...just make it a good one, eh?" -The Doctor
Every place has its stories, too. And oftentimes we enter somewhere in the middle, missing out on all that preceded our arrival. Although we don't usually get the opportunity to know the back story, when we do, our present experience becomes so much richer. We're able to find meaning and significance in details that we would otherwise overlook. A glass of Nero d'Avola, for instance, is no longer just a glass of fine wine. It's a remnant of a season of life spent exploring through agriturismo. Pizza dough topped with Gruyere and Fontina in a wood-fire can be traced back to an adventure involving a Sicilian man making brick-hard bread over a fire, fed with dried grapevines. A name is discovered to have depth beyond its obvious meaning. Such is the case with Cafe Mir, a community cafe in Fertile, Iowa featuring wood-fired pizzas and local fare at its charming location on the Winnebago River.
Around 5PM each Friday familiar faces and first timers start showing up to 113 W. Main Street in Fertile. Some come seeking the opportunity to participate in a movement of supporting local food and building community, while others unknowingly join in as they enter. Cafe Mir is an invitation to place value on food, to reject the fast food nation culture that surrounds us, and embrace a new (which is actually not new at all) way to eat. Whole food ingredients. Unprocessed. Organic. In-season. These trendy buzz words are, in fact, simply what it was to eat before the industrialization of food in the United States. Part of the beauty of the rise of the local food movement is that it is a return to the past in a way that is beneficial for both individual health and the health of the local economy. According to one of the cafe's owners, Nathaniel Frederick, the restaurant is a philosophical and political remark against corporate farming infrastructure and the exodus of people from rural America that has been occurring over the last few decades. Nathaniel (along with his cousin and business partner, Joshua Frederick) wanted to help bring life back to this particular part of North Iowa--to not only feed mouths, but fill souls and connect people with the land and with one another.
The extraordinary thing about Cafe Mir is that it is not an elitist fine dining establishment--although its menu certainly rivals that of any dining establishment within 150 miles. Families, couples and individuals across the socio-economic spectrum come to partake. Hipsters, parents with young children, and those who would consider themselves rich with years of life experience can all be found filling the tables, booths and stools at Cafe Mir. On any given weekend, 200+ come through the doors, which is actually quite miraculous considering the entire kitchen area is just under 200 square feet, and they are only open 5-9PM on Fridays and Saturdays. The kitchen's pass-through window faces out towards the front dining area inviting guests to check out what goes on behind the scenes. In fact, patrons are often seen coming behind the bar for a photo opp with Nathaniel or taking time to stop at the kitchen window to thank Joshua for their delicious meal.
The sense of community runs deep at Cafe Mir, and the rich histories that preceded its opening are tangibly woven into every detail of the dining experience. In 2012, Nathaniel returned to the Midwest after spending just over a decade exploring other parts of the world. He purchased an old creamery in Fertile with aspirations to restore it into an Airbnb rental, and lived in Minneapolis while working on the project. Once the project was complete, Nathaniel moved to Fertile and began hosting guests at his Airbnb. Three years into his venture, Nathaniel noticed that Fertile's cafe building on Main was for sale, and he felt a strong pull towards buying it and recruiting his cousin Joshua to come and manage the restaurant operations. At that time, Joshua was involved in restaurant management and wine sommelier work in LA. Nathaniel knew Joshua was "really instrumental where he was working," but he proposed the offer anyway. And according to Joshua, he "loved the idea of it," but just wasn't sure if the timing was right. Well, eventually the timing was right because the building purchase was able to be worked out and in August 2016 Joshua returned to North Iowa to join Nathaniel for the new adventure. Cafe Mir is now approaching its 1-Year Anniversary, as the restaurant officially opened in August of 2017.
The menu is a blend of familiar comfort foods and uniquely inspired dishes. House marinated olives, homemade pickles and sourdough, and creamy chicken liver pate served on toast make up the starters menu.
The salads boast fresh, local in-season ingredients, which means that sometimes the menu changes before you're ready to let a favorite go. However, each new menu item comes with its own favorite-worthy flavors. This weekend, the Horoscope Salad became my new personal favorite. Local green and yellow string beans, kohlrabi, basil, cilantro, Shichimi Togarashi, and a ginger-garlic-lime vinaigrette make a perfect combination for those who enjoy spice with their vegetables. The more typical green salad on the menu is the Tuscan, a blend of Lacinato kale, fennel, mixed radishes, garlic, bread crumbs, and Ricotta Salata drizzled with lemon and olive oil. And, Twisted River Farm sunflower shoots steal the spotlight in the Rootine Salad, alongside four types of radishes, sunflower seeds, tonnato, mint and lemon.
The sides and main entrees currently available include wood-roasted broccoli, summer squash and potatoes, and "technicolor carrots," as well as pork and beef bolognese lasagna, lamb and pork meatballs, Hrbek's steak (with a lemon-garlic-honey butter that is to die for), a seared Iowa pork chop, and, of course, their wide selection of wood-fire pizzas featuring interesting ingredient combinations like lamb sausage with Havarti cheese, anchovy with confit shallot, olives and mozzarella, and the White Elephant, topped with white eggplant, heirloom cherry tomatoes and shaved parmesan. The homemade dough is a true labor of love, taking days to prepare using traditional sourdough techniques.
Cafe Mir also partners with a local baker for the creation of its from-scratch dessert menu, currently offering a chocolate tart, rhubarb pie, Shaker lemon pie and a butterscotch pot du creme. It's all in the details at Cafe Mir. All the way down to the homemade whipped cream, every ingredient has been carefully sourced, and then thoughtfully prepared and served. The sides, as you can see in the squash photo above, come out in cast iron trays, ensuring that they stay hot until the final bite has been savored. And while the food selections are certainly stunning, the beverage menu at Cafe Mir is equally impressive. There are definitely no accidents or fillers on the drinks menu. Every beer, wine, mixed drink, coffee, tea and soda invites partakers into some purposeful piece of the restaurant's vision. Iowa-made brews, wines produced with organic and biodynamic farming practices, and a Fertile Fizz (made with Atxa vermouth) to highlight a few. Another special surprise on the beverage menu is the fertilatea, a chilled herbal "tea of the week." All of the herbs found in the tea come from Nathaniel's gardens just a few blocks from Cafe Mir.
There are many restaurants that offer good tasting food, and a number of restaurants that present a unique dining experience. However, it is a coveted opportunity to be able to enjoy incredibly prepared local food and a memorable experience, all while taking part in a bigger story like the one being written in Fertile, Iowa. Cafe Mir is a rare invitation to be transported to Prague or Sicily or Bordeaux for a few hours of your weekend. It is an opportunity to experience peace--a sacred pause from the busyness of life. Although the area code at Cafe Mir remains the same as the rest of this small rural Iowa town, inside the doors of Cafe Mir, the story is definitely its own. And it's a good one.