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May 18, 2009 03:10 PM

Iowa City: The Chef's Table

Has anyone tried the recently opened French restaurant on Washington? Reports? I have a group of French friends who have been salivating for months!

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  1. The blog says that they've been open since last Tuesday. Not really sure what to expect since theres no menu on the site, but it sure looks purty.

    2 Replies
    1. re: rozz01

      Ate there last week, the night after they opened. Some of the people in my group were put off by how unnatural looking the interior seemed -- cavernous and lacking natural light -- but I liked it. We had several appetizers and entrees and 4 bottles of wine. There were no "misses," so to speak, but some things were better than others. We LOVED the short rib appetizer and the country pate, while the sole app was less well-received but still amazing. The duck and the steak frites were the best-received entrees -- duck was delicious and perfectly prepared with some interesting sweetness and textural differences, while the steak was very straightforward (could possibly be perceived as too much so) but perfectly prepared, well sauced and utterly delicious. Halibut was delicious, again perfectly cooked but a little boring. Scallops were the least favorite of the bunch -- again, well-prepared but not stunning. Passionfruit souflee was perfect, and the wines, all of which were from the cheaper end of the list, were impeccably selected to match the food.
      I thought it was a great experience. I felt like I could be a bit more formal there than is usually allowed in Iowa City, but it wasn't stuffy at all. In fact, the servers could get away with being a bit more formal and "French."
      Lizzy, take this review as what it is: subjective. I am very well-traveled and have eaten some superlative meals, and I thought Chef's Table was very good at what it was doing, and I think most of the people I've talked to have agreed. Only one negative so far, and that critic is from France and has nothing good to say about anything. I'd be curious to know what your French friends think....

      1. re: ctscorp

        You made me laugh! I lived in France for a long time and am bilingual, and know exactly what you're talking about! My French friend is one of the most positive people I know (she even liked the meal we recently had at Linn St....UGH!), so I'm sure she'll be happy. Thanks for the report, looking forward to trying it out. So what did your French "critic" say that was negative? Just curious. ;)

    2. Hi again, here's the report from my French friends who went there last night...doesn't bode well...

      My best friend Tony was dying to see the New Chef's Table restaurant open before his birthday, so that we could all go there to celebrate with a REAL, TRUE French meal, as the gustative aspects of our native culture tends to be missing so much in the US.

      Full of high expectations, notably after stealing the menu 3 days prior to have dinner there, so we, Frenchies, who always take half an hour to order something even in the most common restaurant, could all take time to study it in-depths, we arrived at 7:30pm, ready to have the meal of our life.

      The reception and the decoration looked fantastic: classy, chic, sophisticated, much like the type of restaurants you would usually find in big cities like Chicago or New York, and although none of us is really a Big-City person, it felt good to see simple refinement in a restaurant. The wooden path in the middle of the restaurant is very poetic. Wooden tables and chairs, all very sophisticated but extremely simple, filtered light, epurated walls, modern paintings on the wall, and, more importantly, 3 refined glasses on the table for each guest, and just as refined China to accompany them. The tables really looked like we were back to France.

      Like all good Frenchies, we started asking for bread almost as soon as we sat down. The waitress brought us a variety of campagne bread... what a disappointment!!!! The bread was literally tasteless - no salt whatsoever. And as we had at our table an American friend who also happens to be a cook, and who does make his own bread, and makes it very well, we starting laughing and telling him that HE should have brought his bread to the restaurant, or that he should maybe see to be hired by the Chef as the boulanger. First bad note! A French restaurant should ALWAYS have the best, crispy outside, smooth inside, bread. Bread is THE basis of all good French cuisine

      As we had time to study the menu at home, and as three of us were coming from South West of France, we just could not NOT order duck, which is the #1 culinary speciality of our native area. So duck for appetizer (that would be the Foie Gras) and Duck for entree (that would be the Confit and Magret).

      As a matter of coincidence, just 3 weeks before that, I happened to have some foie gras at home that I had brought back from my last trip to France. As my boyfriend could not make it during that dinner, he had to discover foie gras from the few pieces of leftover that I had. He discovered it and liked it, and I told him I was sorry because what he had in his plate was probably only a quarter of the traditional portion you would have in each plate in France.

      So, to go back to Chef's Table, we saw the Foie Gras arriving, and.... WOW... where exactly is the foie gras???!?!?!?!? OOOOOOHHHHHHHHHH.... wait! Give me a microscope.... That's this tiny microscopic thing in the middle of the plate!!!! To go back to my anecdot, the piece of foie gras we had in our plates was probably a third of the piece of foie gras my boyfriend had had 3 weeks before that as leftover, which was, in turn, only a quarter of what you would usually have in your plate in France. Doing the maths, I'd thus say that what we had in our plates at Chef's Table was only a 12th of a French portion of Foie Gras, for... $16!!!!!

      Worse! That Foie Gras was cooked!!!Sacrilege!!!! Which also explains why it was so small!!!! But Foie Gras, except if it's explicitely mentioned that it is going to be cooked, in which case it's not an appetizer anymore, but an entree, should ALWAYS be raw!!!!!


      6 Replies
      1. re: lizzy69

        Part II, just stop reading when you get bored!!

        So. to make a long story short, the Foie Gras was disappointing, both in terms of quantity and quality. Also, it just wasn't accompanied properly. Believe it or not, but there are actual rules on how to accompany Foie Gras, and leek, gnocci and garlic do NOT belong to the list of things that go well with Foie Gras. Figues, apples, raisin would be much better. So, conclusion: big F on the Foie Gras, from a French perspective. And from an American perspective I'd say that, though you might not dislike it, you'll find anyway that it is awfully expensive for what it is.

        Entrees: we were eager to see what was ahead of us after this disastrous experience with Foie Gras. During the 30-minute wait between our finishing the appetizers and the serving of the entrees, we decided to lower our expectations on the Confit and Magret, just to try to save our night.

        The duck finally arrives (NB: 30-min wait in France is in the norm, but from an American perspective, as judged from our American guests at the table, you'd probably find it too long). It looked much better than the Foie Gras did. Accompanied with fresh asparagus, potatoes and onions, there were 3 little slilces of Magret (not a lot, to be true, but still better than the microscopic slice of Foie Gras) and a wing of duck Confit. Again, coming from the actual area in France that made duck its #1 priority, I had previous taste and standards in mind. I can't say it wasn't good, and I'm sure that those who have never had real duck South West of France would probably find it tasty, but *I* found it very average, and not even remotely comparable to my mum's duck confit. But I have to say, $19 for Duck confit was much more understandable and acceptable, than were the $16 for the Foie Gras.

        In the meantime, we did dig into some good wine. I spent no less than 15 minutes studying their wine list, and judging by what was on the menu, they do seem to have made their forte on the wine. AMAZING selection of French wine!!!! But again, very expensive. Take the Sauternes, for instance, which we actually should have ordered to accompany our duck: $64 for the cheapest half-bottle, which is the exact same one as the one you can find at the Co-Op for $14 (which I already find outrageously expensive). No way!!!! We decided to pass!!!

        I did please myself with a glass of Champagne though (because some French - the snobbest, like me - could actually do an entire meal only on Champagne). $12 for a glass of Moet & Chandon - completely worth it!!!! That's when you have to set your mind on quality rather than quality (or just decide to call your banker before ordering an entire bottle to explain to him your overdraft is going to be due to your economic support to the Champagne filiere). REAL REAL REAL Champagne, like you can barely find it anywhere else in the MidWest (did I mention that my father comes from Champagne? I was raised with Champagne in my glass instead of milk :) )

        Dessert: a limited menu, but all seemed pretty good. You had the traditional creme brulee, that I'm guessing everyone would expect from a French restaurant, and some original choices (like the white chocolate tart). Good desserts, but not to die for. And more importantly, except for the creme brulee (which you can actually find in almost all American restaurants) there was nothing French about those desserts. I was probably expecting a Tarte Tatin, or a Poire Belle Helene, or a Peche Melba, or a Tarte aux Pommes (the French way, i.e. without the load of cinnamon that American apple pies have), or a Mousse au Chocolat.... none of those, although there are probably the top 10 most common desserts you'd find in any French restaurant... in France.

        1. re: lizzy69

          Part III...


          Count an average of $60 per person (1 appetizer, 1 entree, 2 glasses of wine, dessert).

          Good restaurant (si, si!), but simply not French (except for the wine selection)... or let's say, just exactly like the caricature of a French restaurant as most Americans envision it (i.e. uptight, new-age, snob cuisine, with very few to eat and a lot to pay at the end). Let's bring a precision here: no one in the staff was French, not even the Chef himself!

          DO NOT EXPECT TO HAVE A FRENCH EXPERIENCE WHEN GOING TO CHEF'S TABLE. Then, you'll be find and you'll enjoy your meal, like you would do at Devotay or 126.

          Chicago is NOT Iowa City, as we all know, but I did discover the BEST French restaurant on the Midwest 2 months ago there. The French Bistrot, just oh!so very French. Affordable (all the more so that it's in Chicago), with an amazing bistrot ambiance like you could find anywhere in France, simple, chic, but not uptight, with a lot to eat in your plate, and a real taste of my mum's cuisine. Amazing selection of French wine, wonderful waiters who do seak French.

          My advice: if you REALLY want to knwo what French cuisine tastes like, pay yourself a trip to Chicago, a go to the French Bistrot. THAT would make it worth the trip, believe me!

          1. re: lizzy69

            Well, Lizzy, that's pretty much the criticism my French friend had. He expected the same caliber of restaurant he was accustomed to in France. I supposed I have a similar reaction, as an Italian woman, when someone dares to call Brown Bottle or Givanni's Italian... but I also think it's important to note that, while BB and Givanni's are unpalatable crap, Chef's Table is well-executed and delicious. You did say this -- you'll enjoy your meal if your expectations are realistic. I guess I just want to emphasize this, as I want to see new local restaurants succeed, and I admire Eric and what he's attempting.

            1. re: ctscorp

              Yes, exactly, but I think my French friend is planning a little "intervention" for Eric! She really does want him and the restaurant to do well, she just would like to give him a few hints on how to improve...(like adding salt to the bread and not heating fois gras as an appetizer, things like that). I think it might be too rich for our blood at this point, so I'll have to be o.k. with living vicariously through you all! ;)

              1. re: lizzy69

                The place is soooooo boring and overpriced. I think a more casual french dining approach would have worked much better. I get the chills stepping foot in the place. One of the servers was very snobby when I went with my mom and dad.

            2. re: lizzy69

              Your bit about the portion size being smaller than what could be purchased at a store is absolutely ridiculous. I can go to a meat market and purchase a top-notch filet for much less than I can get it for at a nice restaurant. But then I'm going to have to stay home and cook it myself.

          2. Just ate at the Chef's Table last Friday for the first time. They have raised the bar for fine dining in Iowa City. The decor is beautiful without being stuffy, and the service was great. We had the short rib appetizer, the lamb and the scallop for entrees, and genoise for dessert. All were excellent, and the different flavors in each dish made the different components better together than they were alone. My scallops were so good I didn't want to share. Great wine with help from the sommalier. All in all a wonderful dining experience. In my experience no place in town is even close.

            1. This place is so pretentious!! But I'd be willing to forgive a bit of pretension, if accompanied by otherwise impeccable service, and exceptionally good food. Sadly, the chefs table falls a bit short of the mark. I knew we were in trouble when the waiter presented us with the "bread course". long story short: my food was bad! but i'm a vegetarian. Then again, being a vegetarian is not so unusual these days, and I know from experience that its not that hard to make fresh vegetables taste good. The other entrees were much better but small (very small). and dessert was nothing to write home about. I give this place another few months before another type of "table" moves in...

              1. I visited Chef's Table last Saturday and had the highest hopes. However, the restaurant fell very, very flat.

                The best part of the meal was the bread course. Plenty of bread, delicious salted butter, and beautiful presentation.

                I ordered the scallops in peppercorn sauce. I love scallops, but these were almost inedible - instead of a peppercorn sauce, they were doused in what tasted like straight vinegar. My potatoes were raw inside, so it was a hard dish to eat. However, the scallops were cooked perfectly and it was plated nicely. The short rib tortellini were hard and most of the flavor was lost while I struggled to chew them.

                I ordered the "chocolate terrine" for desert, on my server's recommendation. It was basically two pieces of fudge, complete with nuts. They were just slabs of fudge, just sliced on a plate, with some white sauce on the place that tasted like nothing. It's a joke between me and my friend now, the "nothing" sauce - the ultimate palate cleanser.

                It was too much to expect a real French restaurant in IC. I'd much rather have spent my money on Motley Cow, 126, or Atlas.