Food gains the title of ‘good’ from its context. Often we obsess over a meal not for the food itself but due to the story behind the ingredients, the pleasant company or the innovative presentation. A late-season apple tastes sweeter when it is the last one plucked from a tree before the frost hits. Eggs, bacon and black coffee are the most satisfying when you can linger over your Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle instead of rushing off to work. And the food at Salt Fork Kitchen (112 E. Main St., Solon) is good mostly because of its context.
It is good because nearly all of the food comes directly from local sources, including co-owner Eric Menzel’s Salt Fork Farms; because regulars Don and Yvonne can be found curled over their coffee cups week after week, whispering their approval of their breakfast to each other; because of the brunch-time temptation of mimosas and bloody marys; because chef and co-owner Jay Schworn will occasionally emerge from the kitchen to observe his customer’s reactions to his dishes.
The journey to Salt Fork Kitchen is a significant part of the glow of this context: In warmer months, it’s a beautiful bike ride from the Iowa City Farmers Market — where the restaurant began as a market stand — out past Sugar Bottom wilderness and into the town center of Solon. And during these coming winter months, a cozy drive past frosted fields will be rewarded with a steaming mug of coffee and a meal.
Stripped of this story, however, the food at Salt Fork is inconsistent in its charms. The egg-fried-rice and greens dish from the breakfast menu that I ordered was dry, dull brown and lacking in creativity. I could tell as I bit into a forkful that the separate ingredients were delicious — the local lamb sausage from Pavelka’s Point, the braised greens, the kimchi — if only they could be distinguished from one another in the under-seasoned, stir-fried mush. I could not tell what was so special about the omelet that my friends ordered either, though I’d imagine the recently harvested eggs from Menzel’s own chickens contributed to its deliciousness.
The lamb and feta tacos from the lunch menu are delicious, putting the flavors of the local lamb front and center, though the portion is a bit too small. The house-made biscuits are also delicious, and the build-your-own bloody mary bar — available on weekends and loaded with house-made pickles and optional Benny’s beef straws — is reason enough to linger there, especially after a rewarding bike ride.
What impressed me most were the four house-made hot sauces: chipotle, garlic and red pepper, jalapeño and fermented Thai. The sauces provided a colorful and interactive element to otherwise basic dishes. I also enjoyed the perfectly crisp and addictive home fries, as well as the vegetable slaw of crunchy mustard greens and cabbage that appeared as a side with each dish. The meal was so fresh it could have been plucked directly from the garden.
Service at Salt Fork is spotty. Our waiter was in such a hurry that she forgot our coffee order three times in a row, without apology, and each interaction seemed rushed and impersonal.
The dining room itself feels like a Wendy’s with minimal modification, with too much off-white parquet and plastic to feel homey but just enough quirky paintings and antique objects to pass as the den of an artistic farmer.
Despite some of its flaws, I will remember the food at Salt Fork fondly because of the opportunity to bike on backroads for a Saturday brunch, the connection to locally farmed produce and meat and the obvious community approval that could be read on every face in the restaurant.
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