“To everything there is a season…” Writing about Agincourt’s newest restaurant, Howard seemed like a proud uncle.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
The Periodic Table
“The history of every major galactic civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?’”—Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Who would write a history of food and its consumption in Fennimore county? Who would read it? Many of us have simply never escaped “survival” mode, so anything more speculative or analytic is beyond the pale.
Don’t get me wrong. On any given day we all find ourselves in these three phases. During that three-day mind-numbing blizzard last winter, for instance, holed up at the apartment with a pint of expired sour cream, some dried figs and a can of minced clams, I longed for Lynne Rossetto Kasper on speed dial. Until we shoveled out, my table was anything but splendid.
So, it was with considerable delight last Tuesday that I attended the opening of Agincourt’s newest eatery, “The Periodic Table” at the corner of Broad and James. Its subtitle—“elemental eating for the 21st century”—affords some insight to the restaurant’s philosophy: locally-grown, seasonal foods for maximum nutrition and minimum carbon footprint. A pretty tall order and one worth our support. Downright millennial!
Wasserman’s bins, barrels and spools of hardware are gone, sadly. But with shelves and clutter swept away, the old store is surprisingly bright, open and airy. Divided roughly in thirds, there is a bakery-coffee shop at the front—cookies, koláce, pies—with the restaurant behind, wrapping the kitchen on three sides. Watching Chef Rosemary Plicka and her small staff in action has become the best show in town.
Chef Plicka has brought us memories of Central European soul food from Omaha’s Czech community. She grew up on South 13th Street in Little Bohemia. But, at thirty-years of age, Chef Plicka also brings a youthful twenty-something take on food, its growth and preparation. Her idea is to fill the larder from vendors within fifty miles (when possible) and minimize the energy required for transport and preparation. Breads, for example, come from Vandervort’s Bakery just up the block (and their flour from the Fahnstock Mills); pork comes from Okkema Farms at Grou. Organic vegetables are growing within our city limits. Locus and focus.
The menu is broad but brief. Entrées are fresh, never frozen. Vegetables are crisp, colorful, complementary. Reductions, subtle. Service is prompt and self-effacing. It all worked so very well Tuesday night (squash soup, loin of pork, corn spätzle, balsamic reduction) that our party-of-four wonder what to expect six months from now in March. I’m eager for that experience and many others in between.
I spoke with Chef Plicka (as restaurant patron, journalist and landlord; for those concerned about conflict-of-interest, Rowan Oakes and I do own the building). I wondered about so bold an undertaking, and one so far from the beaten path. Rosemary scouted a number of locations (with her husband and business partner Brad Nowatski) and chose Agincourt because it’s already at the center of their best suppliers. She praised the quality and reliability of regional growers and was eager to participate in our downtown renovation initiative. “Northwest Iowa is a cornucopia! And your old Wasserman Block appeared at just the right moment for our business plan.” Their financial package combines personal savings, a federal loan from the Small Business Administration, and tax incentives from our “Home Grown” Program at the Fennimore County Economic Development Council. Anyone starting a business in these perilous economic times could study this as a textbook example.
Conversation during dinner Tuesday night inevitably turned to food, not only as a life staple, but also as the prime vehicle for socialization. We spoke of other community watering holes: of Adams Restaurant (a pleasant habit for more than ninety years), of the venerable Bon-Ton and the Koffee Kup (K2 to locals); and now The Periodic Table. Perhaps someone should write that history of local food, the very lubricant of our culture.
Happily, there’s a new reply to Douglas Adams’ question: Where shall we have lunch?
I’m reposting here Howard’s column from eighteen months ago. Happily, the Periodic Table is still a favorite Agincourt eatery.