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Rodina – Cedar Rapids, IA

Back when I was starting to realize I wouldn't get a teaching job for Fall 2019, fresh out of my doctorate and settled in Mom's guest room for the summer (and then the fall, winter, and spring), I managed to find a mutual connection with the conductor of the pro orchestra here in town, and we met for a glass of wine and some career advice. Come to find out he, too, I suppose unsurprisingly, is a ravenous foodie, and had several suggestions for places to try while camped out in Cedar Rapids.

Cobble Hill is the gold standard of Cedar Rapids fine dining, but Rodina, nestled on the edge of Czech Village on the west side of the Cedar River, was this conductor's vote for best food in town. Mom and I had been to the storefront before when it was a decent Italian spot, and made a visit to Rodina for brunch one fall day in 2019, where we happened to run in to that same other maestro!

Since then, I'd been jonesing to give it a try for dinner, but it had sorta dropped off my radar until my auntie Sallie mentioned at a little backyard BBQ this week that she wanted to try it. Mom offered to take me out on my last night in Cedar Rapids before heading back south for the school year, and instead of Cobble Hill, which was our initial choice, we decided to give Rodina a try for dinner.

Rodina calls itself a place of "Midwest comfort food" and is helmed by a husband-wife chef and manager team made up of Iowans Samuel and Phoebe Charles. The menu is driven (mostly) by local ingredients and some playful takes on midwest down-home classics, like patty melts and fried pickles. The best part of the menu is their happy hour, which takes 25% off a handful of appetizers, 50% off bottles of wine, and $3 off house cocktails.

We made our way down to the charming Czech Village area and settled in with two happy hour cocktails––mom ordered a classic, refreshing Pimm's Cup, and I opted for one of their more creative offerings, apparently inspired by the owners' son's love of blue Sour Patch Kids. They marinate blue Sour Patch Kids in Broker's gin and combine it with some citrus, liqueurs, and soda water for a refreshing drink that actually tastes like blue Sour Patch Kids. Really creative, and shows off the quirkier side of their menu.

Happy hour appetizers started with some oysters from Sun Hollow in Washington State, which were delicious, and even better with their mignonette that included a piquant Calabrian chili oil. So tasty, although I'm not quite sure why oysters are a mainstay at a restaurant in the midwest that's very much leaning into that local vibe––in fact, there are a lot of chilled seafood options, even including a seafood tower! Just seems a shade out of place. Not that I'm complaining about happy hour oysters!

Shortly after the oysters had been slurped up, the next dish arrived, and was another nod to their quirky and unique menu approach. Seared shishito peppers were served with a smear of hummus and some cheddar popcorn, a combo that at first glance gave me pause, but it turned out to be one of my favorite shishito dishes I've had. The popcorn provided a salty, nutty flavor that complemented the peppers and hummus perfectly. Super bizarre, and super good!

Pork skewers were next, served with a generous sauce of Calabrian chilis, cabbage, cucumbers, and kale. The pork, glistening with pork fat, was grilled perfectly and the Calabrian chili sauce was outstanding, giving us both a nice burn. It was nice to have a serving of veggies but the raw ones didn't add much to the dish, and I appreciated the grilled veggies that were included on the skewers much more.

Mom was feeling the fried pickles, and the little cornichons were nicely battered and served with a tangy mustard sauce. Not my favorite dish, as I'm not particularly fond of pickles, but mom liked them, so I was happy to leave them mostly to her enjoyment.

The house fries were likely ill-advised, as both of us are trying to eat better after ballooning a bit at the end of this summer, but they ended up being some of the best fries I'd had in a while. The key was the tangy sweetness of balsamic glaze atop alongside togarashi, a Japanese chili-based spice blend. Add some chives and you have a fantastic little plate of fries!

They were so good, in fact, that the fries that were included as part of the next dish, mussels frites, felt rather dull and hence languished on the plate. Mom is not a huge mussels fan, so I ate the little bivalves happily, although I will say many were quite a bit funkier than I would like––again, I feel like they could lean harder into going hyper-local rather than deploying a huge seafood section of the menu, since it's hard to get super-fresh mussels out to the heartland. The best part of this dish, however, was the broth in which the mussels were served. A corn and leek chowder made with Iowa sweet corn, and brimming with the essence of mussel stock. It was divine, and I happily spooned up the rest of the soup once all the mussels had been eaten. Perhaps a corn chowder, with mussel stock replacing the chicken stock, could be a revelation! I will have to try it!

Before the main course, I ordered a half-price bottle of wine from Hedges in the Red Mountain AVA of Washington State. Red wines from this part of the country definitely punch above their weight class, and you can get a wine that's just as good as a $150 Napa cab for $30. This one is a red Bordeaux-style blend consisting of mostly Merlot and Cab Sauv, but with a healthy percentage of Cab Franc to balance and moderate the body. It's absolutely delicious, and we loved every sip. Nothing too grippy or tannic, with healthy oak, and silky blue fruit. Really outstanding red blend!

For the main course, mom ordered the mushroom confit, which is offered a la carte as well as with the option of adding two sides. Since we had two sides coming with my main, and since we had been devouring so many appetizers, we went with the confit a la carte, and were thrilled with how delicious it was. In a sort of lemony oil, the local mushrooms were delicious, and a green pesto made with sunflower seeds was a welcome herbaceous and flavorful condiment.

Everything had been so good so far, so we were a bit crestfallen when my main arrived, which was the only disappointing course of the night, but it was quite disappointing given that everything had been so excellent. A 6 oz strip steak, local and grass fed, was served with pea shoot pesto, mashed potatoes, and an ear of grilled Iowa sweet corn. The trouble was that the steak was well over medium-rare in most parts, though there was a thick section where it was quite purple, suggesting it was cooked at far too high heat. Worse still was that it didn't seem to be seasoned. Normally I'd send something back in that instance, but the steak was so small that by the time we'd both sampled and evaluated it, it was half gone. Oh well! A spritz of salt gave everything the lift it needed, and though the steak was not medium rare, it was still tender. The potatoes brightened up with salt, and the grilled corn was delicious.

We'd had a lot of food at this point, so we settled on a small dessert of lavender shortbread with a vanilla ice cream and blueberries. The shortbread was phenomenal and the ice cream top-notch, but we could have done with a bit more acidity in this dish, possibly from more blueberries or an additional blueberry component.

Despite a serious misfire on the steak, I found the food at Rodina to be quite good. This is certainly a place for a larger group, however, and I would be happy to bring some additional family members to share the fairly large appetizer portions with. To my mind, Rodina is still not in the same class as Cobble Hill, which is a class all its own in this town, but it's pretty damn close, and I am excited to give it another try when I come back to see mama, family, and my fluffy fam.

The Maestro has been recovering from a bit of a mental health dip, but will be off on a "last hurrah" sort of summer run out west before the school year starts, and there should be some good eatin' and therefore good bloggin' to be done! Afterwards, I am excited to do a bit more exploring of Charlotte's food scene, as well as get back into my kitchen. Stay tuned!

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