Oct 5, 2018

Relishing Relish, Grinnell, Iowa

When one thinks of where to find a finer dining experience with a Mediterranean flair, a small Midwestern college town in central Iowa probably wouldn’t be the first place you’d look.  That’s why discovering Relish was such a pleasant surprise for this commoner when my work travels took me to Grinnell.

As dining options go in Grinnell, Relish stands out in so many ways.  For one, it physically stands out among all the historic homes in town.  It’s probably the most stylish and artfully decorated 19th century farmhouse around.  Located just a couple blocks east of downtown and just past Central Park, it’s hard to miss.

Then there are the gardens surrounding the entrance, which provide an ideal setting for patio dining or enjoying an after-dinner beverage. 

The atmosphere inside is just as classy and inviting.  Even before you’re seated, it feels a little like you’ve been invited to a dinner party at the chef’s home.  White tablecloths adorn a wide array of wooden tables which fill several rooms of the house.  Several rooms re-purposed for dining are separated by French sliding doors, which I imagine comes in handy for catering special events or large parties.  

I made sure to peruse the specials board on the way to my table.  The menu places a special emphasis on fresh and local ingredients, and that also allows for an ever-changing rotation of specials depending on what’s available at the time.  

I started with some homemade baba ghanoush for an appetizer.  It was a first for me, and it was an outstanding introduction to Chef Kamal’s Egyptian influence (he’s a Cairo native) on the menu.  Authentic Middle Eastern food in the middle of Iowa – who knew?? 

Made with eggplant, tahini and a blend of Mediterranean spices, the baba ghanoush had the comfortable texture of hummus and a strong almost mustardy afterbite which I loved.  It was served with pita bread for dipping.  I was glad I had ordered a glass of Cuvee Riesling to help cleanse the palate. 

My main course was the pan-fried tilapia over a green bean medley, chosen from the daily specials.  The tilapia had a very nice crust, helping ensure it was meaty and flavorful.  Too often tilapia just falls apart and has little flavor, but this was a home run.  The capers were a nice addition, providing an extra saltiness to the dish.  A light but zesty lemon sauce completed a very well-designed entrée.  My only minor complaint was with the green beans, which seemed a little under-cooked.  I know they were going for variety in texture, but they could have used a few extra minutes of cooking time to soften. 

On my way out, I seriously considered grabbing a second glass of Riesling from the small bar situated to the side of the main entrance.  Relish’s drink menu is slanted toward wine, but regional craft beers and a few specialty cocktails are also offered.  There’s not much seating inside for drinker, however, and the summer heat made the patio a less inviting option that I would have liked.  Still, I can imagine if I were a “townie” Punky and I would be coming here quite often for both the variety and the atmosphere.

Relish is a rare find – an elegant yet homey dining experience, and cuisine with a healthy and international flair – where you don’t expect it to be.  But it deserves all the praise it gets by doing much more than just standing out in a small Midwestern college town.  In Grinnell, Iowa, Relish is destination dining.

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