over the river and at the hearth

Friends, I am delighted, delighted, delighted to have found another terrific restaurant in town. As I said to some new friends at a symposium in Cleveland last week, New York is a town that invites foodie-induced strolling, where almost each passing restaurant has a tempting facade/kitchen team/gastronomic perspective/raison d’etre. It’s anonymous now, but could be your favorite place in two hours. I love this sense of possibility. Here in Iowa City, we too have some seriously delicious restaurants that regularly hit a meal out of the park — but there’s a smaller selection, of course, which makes for fewer surprises. So in the last month I’ve started dismissing restaurants out of hand with the excuse, Well, I haven’t heard of it by now!, which, let’s be honest, is a pretty lame excuse.

Hearth, a newish restaurant that shares the upstairs floor of an adjoining building with its sister restaurant, One Twenty Six, churns out gorgeous flatbreads, tapas, and carefully appointed entrees from a semi-open kitchen. With square plates and black tables on the one hand, and spindly wooden chairs and roughly exposed brick on the other, the space straddles the line between rustic and modern, but without feeling too self-consciously cool. Still, the place’s most charming asset is something a lot less constructed: the long windows that overlook Washington Street.

On Saturday night, we started with their winning shrimp and scallop ceviche — a tangy bite here, some fried crunch there — and Alsatian flatbread. Very different dishes, both fantastically executed. The flatbread may have been even more remarkable, for carefully tucking sweetly caramelized onions and smoked bacon into distinct, surprising nooks of the nutty Gruyère base. It wasn’t at all heavy — the bread was not only flat, but light — as many Alsatian dishes turn out on my watch tend to be.

When a restaurant only offers five entrees, my logic goes, they had better be (a) varied and (b) mastered. There’s no room for screw ups. And to judge from our two, wildly different choices, Hearth has mostly accomplished this. Certainly the “varied” commandment is aptly fulfilled, with two Latin dishes (one vegetarian), two Indian ones, and one bistro classic. Billy fulfilled a long-standing craving with some juicy, robust fish tacos, which arrived with generous slices of fresh avocado and a citrus-based salsa. They were lovely.

I answered a craving of my own with Hearth’s steak-frites — call it hopeful anticipation of visiting the land of steak-frites in a month and change. This was also delicious, especially those slim golden fries and the green peppercorn butter. The meat was nice, too, but not quite cooked enough to merit the “medium-rare” label. Luckily, I am not the sort of person who really minds, but if you are, either practice your sweetest would you mind cooking this a tad more face, or go with something else. And I should add that this didn’t stop me from mopping up my plate.

And afterward, you know what happened? We walked home, across the river and up the hill. It’s finally warm enough, spring is here, and this new restaurant discovery couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

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