BY CHRISTINE SCHRUM
Motley Cow Cafe owner and chef David Wieseneck serves affordable gourmet fare with an emphasis on fresh, organic, and local. (Photo by Lin Mullenneaux)
I’ve been a fan of the Motley Cow Café since I accidentally stumbled upon the cozy venue in December of 2003, on my birthday. A friend and I had just witnessed Washington, Iowa’s annual Live Christmas pageant (replete with braying donkeys, King Herrod’s torch-bearing army, and a flying human angel), and were roaming the streets of Iowa City in search of warm, tasty food—and a sanity check. We found both in the Cow.
Perhaps it was the savory yam paté that did the trick, or the fresh, finely seasoned salmon. Maybe it was the hot apple crisp toppling with homemade vanilla ice cream. But either way, the food was downright soul restoring. Like good old-fashioned mom’s cooking—but after she’d memorized a dozen or so gourmet cookbooks.
Today, more than six years after original owner Tom Lally first opened the restaurant’s doors, the Motley Cow does a bustling business six nights a week. Current owner and head chef David Wieseneck serves elegant, sumptuous soul food with international overtones and an emphasis on fresh, organic, and local. On a chilly Friday night in March, my friend Sarah and I decide to treat ourselves to the full Motley experience.
A Cozy Café
It’s the first night of spring break, so the restaurant is comfortably busy, but not frenetic. Typically, I find out later, traffic tends to be much higher and reservations are a wise idea. But for the evening, Sarah and I are happy to share the candlelit café with a slow but steady stream of couples and friends.
The ambiance is both casual yet chic. Small paintings and framed mirrors line the walls. White Christmas lights glow above the two bay windows looking out onto the street and passersby. A large, Marimekko-esque painting of flowers hangs next to the counter, and mismatched wooden tables and chairs populate the retro linoleum floor.
The small restaurant has a homey, lived-in feel, yet it possesses understated elegance. Which only becomes more apparent once the food is presented.
We start with the House-smoked Trout, an artfully arranged affair with blini (small Russian-style pancakes, tonight made of potatoes), blood-orange vinaigrette, blood-heart radishes, capers, and flat-leaved parsley. The flavor combination is delightful and a wonderful tastebud tantalizer.
David’s cooking style “pulls from a lot of different ethnicities,” he tells me later on the phone. “I have a lot of interests and I allow myself to mix different things.” French and Italian seem to figure heavily into the equation.
Now it’s onto the soup and salad course. Sarah samples the Cauliflower Purée, which is rich and flavorful, yet light. I devour a Warm Spinach and Beet Salad, tossed with blue cheese, pecans, and julienned red pears. Trust me, these are not your grandmother’s beets. I savor the medley, which bursts with freshness and flavor.
An Ever-changing Menu
The menu at Motley is, well, motley. Offerings are unique and varying, depending upon what is fresh, in-season, and available. “Keeping a slimmer menu ensures a nice rotation that keeps everything really fresh and daily made,” says David. “And that’s the highest objective for me.” From the homemade bread to the ice cream, nearly everything served at the Motley Cow is made in-house.
The restaurant offers nearly 100 percent local or organic produce year round. During summer months, 90 percent of it comes from Sass Family Farm in Riverside and Friendly Farm in Iowa City. “Often I won’t know what produce I’ll get until the day I receive it, and that determines the menu,” says David, who also enjoys incorporating factors like the season, temperature, and weather into his offerings. “It’s great. Inevitably, you’ll have a lot more fun and you’ll be putting more joy into the food when you’re being spontaneous and fully engaged.”
Many meats are locally procured from Gateway Natural Meats in Bellevue.
David envisions his ingredients sourcing as being the epicenter of a bullseye. “I start sourcing from the inside out,” he says. “The closer I can get it to home, the better. Anything I can’t source from here, I look to my organic, more national options,” and in particular, from neighboring states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. “Out-of-state organic certification is one of the few ways we can distinguish quality.”
Now it’s time for the entrées. Sarah tries the Vegetarian Couscous, a savory dish that comes with a marinara sauce, broccoli, and an apple & celery salad with shaved Parmesan. “It’s beautiful and elegant, but it’s comfort food,” she says, enjoying.
Lucky, lucky me, I order the Roasted Striped Bass, which is unbelievably succulent and comes with sunchoke mashed potatoes, picholines, kumquats, and watercress. Wow, is all I can say.
“I’m a seafood snob,” friendly waitress Courtney told me earlier, recounting how she initially despaired in Iowa City, yearning for the fish she’d eaten for years on the East Coast. “Until I came here,” she said. “David’s seafood is excellent, across the board.”
I couldn’t agree more. The symphony of tastes and textures in the dish is pure sensual pleasure. David’s seasoning is masterful, and he manages to skillfully combine ingredients so that every mouthful brims with surprise. The result is a colorful and joyful mosaic of tastes. Truly, this is a man who loves cooking.
“I always did a lot of experimentation,” says David of the years before his destiny as a chef fully revealed itself to him.Then, while earning a B.A. in Literature at the U of I, he serendipitously landed a job at the State Room, the area’s high-end French restaurant at the time. “I decided I wanted to pursue it,” says David, “And I went off to San Francisco and worked in probably five restaurants over the course of seven years.” He also spent a short amount of time at the California Culinary Academy.
While David clearly possesses a gift, he is quick to deflect praise and share it with his team of sous-chefs. “I work with a few very talented people here who have a lot to contribute,” he says. “Almost everything on the menu, someone else can do as well as I can. And it’s fun hearing different ideas.”
Indeed, the idea for citrus-cured gravlax came from one of David’s cooks. Sarah and I were fortunate enough to try a few mouthfuls of the tangy creation, served atop homemade crostini with a light sour cream spread.
Admittedly, Sarah and I are seafood fiends. But for those who favor other meats (or non-meat options), Motley’s early March menu offers much to relish. A Goat Cheese Sandwich with spinach, red onion, and roasted yams; a NY Strip Steak with a yam and vegetable mix, porcini broth, and blue cheese; Pork Chops with polenta, chard, fennel, and pepper broth; and on and on. While neither of us ordered wine (we were divvying up the hour-long drive home), the restaurant boasts a formidable assortment of wines and a few quality beers.
Then there’s dessert. For, ahem, strictly journalistic purposes, Sarah and I sample not only the café’s signature Key Lime Pie (graham cracker crust, a creamy center, delectable whipped cream), but also the homemade Coffee Ice Cream (My. God.), the subtly flavored Sour Cream Ice Cream, and the divinely creative Chocolate Hazelnut Torte with Meyer lemon sorbet and pear compote. And for kicks, David presents us with a wedge of Friesago cheese with braised fennel spears.
Strangely, after all that, we are full, but not uncomfortably so. The simple explanation is that a) Sarah and I are enormous pigs and b) David’s cooking is rich and abundant, but not overly heavy.
When asked what he finds most rewarding about his career, David has a three-pronged answer.
First there’s the eco-community angle. “Being in touch with people who work with the earth and farmers, sharing what it is they’re doing with a greater audience, and being able to financially support them to some degree is very rewarding,” he says.
Then there’s the social aspect. “It’s nice to be able to look out into the dining room on a busy day and see a roomful of people smiling and having fun, and knowing I helped create an environment for them to do that,” he says.
And then, of course, there’s the simple joy of doing what one loves and what one does best. “Any time you get to feed somebody,” says David, “whether it’s business or just cooking for someone at home, it’s a pretty satisfying experience, the nourishment and pleasure aspects of it. I’m blessed to be able to offer that every night of my life.”
Lucky for us.
The Motley Cow Café, 160 N. Linn St., Iowa City, 52245. (319) 688-9177