Drink wine. This is life eternal.
This is all that youth will give you.
It is the season for wine, roses and drunken friends.
Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.
– Omar Khayyam as quoted on the Rubaiyat menu
Some places just possess a certain character and charm that make you fall in love with them immediately and make you feel like you belong there. For Kim Bonnet, that moment happened when she first visited Decorah, Iowa, where she attended college and now runs Rubaiyat, a restaurant that focuses on local and seasonal ingredients, with her husband Andy.
“I really almost immediately fell in love with Decorah and knew there was something special here even back then that was different than any other place,” she said recalling the first time she visited the Northeast Iowa town of approximately 8,500 for a college visit to Luther College.
Even after Kim graduated from Luther and went elsewhere for work, Decorah held a place in her heart that she knew she wanted to return to someday. And after introducing her husband to the town on a weekend visit, the couple both felt the same way.
“We really knew that someday this was where we wanted to be,” Kim said.
In addition to dreaming of Decorah, the two also dreamed of opening up their own restaurant someday. The couple, who met while working at Fried Green Tomatoes, an award-winning restaurant in the historic town of Galena, Ill., had both worked in the food service industry since the age of 14. As a high school student, Kim had worked as a server at Clark University and front of house at different restaurants in Dubuque, Iowa, where she attended high school. Andy had grown up about 15 miles away in Galena and had worked at Timmerman’s a prominent supper club on the bluffs of the Mississippi River.
Although Kim returned to Dubuque and began working as a financial advisor after college, she continued to work in restaurants in addition to her day job. After she and Andy got married, she said, they knew they wanted to have their own restaurant.
“We were passionate about it,” Kim said.
Then, as luck would have it, Andy was at a food show in Dubuque and heard through the grapevine that there were a couple of buildings for sale in downtown Decorah. So while Kim was working, Andy went to check out the properties, accompanied by Kim’s mom.
After looking at a couple properties, the decision came down to two separated properties—one that was smaller than they wanted and one that was a bit bigger than they thought they might need. Although the opportunity to buy a space that could house their restaurant dream came to fruition a lot faster than they thought it would, they jumped at the chance. They decided to take a risk on the larger property—a risk that Kim says has paid off now seven years later.
“Now we are bursting at the seams,” Kim said. “We definitely made the right choice to choose this building.”
After purchasing their property in March of 2007, they renovated for a number of months before opening under the name Rubaiyat on November 1, 2007.
Rubaiyat is named for a book of poetry written around the 11th Century by Persian poet Omar Khayyám. Literally translated from the Arabic, a rubáiyát is a quatrain, or four-line poem. Approximately 1000 poems, written as quatrains, are attributed to Khayyám, many of which center around the experience and pleasure of food and wine.
“A lot of those poems talk about food and wine and the joy that that brings to people, so that’s very loosely correlated here,” Kim said. “We’re not a Persian restaurant—we just want people to come and have a relaxing, comforting experience with friends and family… to have that experience of enjoying what food brings to our lives and the senses that it evokes.”
According to Kim, she and Andy chose the name while “drinking for inspiration,” she said jokingly. The bottle of wine that the couple happened to open during their brainstorming session was a red wine called Rubaiyat that’s made by Napa Valley vintner Cakebread Cellars. On the back of the label was a four-line poem:
“. . . a loaf of bread . . . a flask of wine, a book of verse – and thou singing beside me in the wilderness . . . .”
Kim says she vaguely remembered studying the Rubaiyat as a high school student in her AP English class. After doing some investigating into the history of the poems and reading some of the verses, Andy and Kim decided the concept and the celebration of food and wine communicated in Khayyam’s poetry was exactly what they wanted to express by sharing their own love of food and wine with others.
“Food and wine bring a certain joy to our lives,” Kim said. “It’s not just to sit down and put food in your mouth, it’s to enjoy the way that food makes you feel and the different tastes and textures—almost like art.”
A large part of bringing the pleasure of food to life for their customers is having an emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients. Kim says she and Andy knew they wanted to offer a seasonal menu that would change every three months and that would introduce their community to new things. Despite being a small town, Kim describes Decorah as a very food friendly and “hungry” community when it comes to being willing to try new things. For instance, one of their first menus featured mako shark, something that is a bit unusual for Northeast Iowa. However, she says, people really liked it once they tried it.
“We knew we didn’t want to do the same thing over and over and over again—we wanted to keep it interesting and new,” she said.
Although Rubaiyat’s menu is seasonal, they always feature standards such as steak, chicken, fish, and, of course, pork (“we are in Iowa,” Kim said). The one item on their menu that Kim says will always remain is the Pasta Rubaiyat, a seafood pasta (shrimp, scallops, crab and alfredo over linguine). According to Kim, the pasta was on the first menu they ever did and when they tried to take it off the second menu, they got so many requests for it, the dish had to go back on the menu. “That is the one thing that never leaves the menu—everything else does change,” she said.
Local sourcing is also part of the Rubaiyat philosophy. Kim says that, as the local food movement has grown, they’ve been excited to offer even more local produce. In fact, she said, a couple friends of hers from college also recently moved back to Decorah and are running a greenhouse that features local vegetables.
“We’re getting microgreens from them, we’re getting tomatoes, mixed greens, almost all of our mixed greens come from them now, so it’s really nice to have that opportunity to keep it local. Our burgers come from a farm north on Highway 52 from Tom and Jeanette Hansen. We also do a lot of work with the Farmer’s Market,” she said.
To deal with getting fresh ingredients throughout the Iowa winter, Kim says they try to stock up on the items that will keep such as garlic or potatoes that still allow for a local element on the menu. And she says that someone actually has plans to start a local hydroponic shrimp farm in the Decorah area, so they may be able to source some fresh seafood despite the fact that they’re landlocked. “Quite possibly there will be local shrimp on the menu,” she said.
In addition to emphasizing seasonal and local foods grown and sourced primarily from the Decorah area, Kim says Rubaiyat also has an emphasis on offering excellent wines and food pairings.
“That is a big part of what we do here. Our staff goes through a wine education process,” she said.
Having a good wine program was also something Kim and Andy consciously set out to have as part of their restaurant because they both really love good wine and have a lot of respect for the wine industry. In addition to being a chef, Andy was a wine rep at one time, so they both have a “passion for wine,” Kim said. She said they both really enjoy everything about wine from the science of terroir to sharing it with other people, educating them about it and watching them explore new things.
“They’re willing to take a chance because they trust that we’re going to give them something that they like,” she said.
(And she’s right—I ate at Rubaiyat later that night after Kim and I talked and she recommended an excellent red blend called Alakai Red from Joel Gott that our table really enjoyed. Check it out!)
An award-winning wine program
Kim and Andy’s reverence for good wine has paid off. Rubaiyat has been on Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence list every year they’ve been in business and they’ve also received Wine Enthusiast’s Award of Distinction for restaurants—one of only three restaurants in the state of Iowa to have received both awards.
“That’s a really big accomplishment and we definitely work hard to get that,” she said. “We want that award every year.”
How does one put together an award-winning wine list? Kim says there are a lot of elements that come into play. For one, the couple travels to Napa and Sonoma once or twice each year to keep themselves educated on the wine scene. Although neither has formal sommelier training, they also get all the major wine magazines so they can keep an eye on what’s trending. In addition, Kim says they’re constantly reading and researching what’s going on in the industry. Looking to include offerings from respected wineries and having a diverse portfolio are also key, she said, as well a getting varietals from different regions. Rubaiyat’s wine list consists of about 250 wines, most of which are from California.
“So in your Pinots you’re having Sonoma, you’re having Russian River, you’re having Carneros, you’re spreading out and stacking the list so you have a wide variety,” she said.
Kim said Rubaiyat is also recognized for the price points of the wines they offer.
“We are in Northeast Iowa, we are in a small town. I have to keep it affordable…we want our wine to be accessible,” she said.
As such, she says they have everything from by the glass to half-bottles, wine on tap, magnums and even flights and cover the spectrum when it comes to varietals. They also have a Captain’s List, which features rare, small lot and library wines. Despite being in a small town and having to work through distributors, they’ve been able to get some wines from smaller vintners by developing relationships with the winemakers who will then “dogtag” certain wines for Rubaiyat with the distributors. “That way we can still get what we want—it may be only three bottles a year, but we can still get it,” she said.
In addition to their award-winning wine list, they also offer wine sales at the restaurant so patrons can take home the wines they’ve discovered. “We’re offering a wide variety to hopefully fit as much of a niche as we possibly can,” she said. “There’s something for everybody.”
Wine education is something Kim and Andy see as another service they’re bringing to Decorah. Three years ago the restaurant started a wine club for the community that Kim says now has nearly100 members. The club gets together on a monthly basis to taste new wines and each member gets two bottles to take home with them. Kim leads the wine education program. “It’s exploded, especially this year,” Kim says. In addition, they also host wine dinners at the restaurant and featured conversations via Skype with prominent California wine makers such as Schug in Sonoma.
“Giving people around here in Northeast Iowa the opportunity to get some one-on-one experience with some really great winemakers is really fun,” Kim said.
The couple’s recipe for success goes beyond just a great wine list. Kudos and recommendations for Rubaiyat have also come from the likes of The New York Times, Delta Airlines’ Sky magazine, Midwest Living magazine, and they’re ranked as the number one place to eat in Decorah on TripAdvisor. In addition, Andy has been featured on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Ingredient” show as a prominent Iowa chef.
Kim attributes Rubaiyat’s success to the fact that both she and Andy are usually always present in the restaurant and to an emphasis on service in addition to good food and wine. “We’ve always both enjoyed serving and cooking,” she said. As the person who’s running the front of house, Kim says she also has really high standards for her staff and for working together as a team.
“We strive to have the best service. We always want everybody to feel, from the moment they walk in until they leave, that they feel comfortable at a steady pace and not feel rushed. We try to keep things as consistent as possible from visit to visit,” she said.
Being at the restaurant and being present every day is also key. Not only is it their philosophy to be on-site, but, they feel, the way that it should be.
“We are here everyday. We have a vibrant interest in the prosperity of this business,” she said. This she says, despite being the parents of two small children, which doesn’t always make things easy for them. However, she says, “we realize that in order for us to be successful, people want to see us, they want to know that we’re here…It’s very important for you to be here and for there to be that presence of the owner. Because we care about our customers and when they come in, we want them to know that we care about them…”
Being part of the renaissance of a small town has not only been good for the Bonnets, but Kim believes their good fortune is reciprocal and impacts the community. “There’s just something special about the people in Decorah where they care so much about this community and watching it succeed. People honestly care for supporting businesses in this town,” she said. Plus, the publicity that both Rubaiyat and the town of Decorah have gotten contribute even more to a sense of community, Kim said.
“It’s great for everybody—it’s great for us, it’s great for Decorah. Anything we can do to promote Decorah is awesome. We love it up here. It’s becoming more and more known though. It’s hard to keep our little secret quiet!” she said.
What drew you to food?
When I first started it was because I enjoyed serving. It was about the experience of communicating with people. The food probably really started when I was in late college and experimenting with different things. A couple of my roommates were international students, so exposure to different types of food. I suppose the food aspect really didn’t start until I was in college. My mom always cooked really, really great food at home. I’ve never been a picky eater, but the concept of exploring different foods was in later college when I started doing that. I’ve always enjoyed eating out and the experience of eating out.
Why your own restaurant?
Because I think what we’re doing is something positive to offer to this community. Because I think that the way that we’re doing it is an honest and good way to provide a service to this community.
And do I really want to work for anyone else again? No, because I’m kind of a control freak. I want things to be done my way, I want things to be done the right way. For those that know me in this community, they know that I expect a lot out of those that work here and that we work very well together as a team, but my expectations are very high.
It can come from anywhere. We did a wine dinner a couple of weeks ago and Andy was picking up our kids from daycare and he was still really trying to figure out this one course, what he was going to do with this one course. We had some really great smoked pork butt that we were going to do with some local squash, and he was trying to figure out how he was going to come up with some way to compose it on the plate. Well, he drove by McDonald’s and on the sign it said “Parfait. Parfaits are back.” And he thought, ‘I’m going to make a parfait out of that.’ So inspiration can really come from anywhere! So he layered the pork and the mixed greens and the hubbard squash in this beautiful parfait and that’s how we served it. So it had nothing to do with an actual fruit and yogurt parfait, it was just a concept. That’s just a recent example of how we’re inspired. We can see something and think ‘ok, that would be good this way.’ Or we drink a wine and it takes us back to this place, ‘oh, we remember when this happened,’ and then it will make you think of a food and you can kind of spin it. A lot of what we deal with is what we get that’s local and how we can use it, how we can really do that food justice on this menu.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten in building the business and what advice would you have for others?
Well, I called a friend of mine up who I used to know at Luther when we first decided to do this, I used to work with her in the Development office. I said, ‘Vicky, Andy and I are thinking about opening a restaurant in Decorah,’ and she told me, she said, ‘if anybody can do it, you can. But I don’t want you to be upset if it doesn’t work.” So, I know that that was—she was helping me—and it gave me the motivation because you know what? I don’t want to fail because I really like proving people wrong!
I guess the advice that I would have for other people is that you have to be there. You have to be present. You have to want to be there every single day. And if it ever becomes a job to you then you need to re-evaluate what you’re doing. Of course sometimes I’m tired. Of course I know some nights are going to be absolutely insane. But for me, I’ve got such a great relationship with this community and people that I’ve developed a relationship with over the last seven years. These crazy weekends, sometimes they’re the most fun because I get to see so many different people and that’s what gets me going is being able to make people feel good about coming here and coming to Decorah and making peoole feel good about coming to this restaurant and doing that back rubbing and showing them how appreciative we are. Because if people didn’t support me, I wouldn’t be able to support myself and I wouldn’t be able to support this community, so it really is very cyclical how things work here.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Dynamic between family and work. We had one of our chefs who was leaving—and we knew he was leaving—he left right in May right after Luther graduation in the spring, and that was very difficult because he’d been with us since the beginning. And he could run this place if Andy needed a night off. So that changes things because I can’t do what Andy does, and he doesn’t do what I do. It’s just not the way we’ve set up things—it was never intended for me to be in the kitchen or him to be out here. So that was a struggle for a while to really develop the home time vs. the work time because he was here all the time that I was home and that I wasn’t able to get stuff done because I was having to be home more. Now things are certainly back, we’ve got some great staff, but eventually when my kids are in school, that’s something that will have to be re-evaluated, so that is always an ever-present thought.
What’s the best about what you’re doing for a living?
I get to be in Decorah. I get to live in Decorah, I get to see fabulous people every single day and I get to serve food and talk about wine and I just love to talk about wine and food. And if I want a glass of wine in the middle of the afternoon, I can have one!
Well, we just started it on Wednesday! I really like cheese and we have a beautiful baked brie with a Southern Comfort dried fruit sauce on it on our appetizer menu right now, so that’s amazing. We have some ‘quack and cheese,’ some duck macaroni and cheese on our menu that’s killer, Andy made me some of that last night. There’s a cheese undertone here, isn’t there? Our pork is amazing—we’re doing a maple pecan glazed Iowa pork ribeye that just melts in your mouth.
Then there’s the wine. It always changes, I’m always getting to explore new things. You know we have some great distributors that are very knowledgeable and some that aren’t and it challenges us to challenge them to try to explore new things.
Are there other local artisans you admire and why?
Absolutely. And that’s the great thing about Decorah, too, is that we all genuinely care about the well-being of the other. Not only businesses but restaurants. Jim McCaffery out at Dolce Vita, they opened a little bit after we did. He’s been in the food business here in Decorah for years, years, years, years and they have a really great place with their wood-fired pizzas. He and his wife Brenda run that together. La Rana Bistro – Mark and Joni—they’re a really great bistro. They do local foods as well and they do a really great job. So it’s really great that in a town of only 8500 people we have so many options of great, highly composed food.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
We have a local magazine, they ask everybody that—who would you share your last meal with and what would it be? You’re literally the only person who’s ever asked me this, and I always think ‘oh, I know what I’d say.’
It would probably be my mom’s cheesy potatoes paired with our pastry chef’s salted caramel brownie. This is going to make no sense because it’s just going to be random things that I like. It would probably be some sort of stuffed game that Andy would do like a stuffed squab or quail with some cranberries or something like that. It’s hard to decide because there’d be so many different things…
I love Mexican food, so if it’s authentic Mexican food, I’m always a big fan. And I’m always a big fan of these restaurants that are doing small plates because then you get to experience a lot of different things. We went to Michael Chiarello’s Bottega out in Yountville [California], that was really excellent. We went to Partake by K-J in Healdsburg—that was good. There’s so many good chefs. We went to Le Toque—that was at the Weston in downtown Napa—Ken Frank and that was an incredible meal, and he was there and he was present with his staff. That’s a whole different experience out there—you’ve got one person that’s doing one element of one dish. They’re making a foam for something, it’s just a completely unique experience, but that was really an exceptional meal that we just had a couple weeks ago. Everybody’s got their own unique talents. I’ll never be able to try them all, but that’s the zest of life is getting to try all of that.
Photos courtesy of Kim Bonnet, Rubaiyat.