnight trip that was sorely needed. Had one of the roughest weeks I’ve had in a long time, and that’s not even counting the hours of doing Ukraine-related things — which is just soul-draining…

It’s hard to function when your heart is breaking almost on a minute-by-minute basis…

I know for my mental health, in order to be effective, I need to escape once in awhile. So I headed to Cedar Rapids, ostensibly to enjoy a night listening to Orchestra Iowa. The amazing Joyce Yang was performing Rachmaninov’s ridiculously-demanding 3rd piano concerto, and that’s something I’d drive much further than 3 hours to hear.

Put I had a quick mission first, en route, in Moline, Illinois… My little tribute to the Ukrainian Army’s “Agricultural Division” at John Deere’s final resting place

As if that fucker Putler was watching me, my CHECK ENGINE LIGHT comes on soon after leaving Moline. FFS… Despite several stops and strange noises from my engine, my crappy VW — which I now named Zitrone (that’s of course LEMON — AUF DEUTSCH), I made it in one piece to Cedar Rapids.

I was so looking forward to returning to Cobble Hill, where I had an amazing dinner six years ago. When I parked my car, I almost wanted to see the bunny that was in the parking lot back then

An early dinner at Cobble Hill was perfect for the symphony, it being across the street at the beautiful Paramount Theatre. I was quickly seated at the kitchen counter of a very busy restaurant at 5.30pm. My readers know I’m not a big fan of dining on Saturday nights, as restaurants are always slammed and that affects the quality and consistency of both sides of the house. So I took it all with a grain of salt.

A nice cocktail — Garden of Eden — started the night, as I poured over the menu. I was hungry, having not eaten all day despite hiking over several cemeteries, so I ordered — and left a possibility for more. I relaxed and soon finished my cocktail. The place was indeed busy and my poor server had to cover multiple sections, not just me at the kitchen counter. So when she came for my next drink order, I just ordered two — another cocktail and a wine for later.

The second cocktail, Fly Over State, was also nice. I sipped at it until it was about done, just in time for my starter. And it was a big portion of mussels.

Well, unfortunately this was one of those times I wish I wasn’t here on a busy Saturday night. The mussels were somewhat undercooked, and a good number — more than usual — did not open. And it was extremely bland — and sadly, did not cover the taste of somewhat undercooked mussels. I would have said something if I wasn’t so bloody tired and hungry, but…sigh.

But it was a big portion, so I ate what was there that opened. The drippings for the bread didn’t help as it was rather tasteless, which was too bad. In any case, I relaxed and hoped this was an anomaly…

After a little, my overworked server came by and I asked for a glass of red. It came as my main course arrived, the pork special.

The loin was quite good, but small. It’s always odd when the main course is half the size of the starter. But the belly in the middle? Oh dear it was a fail. It was plasticky mushy, and the crips was not there. Sadly not good execution.

After all that, I was still hungry, but had lost my appetite. And the server was now completely overwhelmed. I felt so bad for her because so many people had events to get to and they were absolutely slammed. But tonight, sadly, it was the kitchen that really fell behind.

The front of the house sensed something and asked what was up. I’m glad they took such care of their customers, but by then I was too tired to bring anything up. Frankly, I also don’t like a situation where they take things off my bill if I had already eaten everything. I almost stopped saying these things now because of how quickly places start to comp, which is something that makes me terribly uncomfortable if I’ve already consumed all of the dish.

I decided to call it a session and closed out. I don’t know if it was an off night by the kitchen, them being so busy during the early rush, a post-covid thing or what, but it was definitely nowhere as good as my previous visit.

Cobble Hill
219 2nd Street Southeast
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

* As if there was any doubt, Joyce Yang and Orchestra Iowa was absolutely fantastic. Wonderful acoustics, excellent conductor, fabulous orchestra, and simply amazing soloist. I just hope us enjoying a few drinks together after the concert didn’t affect them too much for the next day’s matinee!

** And yes, somehow Zitrone with the check engine light and the weird engine noise got me back home through some more windy country roads, so at least it’s a resilient lemon…

Review: Brazen Open Kitchen

12 March 2022

My stress level has been at an all-time high, with so much going on. Ukraine breaks my heart and hurts my soul on a minute-by-minute basis. Whether it’s me studying Ukrainian at college in 1994 or playing a small but symbolic role in Estonian-Ukrainian relations in 1996, the country — it’s culture, language, traditions and people — have always remained an important part of what makes me tick. And I am ticked off beyond any normal sense of the word…

Throw in work stress from my day job, I needed to detach myself for a day. And yes, I do count my blessings I can escape from all this for 36 hours unlike my friends in Kyiv, Kharkiv and elsewhere…

I decided to just head north in my car, driving smaller state highways and other roads, avoiding traffic on an extremely cold day. That means black ice at points, but still better than the annoyance of the Interstate system. I snaked north through the north-west corner of Illinois, jutted into Wisconsin for a bit, and eventually crossed the Mississippi River and arrived in Dubuque, Iowa.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been here, but it’s nice to be in a most hilly part of stereotypically flat Iowa. I found my quirky but intriguing B&B, the historic Richards House. I’m usually not a big fan of B&Bs, since I like privacy and don’t eat breakfast. But this place had the best location and seems very unique. And I was right. The proprietress was a gem.

I got settled in and strolled the short distance into downtown. I parked myself at a bar called Hops & Rye, and had a wonderful time chatting with the staff and owner. The nicest people, good drinks, what else can you ask for?

But I had a dinner reservation so I headed out for the short walk to Brazen Open Kitchen. It got some attention recently with a James Beard semi-final designation…and if you’re a regular reader you know I’m not a fan of JB-hyped places.

I happily took a bar seat so they can give away my two-top on a busy Saturday night. Good, because lots of folks were waiting on tables. I enjoy sitting at the bar. A good cocktail in hand, and it quickly became the continuation of an already good night.

I decided on having something I usually don’t do at chef-driven places, but it looked so good on photos so I went with it. A half-bottle of red appeared, and my dinner arrived…

An excellent ribeye, thick and flavourful, cooked absolutely perfectly. High quality meat, wonderful execution, what else can you ask for?

It was extremely filling, so I just enjoyed a closing cocktail before I thanked the crew and headed out. For now, my James Beard curse has been broken…well, until another over-hyped place disappoint me down the road, of course. But Brazen is a solid kitchen that’s for sure, with friendly service and a wonderful bunch of fellow customers to chat with as well.

I would very much recommend not just Brazen, but Dubuque in general. It’s such an amazingly friendly town. If you ever want the stereotypical “Midwestern nice” town, this is it. And do check out Richards House and Hops & Rye for excellent accommodations and drinks.

Thanks, Dubuque, it was exactly what I needed! Now back to the distressing reality…

Brazen Open Kitchen
955 Washington Street #101
Dubuque, Iowa

* Of course I returned to Hops & Rye for several rounds more, with some excellent cocktails courtesy of the wonderful Allie.

** And of course I had a massive hangover, not helped by losing an hour (damn that daylight savings time…), but helped by a ridiculously huge and excellent breakfast at The Richards House. Mushroom quiche and poached pear to start, what?

Review: Epiphany Farms

6 March 2022

After a few weekends of foul weather, I wanted to get away. But I was so stressed from the horrors of Ukraine, doing as much as I can during my off hours to support them in any way I can. I was barely sleeping, with work being ultra stressful at the moment too. So frankly, the last thing I needed on a Sunday morning was a 6am alarm. But here we are…

It was a cold morning, just above freezing, and I took off north. I spent the next 9 hours driving through central-north Illinois and hiking through many cemeteries. This helps me de-stress so much…and was sorely needed. It was freezing cold with a biting wind, but just the way I like it.

By the time I rolled into Bloomington it was early afternoon, and the sun had come out. It was warming up, and I was getting tired. It’s been a long time since I hiked around so much. So after re-visiting the three major cemeteries in town, I started to think about an early dinner.

I was glad to find out that Epiphany Farms, the top restaurant in town, open at 4pm for dinner. I walked in minutes after it opened and took a place at the bar. A jovial bartender, who later I found out was the new beverage director, took wonderful care of me then and throughout the evening. I relaxed immediately.

Some good cocktails through the evening, and I was hungry — and he recommended the lamb shank. I could go for that! So as I enjoyed a bit more of my cocktail, the food soon arrived — at the same moment he poured me a wonderful cab franc.

Well, now this is something! The lamb is cooked extremely well, tasting of lamb rather than non-descript meat like so many places. As I have said time and time again since moving out here, the Midwest does lamb extremely well! Everything from daikon to beets help the dish along, as if it needed help. The garlic mash also added a wonderful touch. And my barman actually topped up my wine as well, so the service here is something I’ve not seen in awhile, which was a major plus.

I originally through I may do a starter after my main, but this plate was big, so I decided to just do a dessert this evening — both solid and liquid. For the solid part, a nice orange olive oil cake.

I love olive oil cake, and this was pretty good. The orange was a little skimpy, but it’s excusable. I wish the cake was more intense, but that was taken care of by the extremely good onyx chocolate gelato. That made up for the intensity for sure! A nice way to close, with a wonderful white negroni as well.

I chatted with the wonderful barman for a bit more, as well as some fellow diners before I headed out. I wanted to beat the forecasted downpour home, as I have a 45-minute drive back to Peoria. I thanked the excellent crew and headed on my way back west.

An excellent dinner for sure, so I’m glad I have a go-to place in nearby Bloomington as well! I made it home and relaxed after a very long day, having left home nearly 14 hours earlier. I relaxed, and was glad I brought something home for a snack…

Cornbread…oh this was good, even after sitting in a box. Lovely bacon and whipped goat cheese, with some braised red cabbage too. A wonderful treat to keep the night going when safely at home and listening to the storm outside!

Highly recommended for both food and drink! Excellent discovery for me!

Epiphany Farms
220 East Front Street
Bloomington, Illinois