116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — At The Webster, you won’t find some of the hallmarks you may have come to expect at upscale restaurants.
But that’s just the kind of environment on the ground floor of Iowa City’s Market House, focused on upscale warmth short of being pompous, that owners Sam and Riene Gelman have striven to provide through a focus on seasonality. For those open to experiencing new things or things done differently, the expertise gleaned from working under celebrity chefs in world class establishments in New York City, Boston, Toronto and Washington, D.C., can be found at home in Iowa.
Take the host’s podium, for example. Do your dinner guests announce their arrival via party name and size when they walk through your front door?
Where: 202 N. Linn St. in Iowa City’s Market House
Hours: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Details: Available for dine-in with a full main dining room menu or a casual bar menu at the bar and lounge. A reservation-only Chef’s Counter and private event space is coming soon. A limited bar menu available for carryout will expand in the coming months.
“You come into this restaurant just like you come into our house,” Sam said. “Sure, we have someone there to greet you, but you walk in and the first thing you see is the kitchen, you see the dining room. It’s open, it’s convivial — it’s supposed to be fun, not stuffy.”
As you take a second glance around at the space that opened May 11, you’ll notice other details, too. Amid the warm but modern aesthetic punctuated by painstakingly chosen decor and tableware, tables manage to look well dressed without white linen tablecloths.
“Why do you need a white tablecloth to eat good food?” Sam said. “We’re not serving high cuisine. We’re just serving good food that’s cooked well and seasonal.”
It’s perhaps an unusual concession from the new establishment, 202 N. Linn St., where the couple’s 30 years of combined chef and management experience at renowned restaurants like Momofuku, Eleven Madison Park and Craft in New York have come together for something new.
There, the Gelmans have set out to reflect the bounty, warmth and charm of the Midwest as they return to Sam’s hometown to raise a family. At this American restaurant, luxury ingredients come with a relaxed atmosphere.
For Sam, opening his own restaurant meant taking the good parts he liked at each restaurant to form his own style of cooking. At its core, that style is dictated by seasonality.
The menu changes — and is reprinted — daily to reflect the evolving ingredients of the day, even if only slightly for various herbs and garnishes. For the whole roasted Wisconsin trout, that might mean asparagus and morel mushrooms in the spring, local corn and tomatoes in the summer or apples and brussels sprouts in the fall.
That attention to detail is what makes The Webster stand out in a sea of mostly similar restaurants in the area, Sam said.
“Produce is best when it’s fresh,” he said. “That’s the right way to do it. That’s how I cook.”
A look at the current menu reflects the theme of the current season: asparagus, radishes, peas, rhubarb and cherries. Though The Webster doesn’t limit itself to the strict confines of what it can find on Iowa soil, there’s a stern commitment to using only what can be delivered with quality.
“We’re not a (locally sourced exclusive) restaurant, but we do it when we can,” Sam said. “I won’t ever serve strawberries from California, because they don’t travel very well. But I’ll serve strawberries from Kalona for the three weeks we have strawberries.”
Despite advanced experience in world class establishments, it’s an attitude he said is rooted in his common sense Iowa upbringing, where his mother and grandmother gardened, knew the seasons, understood what it meant to eat in season and knew how to preserve a season’s treats for later use.
It’s that seasonality that he hopes will connect diners more with the food on their plate. But despite its common sense nature, the niche of quality seasonal food in a comfortable, upscale environment — which affords a variety from duck egg tagliatelle and foie gras torchon to dry aged cote de boeuf and oysters — was a need they had yet to see filled in Iowa City.
“There’s a lot of restaurants around but they’re all somewhat similar,” the chef said. “It’s a lot of the same.”
Even the good restaurants, he said, had similar menus or similar menu structures.
“I’m doing it the way I believe is the right way to do it with as much integrity as I can,” Sam said.
The beer and wine list is curated with a similar eye to production integrity, said Riene Gelman, general manager, featuring an ample national and international wine list that doesn’t overwhelm. The offering boasts options from smaller producers that raise the grapes “with love and respect,” she said.
Riene is particularly excited about the Sicilian wines, which she loves for their light, “easy to drink” nature.
Beers on tap feature the labor of mostly Iowa producers.
Their time investment in sourcing is apparent when a local produce vendor walks in for a delivery, prompting a revelous exchange with the chef about edible lilacs and chives that Riene observes with delight.
The spontaneity of what they can procure day to day is part of what keeps food interesting, Sam said. As the couple opens a dream restaurant years in the making, the couple hopes that locals will embrace that vibrancy as much as they do.
“People need to be open to new things and things being done a different way,” he said. “We want people to learn and see things on the menu they’ve never seen before. … It’s about earning people’s trust.”
The Webster plans to offer a variety of experiences through different seating options.
Guests can opt for dinner in the main dining room with small plates, fresh pasta and larger plates for two to three people. Those looking for a quicker, more casual menu will find snacks, small plates and a burger at the bar and lounge.
The Chef’s Counter, coming soon, will offer four dedicated seats, available by reservation only, overlooking the kitchen. There, they will be able to try curated, multicourse menus tailored to personal guest preferences with direct chef interaction.
A limited version of the more casual bar menu is available for carryout. That menu will expand with delivery in the coming months.
The Webster now serves dinner Tuesday through Saturday with plans for a full-service dining patio later in May. The Gelmans plan to expand to dinner seven days a week, brunch and lunch.
A private dining and event space for up to 32 guests will launch on June 4.
Before he graduated from Iowa City West High School in 1999 and left for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Sam made many fond memories at a lunch counter just a few feet away from where his open kitchen sits now.
That counter, at Pearson’s Drug Store, was where he enjoyed egg salad sandwiches and strawberry milkshakes with his father and grandfather.
His grandfather, an orthopedic surgeon named Webster, worked at Mercy Hospital. His father worked across the street.
“The quality of life here is fantastic,” Sam said. “You don’t realize it until you’ve left and been gone for a while. The quality of life is a whole different ballgame.”
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