The first time she tasted Jim Vido’s food, Nicole Warner knew he’d be a great fit as the chef at the new Hotel Millwright in Amana. She wasn’t even on the payroll as the hotel’s general manager when Vido “knocked the socks off corporate,” Warner said.
The Indigo Room restaurant concept and design were already done. Still, the menu was open-ended when Vido came on board in August. The chef had a unique challenge: creating a new type of cuisine conceptualized by the hotel’s owners, the Amana Society.
“Amana-cana” represents a Midwestern type of food intentionally different from family-style restaurants popular in the Amanas, but with a nod to its German heritage. Interpreting what is Amana-cana was left up to the chef.
“Every expectation has been exceeded,” Warner said.
Indigo Dining Room is located inside the 65-room Hotel Millwright in Amana’s heart near the Millrace Canal. The eight-acre complex of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places includes separate large and small event venues and outdoor space for picnics. The boutique hotel is managed by IDM Hospitality Management of Madison, Wisconsin.
“It’s a unique hotel, so I think we need a unique menu,” Vido said.
Chef Vido still is figuring out what Amana-cana food is.
All the components of each dish are well-thought-out. Only the highest quality proteins from regional producers are served, Vido said.
For the meat lover, he pairs a 16-ounce Amana Ribeye with Gouda mashed potatoes. The Marino Loft Lamb Chop is flavored with roasted fennel and olive tapenade, with herbed couscous on the side. A 10-ounce Iowa Berkshire Chop is brined, smoked, and grilled, then finished with a whiskey peppercorn cream sauce. He serves the pork with savory roasted garlic mashed potatoes.
“It’s beautiful on the plate,” Vido said.
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Vido loves to play around with the menu to learn how receptive people are. The Jumbo Scallops combine massive U-10 scallops with a modern spin on spaetzle, Vido said. The chef tweaked his mother’s spaetzle recipe by including fresh green herbs. He then added pancetta, shredded brussels sprouts and roasted butternut squash to give the plate a wintry vibe.
From-scratch desserts include an apple galette — “the lazy pie” — that’s at once rustic and elegant. Two warm chocolate caramel pecan turtle cookies are served with an ice-cold glass of milk. Chocolate bourbon truffles, three to a plate, are made for sharing. Hotel Millwright guests sometimes find a dish in their room.
The truffles will stay when the menu turns over every three months or so. In late January or early February, the next menu change will feature new dishes. There might be a sticky toffee pudding dessert that starts with a bourbon-poached pear and includes the surprise of Japanese miso.
“It’s sweet and savory, with the saltiness from the miso,” Vido said.
Vido ypically would test new menu items as a special, holds tastings, then make adjustments until he’s satisfied. That tactic worked well for him when he was chef and owner of The Ladora Bank Bistro in Iowa County. Known for its mostly “small-plate” menu, Vido’s restaurant was named the 2018 Best Small Town Restaurant in Iowa by Thrillist.
Because The Indigo Room hasn’t been consistently busy due to the pandemic, Vido hasn’t been able to go through his usual process with the menu. The kitchen, service staff, bartenders and corporate staff taste the entire menu to give the chef feedback.
There will be a Mystery Menu for Valentine’s that he’s still working on. He’s overhauling the wine list by working with a boutique global wine company and may build a reserve list. He’s also adding to the regional beer selection.
“It’s quite the process,” Vido said.
The Indigo Room is named for the dye Amana residents once smuggled from Germany to color their wool. The dining room is sophisticated and moody, with walls painted an inky blue so dark at first glance it seems black. Gray banquettes line the walls. Woolen table runners were produced on the first floor of the building next door.
COVID spacing has reduced the intended cozy, intimate feel as tables are spaced far apart for safety. Still, there’s room for 50; busy nights, overflow is seated in the fast-casual area near the bar.
Vido said the kitchen is “beautiful.” Everything is brand-new. He has a 20-foot line with everything needed for dinner service, plus additional equipment for handling catering mass production. When it was realized the kitchen needed additional space, a guest room was integrated into the kitchen floor space.
After cooking off induction burners in the tiny galley kitchen at The Ladora Bank Bistro, Vido feels spoiled.
Opening during a pandemic and a storm
Vido’s first day on the job — Aug. 10 — was like no other. As the derecho raged, he and other the staff members took shelter in the basement of the Ox Yoke Inn.
“That was a surreal day,” Vido said.
The hotel was without power for days but did not sustain any damage. Vido pulled together a crew and developed the menu. Construction pushed to the brink of the opening day, which meant the kitchen didn’t experience the usual two weeks of training, Vido said. But the experienced crew is adaptable.
“Just the combined years in our kitchen is not something you get often,” Vido said.
The Indigo Room opened Oct. 1, heading into Amana’s biggest annual event, Octoberfest. That busy weekend was a godsend for the staff: it served as their training.
Before the opening of The Indigo Room, Vido mentally prepared himself. He was all nerves but felt the excitement.
“And then it just happens,” Vido said. “It was all-hands. It was crazy.”
He loves the “controlled chaos” of the restaurant kitchen. The work involves a lot of muscle memory. But it’s also planning and being organized. Everybody has a station. But there have been times when Vido has jumped on the line to cook.
October was busy. When the second round of COVID restrictions went into effect in November, the restaurant took a hit. Diners dropped to 25 percent of what they had in October. Everything ground to a halt.
Since then, each night has been unpredictable. Most weeknights are quiet, weekends pick up. A January snowstorm was an unexpectedly busy night.
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Warner said although the dinner rush hasn’t been consistent, it is sustainable. The Amana Society is determined to keep the restaurant open.
“If we say we’re open, we’re open,” Vido said. “I anticipate that the business is only going to grow.”
On the slow nights, Vido likes to remind staff that come April and May, when the kitchen is mayhem, the crew will want a quiet night to catch their breath.
Throughout his adult life, he’d studied engineering, then early childhood education. He coached hockey for years. But it wasn’t until he attended the Culinary Arts program at Kirkwood Community College that he found his calling.
“You have to enjoy what you do. I love cooking,” Vido said.
Each of Hotel Millwright’s 65 guest rooms is unique and the hotel is modern, industrial and funky-spirited, Warner said.
“It’s a bit of a walk through of Amana history, but the fun and playful Amana,” she said.
The hotel complex includes the Merino Loft and Carding Studio event venues, and the historic woolen mill still produces wool and cotton products.
Some of those textiles can be found in the guest rooms. Much of the furniture was created in locally. The rooms are spacious with soaring ceilings. Large windows let in natural light.
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It’s owned by the Amana Society Inc., a corporation formed in 1932 when the communal life of the Amanas was abandoned. The Amana Society manages the land, industry and services in the Amana Colonies.
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