UI Food Critics Club explores culture through local restaurants

BY LAURA WILLIS | MARCH 03, 2011 7:20 AM

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David Fix will try any dish once.

The University of Iowa junior prefers the sweet flavor of duck to the bland taste of ostrich. Yet neither item was so obscure as the cow tongue or plate of prairie oysters.

At the second Food Critics Club meeting, held at India Café, 227 E. Washington St., he tries a new delicacy: burfi, an Indian-style cheesecake. He points out the sponge-like texture and rich flavor.

Four students nod their heads in agreement between bites. They discuss the slight mint taste of the rice pudding and how the small cake squares are possibly better suited to much of India’s hot climate.

“I’ve never been out of the country,” Fix said. “So this is kind of my way of exploring new cultures.”

In addition being exposed to new cuisine, discovering Iowa City’s restaurants is what Fix and friends Jorge Naranjo and Foti Guilino had in mind when creating the the group in January.

The three found they all possessed an interest in the art of cooking. The UI juniors discussed different recipes and argue about which salts to add to dishes. To their dismay, they found another similarity: After three years in the college town, their knowledge of local restaurants was limited.

“I wanted to try something new and find people who wanted to go somewhere,” Fix said.

The Food Critics Club, which has around 13 attending members, meets at various times and places each week with only one idea in mind: trying something new. After dining, members critique aspects such as atmosphere, price, and portion size.

“I’m not trying to say anything negative about restaurants,” Fix said. “It’s more about bringing awareness to them.”

His passion for food began in high school. The Peoria, Ill., native was inspired to sample unique dishes by watching such shows as the Food Network’s “Molto Mario” and the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain.

As a high-school sophomore, Fix’s love for preparing food escalated. He dreamed of becoming a chef and shadowed workers at Chef John’s, a restaurant serving both European and American food in Dunlap, Ill. The experience was a success, and he earned a position at the restaurant. He worked as a busboy and server, spending the majority of his time admiring chefs’ work in the kitchen.

The following year, he visited culinary schools on the East Coast, hoping to make his dream a reality. Because of what he said was the high cost of tuition, he settled on the UI and turned his love for food into a campus organization.

“I hope that people are enthusiastic about it,” Fix said. “I hope it becomes something at Iowa and doesn’t fizzle out after I graduate.”

Like Fix, club Vice President Naranjo grew up fascinated by observing others prepare food. With family roots in Ecuador, he often watched his mother cook fresh food. After arriving at the UI, he remained alert for diverse cultural dining venues, as well as restaurants that serve fresh items.

“Iowa City has a different culture based on its restaurants,” he said. “There are so many cultures that come here from all over.”

Not only does this variety in food options make the Food Critics Club lucky, but the city’s support of locally owned restaurants does as well.

“The community members dictate what restaurants they like,” Downtown Association Executive Director Nick Arnold said. “A lot of that tends to be local restaurants that like unique and organic food.”

Mama’s Deli & Catering, 125 E. Washington St., is only one such restaurants in downtown and happens to be next on the Food Critic’s Club list. The establishment is known for its chicken salad and 16 different types of sandwiches. The menu items greatly differ from last week’s lunch of chicken tandoori at India Café and gelato at Capanna.

“There is a huge variety of different places to eat,” said Mama’s Deli manager Lynn Silberstein. “Every restaurant has its unique thing. We try to be a little different from everyone else.”

Silberstein believes that part of the variety in restaurants is attributed to the lack of chain restaurants downtown and near downtown. As the trend of dining locally and eating fresh products grows increasingly popular, independent venues continue to thrive.

For international student Bo Wang, individual establishments have provided an outlet for experiencing American culture. She believes that the Food Critics Club will help new students to know Iowa City better.

“The club can help foreign students who don’t know how to find new places,” Wang said. “It makes the town more interesting.”

In the future, the Food Critics Club plans to take a trip to visit restaurants in Chicago and meet with Sally Mason’s personal chef. With a number of ideas in the works, one item still tops Fix’s own list of things to try.

“Haggis,” he said and laughed. “It sounds pretty disgusting, but it would be interesting to try.”

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