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Cedar Rapids Restaurant Week 2023
Go around the world with limited-time specials from these restaurants
Cedar Rapids Restaurant Week is back with 21 restaurants and dozens of exclusive new cocktails, appetizers, entrees and desserts to try. But where to begin?
To get you started, I tried some of the most interesting and unique dishes and drinks in this year’s lineup. From casual spots to three-course dinners, whet your appetite or cross dishes off your list with my thoughts on new and returning restaurants.
If you want to see the menu to all 21 restaurants, we have you covered here.
Pom Pom Sour and Just Peachy at Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery
This year, Cedar Ridge is participating in Cedar Rapids Restaurant Week for its second time. Both cocktail specials bring warm flavors to the table as “fool’s spring” brings a brief reprieve from winter with 45-degree weather in February.
Cedar Ridge’s clientele tends to like sweeter drinks, we’re told. Each of these sweet and sour drinks lines up well with other popular drinks on the regular menu, while demonstrating the versatility of bourbon.
Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter this year, but these drinks disagree.
First up is the Pom Pom Sour.
Immediately the viscosity of the pomegranate syrup hits your tongue with a rush of sugar, followed by the bold, sour notes of pomegranate. Both are rounded out by the distillery’s bourbon whiskey before a bright, lemon finish.
If you think you don’t like bourbon, this drink can convert you. The bourbon is subdued enough to coax you in and bold enough to make an introduction.
Cedar Ridge’s second drink, Just Peachy, matches my mood after trying the first drink.
A bright citrus greets the nose at the top. The first sip punches through with the lime juice, almost like a freshly squeezed lemonade, as a peach flavor starts to trickle in.
Once the peach flavor settles in, it reminds me of that peach ring gummy candy. Sweet and balanced out by orange bitters to remind you it’s an adult drink, even if you can’t taste the vodka.
The Bagger vodka doesn’t interfere with the fruit flavors of the drink, delivering a clean, refreshing flavor throughout.
Okonomiyaki at the hip-stir
This savory Japanese pancake is being served with a Korean twist in Marion.
Chef Adam Gardner said this pancake can be made with anything you’ve got on hand. This week, they’re using shrimp, scallions and kimchi to bring something whimsical to Restaurant Week, with enough familiarity to tempt you to try it — a pretty common theme throughout hip-stir’s menu.
A pleasant palette of colors — green, yellow, golden brown — joins a pleasant palate of aromas wafting through the air as this comes to the table.
A cut into the supple pancake reveals an unexpected softness with a crisp, pan-fried edge. The first bite welcomes you with light cucumber, acclimating you slowly into heavier flavors with a creamy garlic aioli and accents of salty and earthy flavors from furikake, a Japanese condiment.
As my teeth sink into the shrimp buried in the pancake, the kimchi livens things up with a little bit of spice. The amount of spice is mild and tolerable for most audiences.
Pineapple punctuates each bite with a hint of sweetness that complements the spices and meal. Overall, the pancake is filling but not heavy.
The aftertaste reminds me of the savory aroma that permeates the air of a good ramen restaurant.
The Meat Lover and O’s Thai Chicken gyros at O’s Grill
First at O’s Grill, the owner has brought back a classic that he used to serve early birds for breakfast in his food truck.
The Meat Lover Gyro was my favorite through all our restaurant week tastings.
A beautiful mess greets you with a pillar of gyro meat, Moroccan-seasoned chicken and ground chuck with all the fixings — a heavy pour of O’s white gold sauce, a zigzag of hot sauce and parsley accents. It’s beautiful to look at in the kind of avant-garde way that makes street food appealing.
The first bite is an explosion of flavors that ushers in tender, demure chicken. Hard-boiled egg yolk adds a nice, buffering texture between the sauce and the meat.
Overall, the flavors stuffing this giant piece of fluffy pita bread are cohesive because of the seasoning. You can hardly tell where one meat ends and the next meat begins. The cheddar cheese is subtle, but a little crunch from the onion and juice from bites of diced tomato give the flavor experience an extra sensory dimension.
The white gold sauce, an adaptation of tzatziki sauce, was an excellence choice to bind everything together.
Next on my tray, with the same double-wide load size as the first special, is O’s Thai Chicken gyro. With an adapted Kalbi chicken, the owner and creator said it was inspired by a trip to Hawaii.
A flood of peanut sauce facilitates a conversation between the crunchy peanut topping, coleslaw and pineapple. Meanwhile, the chicken is a wall flower at this party, unable to get a word in edgewise with the loud peanut sauce.
A second bite brings out a little more volume from the pineapple and tomato, but I kept looking for the jalapeno. It’s clearly visible, but I couldn’t seem to detect it with my tongue, given everything else going on.
The peanut sauce isn’t too sweet or too thick, but it certainly steals the show.
Three-course meal at Midtown Reserve
The new Midtown Reserve is making its first splash in Restaurant Week with a three-course meal.
A roasted pear salad with Gorgonzola cheese kicks it off with a light plate presented with pleasing asymmetry. Bright pear notes are crisp and beads of honey pearls complement a bed of arugula and a very light maple Dijon dressing.
Gorgonzola cheese balls, with a fried shell on the outside, offers a very sharp bite. As an Italian blue cheese, its veins bring a lot of salt to the table. If you don’t like blue cheese, avoid them — they’re not likely to change your perspective on the cheese type.
An eight-ounce Prime filet in the main course is perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper on the crust that perfects each bite after my knife slices through the tender meat like butter. It has been difficult for me to find consistently good, well-seasoned steaks in Cedar Rapids, and Midtown Reserve is one of the few restaurants that delivers on that.
This steak was delivered on a mustard cream sauce, which was very nice, but not necessary, given how well the meat was prepared.
The sauteed mushroom medley of cremini, shiitake and blue oyster take on a flavor profile almost as good as the meat. Unlike the Gorgonzola, these mushrooms do have the ability to persuade those who are on the fence about mushrooms.
The chocolate mousse tower brings a lattice fence of darker chocolate with a lighter mousse tower inside. The white chocolate chantilly cream lightens the cocoa content.
The Oreo crumb base doesn’t add much value to an otherwise decent dessert, but the chef gets points for trying to incorporate a casual favorite. The raspberry coulis added a nice zip to a few bites of the chocolate, although I wish I had more than a few dots of it.
King Cake Crepes at Groundswell Cafe
You may never be royalty, but you can treat yourself to a rich dessert to cap off Restaurant Week.
These crepes by Phillip Hamilton, a former sous chef in New Orleans, bring a taste of Mardi Gras to Iowa the way they do it down South — traditional French food with a Creole spin.
Crepes are made more than thin pancakes by their filling, and this place offers you three fillings.
“They’re a vessel,” Hamilton said.
The king’s colors of green, yellow and purple decorate the crepes with colored sugar and matching fruits and vegetables.
The vinegar from pickled pears hits your nostrils with the first bite of the yellow crepe. In an unusual combination, the acidity of the vinegar is tamed by the cream cheese inside the crepe, making me want to try its purple-stained neighbor.
The second bite of blueberry and beet marries earth and antioxidant with cream cheese as the wedding officiant. They newlywed couple invites you to the mint crepe for their reception, which delivers a refreshing finish.
The cream cheese wasn’t too globby, and the thin crepes were perfectly cooked. A little extra sweetness on the top — perhaps a drizzle of fruit syrup or sprinkle of powdered sugar — would have sealed the deal for me.
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