By Sarah Shaughnessy
An earthenware plate arrives, atop it a grass-fed beef tenderloin seared to a perfect medium rare on a mound of mashed potatoes, sautéed zucchini and garlicky kale with a melting pat of sage butter sliding down the side. On a chilly fall day bookended by hours in a Burling cubicle, it could not have been a more welcome sight.
The steak is just one of the mouthwatering entrees on the menu at Prairie Canary, Grinnell’s newest restaurant, which opened on Thursday. The reasonably-priced menu also includes the Canary Burger, topped with blue cheese, caramelized red onion and bacon and accompanied by fries or a salad, roasted pork tenderloin with sage cornmeal crust and topped with a tart cherry sauce, pesto crusted salmon and a kale and parmesan stuffed chicken breast served with a savory mushroom bread pudding. The latter is one of the manager’s favorites.
But vegetarians, do not despair! The menu also boasts an array of meat-free fare, especially impressive considering the restaurant’s target Midwestern meat-and-potatoes demographic. Vegetarian main dishes include a sweet potato and black bean burger, a vegetable and goat cheese crepe and a number of pasta dishes, all of which, as the menu notes, are available gluten-free.
Three of the five salads are also vegetarian. The earthy quinoa salad with kale, feta, beets, roasted chickpeas and a smoky orange-ginger vinaigrette is particularly noteworthy, as is the apple salad, which consists of bleu cheese, dried cherries and toasted almonds on served on a bed of greens and lightly dressed with a homemade honey mustard that is neither too thick nor too sweet, as bottled varieties tend to be.
In keeping with the restaurant’s claim to provide “comfort food with a local flair,” many of the dishes contain locally sourced ingredients from producers such as Paul’s Grains out of Laurel, Iowa, Frisian Farms of Oskaloosa and Grinnell Heritage Farms, located less than a mile from campus.
The space’s atmosphere continues this cultivation of a local ethos, with custom dishware from Andres Gemmell Pottery of Mount Vernon and art that showcases prairie grasses. Downstairs in the bar, black-and-white photographs of historic Grinnell line the walls. The décor is rustic and organic but sophisticated. Off-white walls, soft exposed lighting and bare hickory tables create a dining environment that is both comfortable and classy.
“That is exactly what we were going for,” said the restaurant’s owner, Carly Groben, when I described this effect. “We want to be approachable and recognizable to people. I like to think of it as meat-and potatoes with a twist.”
After leaving her respected bistro Proof, in Des Moines, the Nevada native took some time to work in various kitchens in New York, the Midwest and in South America, drawing from others, notably Lucia Watson, of Lucia’s in St. Paul, to develop her own recipes. She was looking for a space in Grinnell when she heard about Iowa’s Best Bite, a contest for the restaurant space on Main St., formerly occupied by Bourbon Street and the Voodoo Lounge.
“I saw it and thought, ‘Get out!’ It must be fate,” Groben said, and as fate, and a good deal of hard work and planning, would have it, she won.
I went to Prairie Canary on Monday evening for the restaurant’s soft opening, when a small group of college students and faculty, community members and friends and family of the restaurant staff gathered to sample the dinner menu. The wait staff, predominately comprised of Grinnell College students, offered warm and prompt service and was eager for our feedback.
The meal began with a choice of appetizer from list of typical bar fare, including French fries, buffalo chicken wings and hot dog puffs. We opted for the mango chicken spring rolls, a sizeable serving of spicy-sweet local chicken wrapped in fried wontons. They were delicious, though quite heavy. I highly recommend sharing with many friends, or passing if you intend to order a main dish, also generously portioned.
After salads and entrées, we moved on to dessert. Offerings included a pumpkin pie sundae, and the chef’s favorite—a signature slice of Canary Cake, a pineapple coconut spice cake with walnuts and cream cheese frosting. For me, however, the true star was the buttermilk panna cotta, topped with candied grapefruit and local honey; it was the perfect light and tangy end to a richly delicious meal.
Prairie Canary also serves an extensive array of wines and beer, including many local varieties. The cocktails are a refreshing change from Pabst kegs and Rabbitt’s pitchers, but at $5-8, are probably best saved for special occasions. For those interested in sampling the drinks or the fare, Katie In ’13 will be performing at the bar this Saturday night from 9-11 p.m.
For a complete menu listing and updates about events, visit the Prairie Canary’s website at http://www.theprairiecanary.com/ and Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/prairiecanary.