CEDAR RAPIDS — Phoebe and Samuel Charles are on a mission — to promote Midwestern comfort food.
What that is, exactly, they said they’re still trying to figure out themselves. But with a mix of Czech, German and Iowa dishes on the menu at their new restaurant, Rodina, they’re starting to eke out a style of cuisine they hope will evoke a sense of place and memories of grandparents’ kitchens.
Rodina opened Wednesday in Czech Village, in the space that most recently housed the restaurant Sauce.
“We want to try to define what an Iowa eatery is, or what Midwest comfort food is,” Phoebe said. “We’re taking Czech cuisine, German cuisine from the Amanas and integrating it into what we feel is a Midwest home cooked meal.”
She pointed to an item on their menu — roasted chicken with seasonal vegetables and bread dumplings. “Roast chicken is so simple but often overlooked. We will always offer it ... it’s so comforting,” she said.
Samuel said part of the mission is bringing attention to simple food like that, and exploring and interpreting it.
“You could so easily say Southern comfort food, and people would immediately know what you’re going for, the flavors,” Samuel said. “Everybody says the Midwest is meat and potatoes, but that’s not a bad thing. Look at Czech and German cuisine where they have a million different recipes for potatoes. That’s a rad thing.”
For research, the couple took road trips around Iowa, eating at small town restaurants and learning about the communities. They also found antique cookbooks from the Amanas.
“Some of it comes from what comfort food means to me and Phoebe,” Samuel said. “I’m a proud to say I’m a Midwest chef. I started here, then took it to Chicago, which is one of the best food cities in the United States, then to Denver. A lot of the recipes and techniques were already familiar.”
He said he has been enjoying exploring spices found in Czech cuisine, like clove, nutmeg and caraway.
The menu, which will shift with the seasons, includes starters, small and large plates and sides. Dishes include things like potato pancake with apple puree and sour cream, mushroom and grains with sweet potatoes, herbs and amaranth, and pan seared pork with salt-baked potatoes, red onion and herb sauce.
They aim to work with local farmers and producers and have spent the last few months building relationships with growers.
“A huge reason I was really excited to come back to Iowa was the small food systems actually work here,” Samuel said.
Rodina means family in Czech, and that’s appropriate to the story behind the restaurant.
Phoebe is from Cedar Rapids, and both their families live in the area. That was part of what drew them back to Iowa from Denver. Cedar Rapids was also a better place, financially, to try to start their business.
“We really loved Czech Village because it offers history, walkability and a retail environment, mixed with residential,” Phoebe said. “That’s what we loved about Denver, but it was too expensive there.”
Both hope Rodina is just the first of several restaurants they will open, under the name of their food company The Kitchen Counter. They are already talking about future concepts, though for now, they’re just focused on getting Rodina off the ground. In the spring, they hope to expand with lunch service and an outdoor patio.
They signed a lease on the building in August, Samuel’s brother, Ben Charles, who lives in New York, led the interior design efforts.
“We very much wanted it to feel like a home,” he said, pointing out art painted their Samuel’s father and grandfather and antiques sourced from shops in the neighborhood. “We’ve been trying to pull things in that have a family tie, as much of a personal feel as we can.”
Meals at Rodina are served family style, meaning tables are meant to order several dishes to share among the party.
“The idea of sharing a meal has become unfamiliar in restaurants, which is unfortunate, because it’s one of the oldest traditions,” Samuel said. “Sharing a meal, for me, is one of the most important things in the world.”
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If you go
• What: Rodina
• Where: 1507 C St. SW, Cedar Rapids
• Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday