Cobble Hill Eatery - Cedar Rapids, IA
- Cobble Hill Eatery and Dispensary
- 219 2nd St. SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52401
- 31 December (New Year's Eve), 2018
Amidst the epicenter of the sprawling (lol) Cedar Rapids metro area sits a culinary gem. When my mother relocated to her native Iowa a couple of years back, my snobbish (but ignorant) side told me there could not possibly be a restaurant of any reasonable caliber in a town like Cedar Rapids, but as with many other things, this city continues to surprise me. My visits "home" have become more and more fruitful as I discover new places to explore. Now, the air may sometimes reek of Captain Crunch from the manufacturing facility downtown (yes, seriously––another tasty local place has Captain Crunch-crusted walleye nuggets) but this is still Iowa, one of the great agricultural centers of the country, and excellent produce abounds. Sweet corn, anyone?
Mom wanted to take me to a nice dinner during one of my Iowa visits some years ago to celebrate some thing. I did some research and to my surprise discovered a delicious-looking establishment with a 4.8 rating on Google (out of 5, of course), which is almost unheard of even for the most celebrated restaurants in the world. Still skeptical, and knowing there are a lot of people out there who post amazing reviews of their local IHOP, we wandered in with a couple of bottles of wine to share. Since that meal, I demand a return to Cobble Hill every time I visit, which should tell you exactly how I that first dinner (and every subsequent dinner!) went over.
Local is the word here, as is true of so many of the great restaurants worldwide––even the couple behind the restaurant is local. Chef Andy Schumacher and his wife and co-owner Carrie had no designs on the restaurant industry when they graduated from the University of Iowa (just 40 minutes south) with degrees in completely unrelated fields. When Andy's cooking hobby became a passion, he whisked Carrie off to Brooklyn to study and work in New York City's dining scene, where Carrie worked as a bartender while Andy honed his skills. Their dream, however, was to raise their kids in bucolic Iowa and to start a restaurant that sourced from the bounty of Iowa's farmland.
Pushing for my regular visit to Cobble Hill over this winter break, I finally got Mom to accede one Friday night and phoned the restaurant, but was dismayed to learn they were closed that week (I really wanted a goddamn steak). However, I was overjoyed to hear that for New Year's Eve they'd be open and serving a seven-course tasting menu. Mom and I didn't blink and made reservations on the spot, snagging one of their last tables.
We arrived early to help ease the inevitable later congestion at the restaurant, and also because our lunch at Noodles and Co. was starting to wear thin. We were greeted with warm midwestern hospitality and escorted to our table.
We started (and ended) with a bottle of (essential for New Year's!) Champagne from Duval Leroy, a first tasting for me, recommended and sold to us by the always wonderful Traci at 1st Avenue Wine House. This lovely Champagne, despite retailing at under $60, had essences of much more expensive Champagne houses, such as (even!) Krug. The varietal profile is overwhelmingly Pinot Noir-based, with finishing shades of (of course) Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. A beautiful, fuller body, with a delightful combination of citrus, apples, roasted nuts, and brioche, with a subtle minerality. We enjoyed this bottle throughout the meal, often when our pairings mysteriously ran out...
An "aperitif" was presented first––a classic Negroni cocktail topped with candied orange peel and mint leaf, presented in a spherification consistent with the "molecular" style of pioneering chefs like Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea. The bubble had a nice, gentle bitterness classic of a Negroni, although the character of the gin was masked a bit by the heft of the Amaro. The mint was a beautiful touch that added an extra element of minty (duh) herbaceousness.
Cobble Hill offered us wine pairings for each course of the evening which, according to our waitress, were selected by the entire staff over Thanksgiving weekend after tasting over 50 bottles alongside the planned food (sounds like my kind of party!). For our first course, we were presented with a lovely Chablis from Domaine Fourrey, which gave us some classic apple and citrus aromas and featured a smooth palate with a surprisingly limited acidity that managed to compliment the slight richness of the prawn course.
Alongside the Chablis, we were served a tartare of gorgeous and fresh prawns that had been grilled briefly before being diced and presented on a circular puffed rice cracker. Beneath the prawns sat a thin layer of coconut cream, which, to our palates, could have been more present overall. The tartare was topped with mint leaf and shaved green onions, which provided a delightful and necessary foil to the fresh richness of the prawns. The simultaneous lightness and subtle heft of the Chablis-style Chardonnay allowed the prawn to speak nicely, but a more consistently present coconut flavor, such as the bite in the center of the cracker, would have brought a nice continuity to the dish and pairing.
We were next served a crazy acidic "petit" rosé of Pinot Noir from Friedrich Becker in the Pfalz region of Germany, stretching from just south of Frankfurt to the Alsace region in eastern France. It had a dominating aroma and palate of berries, particularly strawberry and raspberry.
The wine was paired with a dish that I would not have expected second in the meal, nor paired with this wine, for that matter: roasted squab with a rich sauce that had hints of curry, accompanied by butternut squash, radishes, Savoy cabbage, and squab sausage. The squab was beautifully cooked, but the sausage wound up being the star here, with a delightful and juicy saltiness.
It took me a bit to wrap my head around the pairing. I understood the impetus for a very acidic pairing, since the course had a heft, spice, and richness befitting of an acidic foil, but I did find the wine to be a bit domineering with many of the ingredients in isolation. The more of the squab itself I got on the palate, however, the more I was taken with this wine's ability to counter the gamey richness of the bird and sauce and deliver a well-rounded flavor profile. Ultimately, the cabbage and the radishes seemed to be afterthoughts to the incredible squab, and could have benefitted from some acidity (such as pickling of the radish) to bring a thread of the wine's profile into the dish. Overall, however, the course was a hit for us.
From squab, where can one progress? To octopus, apparently. While I would have placed this dish before the squab, we agreed that this was the most complete course of the night. The squid ink pasta contributed a nice brininess to the scant, but meaty, octopus, while the chili foam added a pleasant heat, and the (critical) olive slices contributed a salty acidity that rounded everything out beautifully.
Cobble Hill paired this with a 2015 Marsanne-Rousanne from Domaine Durand in Saint-Joseph. While Mom appreciated to combination of "fishtank" funk (reminiscent of the "petrol" quality of many German Rieslings) and the round, floral (mom nailed it when she said it smelled like dandelion), and fruity mouthfeel of the varietals, I found the wine to be generally incomplete, particularly in the middle of the palate, where acidity was lacking. However, in true 1+1=3 form, the wine came to life with the dish, where the salinity of the squid ink and olives finally brought the previously absent center of the palate to prominence.
After being impressed by the third course, we were thrilled to chow down on some MEAT, and we had seen a little teaser for some Périgord truffles on the restaurant's Facebook page. Turns out that we were offered short rib with multiple preparations of cauliflower, topped with some stunning black truffle shavings. Neither of us could get over how tender and flavorful the short rib was, but the truffle brought it to the next level. The compressed, puréed, and fried cauliflower that accompanied the beef was nice, but paled (lol) in comparison to the short rib, and we both agreed that the dish could have benefitted from a third, more acidic counterpoint. But dear lord, that short rib was goddamn delicious. I found myself watching wistfully as plates of short rib made their way past our table to other diners.
To pair, the Cobble Hill staff selected yet another old world wine from the Côtes du Rhône, a young whippersnapper of a Domaine de L'Amander Syrah. At once fruit-driven and funky, with an unmissable "barnyard" character, I found the wine to be a little young, and thought some time to settle would help it meld the funk and fruit in a longer and more mature finish. It worked well, however, with the short rib, and the gamey Syrah was tamed in its dance with the rich, fatty goodness of the beef.
Conceptually, the next dish of celeriac worked perfectly––there was a nice vegetal hint in the coffee grounds (the same coffee, incidentally, that we would enjoy after dinner) that paired brilliantly with the celery root. We were a bit puzzled, however, by the placement of this dish in the progression of the menu (perhaps it was meant as a palate cleanser?) and thought the celery root could have benefitted from a little seasoning besides just the coffee. However, the combination of the two flavors was stellar, and breathed new life into the already delicious Domaine des Gaudets Gamay by bringing out its slightly bitter coffee-like undertones. A very well thought-out course and pairing.
Time for dessert! We were served a thin blueberry cake with fresh and freeze-dried blueberries, white chocolate "snow," fresh thyme leaves, and a thyme sorbet. Turns out thyme and blueberries are a wonderful compliment, and we devoured the cake rather quickly.
With the cake we drank a slightly frizzy moscato d'asti from Bera Canelli. This was mom's favorite, and while the waitress described the aroma as "honeysuckle" driven, all we could smell was rose. The palate did not deviate from the rose petal profile, and when we took a bite of the thyme ice cream with the wine in tow, the rose transformed into an herbal, thyme-like note. Really beautifully paired!
Alas, all good things must end, and Cobble Hill went out with a bang with their alliterative "tiny treats from the tropics," a presentation that would have been right at home at restaurants the likes of Alinea or Arpège. A lychee and nutmeg sandwich was on the left of the plate and a pineapple truffle with gold leaf on the right, and in the middle a custard of passion fruit and lychee filled the empty, perfectly perched eggshell.
We closed the meal with the same coffee that was served over the celeriac (only way old folks can stay up until midnight after wine), and I enjoyed a digestif cocktail aptly named "The Old Man and the Sea," which, having consumed several glasses of wine, I announced tasted "like an old dude's bookshelf, in the best way possible." Smoky mezcal and a peaty Ardbeg Islay scotch were the stars, balanced out by sherry and black walnut bitters. Delightful way to end the meal!
Gotta say, Cobble Hill continues to impress. Chef Andy really went all-out on this meal, and his cooking was a perfect companion to our New Year's Eve. Can't recommend Cobble Hill more highly to the denizens of eastern Iowa, or anyone who (for some reason) finds themselves in Cedar Rapids. I've learned that lovely and exciting things can happen anywhere, and Cobble Hill is a testament to that.
Heading on the road this week, first to San Francisco! Can't say I'll miss the Iowa winter gloom... Will have, of course, a lot to blog about in the best food region in the US!