18 January 2011

An Afternoon in Iowa City: John's and Prarie Lights Bookstore

I spent Christmas with my family in Iowa City. We mostly stayed tucked away inside, playing games, eating amazing food that my aunt and uncle prepared and trying delicious wines and beers they'd selected to pair with the meals. We did, however, venture outside into the cold for one lovely, snowy walk and a tour of the University of Iowa's campus and a couple of the many independently owned shops.
Our first stop was John's Grocery Inc., the last family-owned corner grocery store in town. It's been around since 1948 and stocks a fabulous selection of liquor, beer and wine. The staff are all friendly and seem eager to assist, but some are more knowledgeable than others. Keep asking until you find someone who can answer your questions.

We asked several of the staff for their recommendations and ended up with William Larue Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (rich, complex, delicious), Pascal Doquet Grand Cru Blanc De Blanc (lovely tart finish), and a case of beers that we had paired with cheeses, pickled herring and prosciutto.

Mikkeller's Black Stout and Big Worse were the standouts of the beers. They blew our minds with the intensity and depth of flavors. Not for the faint-of-heart, but real showstoppers. The Mast Brothers chocolate bars complemented the chocolate and spices in the Black Stout. I had planned on bringing Mast Brothers to my family to share at Christmas, but turns out the now Brooklyn-based Mast brothers were born in Iowa City, so no need!

After stocking up on alcohol we headed downtown to Prairie Lights bookstore. In a town with the most highly rated creative writing program in the country, The Iowa Writers' Workshop, it's not a surprise to find such a fantastic bookstore. But it was a surprise to discover that their upstairs coffee shop serves Stumptown coffee (one of my favorite roasters in New York). I didn't have time to try anything, but they also offer a selection of beers and attractive pastries in a light-filled, open and inviting space.

We also made a couple visits to the New Pioneer Food Co-op which has organic groceries, prepared foods, a large selection of wines and beers and outstanding cakes. We tried the chocolate mouse, German chocolate, lemon and Irish cream cakes. All were excellent, although for three dark chocolate lovers the German chocolate was a bit too light and the cake not as dense or moist as we would have preferred.

Iowa City opened my eyes to some wonderful new tastes and experiences. When I hear of a Mikkeller tasting in LA, you can be sure I'll be there. Cheers!

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