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Lincoln Cafe - Mount Vernon, Iowa


Brad Ballinger
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I'm sure Lincoln Cafe doesn't need any publicity, but I do have to comment on what a gem this place is in the small town of Mount Vernon, about 15 minutes east of Cedar Rapids.

I was on business in Williamsburg, Iowa, recently. Good friends of mine in St. Paul have a son attending Cornell College in Mount Vernon. It's only a 45-minute drive, so I decided to take him out to dinner. The choices are a pizza joint, a Subway, and Lincoln Cafe. I told him we were going to Lincoln Cafe. I told him what time I'd pick him up at the library. He still didn't make a reservation. But he's a college freshman, new to these sorts of things, and probably didn't think we'd need one at 6:30 on a Wednesday night. Wrong. Fortunately, there was counter seating available, and we weren't picky.

The restaurant seats about 40. It's in "downtown" Mount Vernon on 1st Street. Brick walls, booths along one side, tables along the other, tables in the middle, four-seat counter at the back looking into the kitchen.

The printed menu is burgers, sandwiches, soups, and salads. On the chalkboard there were three entrees, two appetizers, and three desserts. These likely change nightly or weekly. My guest was looking over the burger and sandwich options. "Erik," I said, "I'm ordering the ribeye. You can't get a burger if you want, but I'm treating." Erik quickly switched to the ribeye. Entrees come with soup or house salad. I also ordered the crab fritters for an appetizer (the other one was already sold out – at 6:30). Alas, the last order of that just went out right before I ordered it.

The salad I had was typical field greens, very fresh, lightly dressed with a vinaigrette. It was twice as good as a similar salad I had the night before at Devotay in Iowa City (that salad has some old soggy greens in it). Erik go the tomato mint soup, which he enjoyed very much (I didn't have a bite). The server then came with good news and bad news. The good news – a booth had opened up that we could take. The bad news – no more ribeye. BUT, they did have NY strip instead – only five left – and we both jumped on one.

The strips were very flavorful, served with a fantastic sweet potato bread pudding, some greens, deep fried prosciutto, shaved parmesan, and a mushroom demi-glace. It was $30, but was a large portion (and included soup or salad). I ordered mine black and blue, and it actually came that way – big thumbs up. We did not have dessert.

Lincoln Café does not have a liquor license, but patrons are permitted to bring their own. This policy is printed on the menu, and the following is from the web site.

As a result of the small size of our restaurant (and the arcane regulations of our beloved state), we have no liquor license.  You are, therefore, welcomed and encouraged to bring our own wine or beer.  We’ll be happy to chill and/or pour it for you.  There is a nominal corkage fee ($5 per table per night) to cover the cost of glassware, which breaks frequently despite our most heroic efforts.  A selection of wines is available for purchase at nearby Devine Wines, Big Creek Market, and a number of local watering holes.

Being a former boy scout, I’m almost always prepared and happened to have a bottle in the car (not knowing it was a BYO only joint until walking in). I also have my own stemware, but their stuff was fine, even above average.

The place was still three-quarters full when we left. I will have to continue traveling to Williamsburg, Iowa, about twice per year. That will be two free good meals for Erik.

I’ll also briefly mention dinner the previous evening at Devotay in Iowa City. Chef Kurt Friese posts here on occasion. This was only one visit, but I expected a bit better. Again, some of the greens in the salad should’ve been tossed. The pork “osso buco” entrée I had seemed to have more fat than meat. I don’t know – maybe I need to order from the tapas menu next time.

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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The reputation of this place precedes itself, enough so that it took three separate visits before I actually got to eat here. They don't take reservations, though I was told that I can call ahead and tell them when I'd like to be seated...which sounds a lot like reservations. Whatever.

It's really difficult not to love this place: it's doing New American and New French, with a serious dash of Lonesome Dove Bistro and Magnolia Grill-style "let's-invert-traditional-dishes-and-tastes-with-novel-twists" moves, in a quaint, homey room, in a quaint, homey town. It's a great combination, and it works not because of the things going on the plate--the polar opposite of my meal at Blue Duck Tavern in DC two days before--but the fact there is some seriously good cooking going on here. was Strangely, Eastern Iowa has two pretense-free New American spots that are treasures, yet Chicago cannot sustain one. Much better thai in my hometown, though =)

Chef, just wanted to say that for the next six months or so that work keeps me in Iowa City, I'll be eagerly patronizing your restaurant. Expect to see me weekly.

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Brad, sorry i missed you again. Heard you were in and hope everything was right.

I'm always there in the day but am trying to cut back my nights as i'm purchasing the wine bar down the street. You can catch me at the cafe in the evenings on wednesday and friday for sure. I'm in on and off the other evenings.

matt

lincoln cafe.

foodisimportant.com

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Brad, sorry i missed you again. Heard you were in and hope everything was right.

I'm always there in the day but am trying to cut back my nights as i'm purchasing the wine bar down the street. You can catch me at the cafe in the evenings on wednesday and friday for sure. I'm in on and off the other evenings.

matt

lincoln cafe.

foodisimportant.com

Another good experience (and an extra comped dessert). It may be 3-4 months before I'm back again, and I'll probably have to poke my nose in the wine bar at that time.

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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