Now is the time of year for comfort food. As I write this, Iowa City schools face their eighth snow day of the year, my driveway is impassable and the bright red boots I bought to infuse winter with a little joy are stained with salt and dirt. I take infinite solace in eating from a bowl that warms my cupped hands — all the better if what’s in that bowl is buttery and familiar. How fortuitous, then, that Rodina has graced us with its comforting culinary presence when it has.
Owners Samuel and Phoebe Charles opened Rodina in late January. Though the restaurant has only been open a few short weeks, the execution of food, drinks and service, along with the charming-yet-eclectic décor, make it feel as if Rodina’s been around forever. As a rule, it’s a good idea to give a restaurant a few months to find its bearings before casting any lasting judgments on the place; however, I knew the first time I ate there that Rodina would weave itself into my social and dining life. It was that delicious, the ideal combination of simple and necessary.
The food is served family-style; the server will recommend a general number of dishes for your party, but I encourage you, if it is within your means, to exceed the server’s recommendation and order all that piques your interest. But consider asking for all your dishes to be brought out at the same time: You may finish all your cabbage slaw and wish you still had some by the time the meatballs arrive, because the crunchy cabbage and mustard seeds from the slaw would make magic with the potato puree and paprika-rich sauce that hugs the meatballs. You may also not realize initially that you’ll want a last bite of pillowy dumpling to cushion your masterfully roasted chicken. Next time, you’ll stash a dumpling aside for yourself, just as you might do on a particularly competitive Thanksgiving.
You might not think you want to try an open-faced sandwich of thinly sliced rare beef heart and horseradish cream, but it turns out that you do; you might even mistake it for tender, succulent steak. You probably also want the freakishly tender pan-seared pork with the addictively succulent herb sauce, and you absolutely, no questions asked, want the mushrooms and grains. In fact, you’ll want that again. And again. And when it’s snowing and you’re stuck in Iowa City, you’ll really want it—and you will wait, and eventually, you’ll be reunited with its perfect earthy warmth, and it will sustain you once again.
Get a cocktail, too, from their impressive drink menu—perhaps a warm vanilla and honey grog. You deserve it, after all that craving and all that waiting. And, of course, there’s dessert: The madeleines, made to order and served hot from the oven, made me finally understand what all Proust’s fuss was about.
Rodina crafts Czech- and German-influenced Iowan comfort food with ingredients sourced locally whenever possible. The menu will change with the seasons, and I can only imagine the local ingredients will be more of a highlight once this interminable winter ends. I am bursting, like a tulip in April, with excitement.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 258.