Monday, January 12, 2009

A Trip to Oxford to Visit Augusta

If you’re not a vegetarian, I think ya just gotta be impressed with a place that can pull off a duck and asparagus omelet for a Sunday brunch. Augusta, the newest and perhaps only restaurant in Oxford, Iowa, can do just that. My friend Elizabeth and I were duly impressed by the specials, if less so by the young bus-girl crumpling up the large paper tablecloth at the next table down. Besides, ya gotta figure that any place that can pull off a duck and asparagus omelet for Sunday brunch can pull off French toast and sausage.

Well, not so fast.

The story behind Augusta is that a couple Hurricane Katrina refugees returned to their Iowa roots, met a business partner in Oxford, and set up a bistro with a small town location but with Big Easy flair. Rave reviews are proliferating on the web since their opening in January of 2008.

My friend and I liked Augusta… in the end… overall. It was good but quirky, the problem being that the quirks weren’t all of the charming variety. Uncharming quirks may be better known as annoyances. We might have had an overly romantic idea as we set of on the fifteen mile westward drive from Iowa City, thru Tiffin, to Oxford. We wanted to feel like we were driving to some unknown culinary jewel lost in the backwaters of Iowa – a place with charming tablecloths and leisurely feasting and old world charm, not to a small town diner with a competent chef and local high school girls as wait staff. Arriving we were met by a gregarious woman who smiled but unceremoniously deposited us at a table topped with a large sheet of paper by the door. The interior was quaint in a neuvo-rustic sort of way, and I got the feeling that it might develop a bit more over time as it settled into its style and developed its wait staff. The farmland bistro atmosphere extended through the single rectangular room with the bar and kitchen at the far end and a number of smallish tables which they didn’t mind pushing together.

The waitress mentioned a few an impressive sounding specials, all of which were still available even tho at a bit past 1:00, we were perhaps the last customers to arrive. Elizabeth went for the Duck omelet - to which they offered to add whatever other traditional omelet stuffings she wanted – and sides of fruit and a pancake. What I liked about the menu for the regular breakfasts is that they all came with three sides. That’s right – uno, dos, tres.. This means that one doesn’t have to choose between the biscuits and gravy and whatever else looks tempting, or try to get a single biscuit and gravy along with the meal. One can simply order the French toast and get biscuits and gravy, cheesy grits, and AND sausage on the side, then eat the bacon that your friend gets with her omelet. I was smiling, but all the while thinking of the damage I would do to my heart.

The bacon was fine, better than average even; good but otherwise unremarkable. Nothing else was what I expected – the aforementioned quirks. The biscuits were almost scones, layered and flaky inside, browned outside, but strangely sweet and a bit dry, not I thought a great match for the gravy, which was a bit thin but very rich. The cheese grits I had expected maybe in a bowl or maybe on the plate, but definitely scooped out of a pot and amorphous. They arrived in a sharply geometric triangle, seemingly deep fried, and potentially pre-formed and just taken out of a deep freeze, with a crispy outer coating and mushy interior. Nott bad, but not super, and definitely quirky the wrong way. The home-made sausage had an interesting flavor – very, very peppery with black pepper, not hot but biting. It was a very fine grind with an interesting round along one edge and flat along the opposite edge crispy not on top and bottom but around the outside, that led me to suspect it was cooked as a meatloaf and sliced. It was okay but not especially to my liking – too dense and too peppery, didn’t go well with syrup – but definitely distinctive.

The French toast was the thing that was most disappointing in a way, although it also partly redeemed itself in another. Again, this may be a personal preference, so I’ll try to explain. I think to be good French toast needs to be soaked in the batter long enough to soak it up. It doesn’t need to be so saturated that it resembles some custardy bread pudding slice, but the grilled bread with a thin shellacking of egg on the outside and a cooked dry interior that some places try to pawn off as French toast is a crime against breakfast. Augusta’s variety was closer to the latter, and disappointing on that front. But it wasn’t the average white bread, either. In fact, the French toast was made out of something almost resembling brioche, soft and moist and a bit eggy. It almost made up for the lack of saturation of the batter. But only almost.

I think our disappointment came from overly high hopes, and as I said earlier, in the end, we liked Augusta. I like the idea of Augusta, and I like the drive to Oxford. We’re thinking about going back next weekend. I hope that some of the quirks will seem more familiar and others will have been changed. I want to support a small town diner that knows its crowd yet maintains its ambition to be something other than another small town diner.


  1. Hi there ,This is Jeri from Augusta thank you for taking the time to come out to Augusta we really appreciate the business writing a review. This really helps to better ourselves.It is fortunate for Ben and I (owners) that you came out the very first time we have left the state on a Sunday brunch for family reasons.So we can see what happen's when we are gone .I apolgize that you do not like paper on your table we can not yet afford to launder regular linen table cloths .We appriciate the review on the french toast we strive to improve we will work on the sausage as for the grits nothing we do comes frozen out of a box we make them and spread them on a cookie sheet and cut them in triangles .We take a lot of time preparing our food .We really hope you come and try us out for lunch or dinner .Thanks for stopping at slims to wash it down it is great to support small business's in small towns .We hope that after you try us for lunch or dinner you will write another review here and on yelp .We will work on staff, so one day we will be able to see family on a Sunday.We are very small all the owners work at Augusta we have started from bare minimum .Thank you again for your patronage we hope to see you in The future it is absolutley beautiful out here in the spring.

  2. Hi, Jeri.

    Thank you very much for your reply. I just want to be sure that I’m clear about a couple things.

    I need to point out that we did indeed return for another breakfast a few weeks after our first experience as reviewed above, but I’m sorry to say that that we were less happy than before. The bacon was super… most of the rest felt just a bit… I don’t know… haphazard... or thrown together... or uncoordinated. Not /bad/ per se, but not good.

    Another thing is that I’m taking friends to Augusta this weekend for dinner, and looking forward, hoping to enjoy it immensely.

    I also want to make clear a couple things from my earlier review. Following your comment, I see that I do mention the paper table cloths rather a lot. They don’t bother me at all. In fact, I even mentioned to my friend that I thought it was a clever idea for a busy brunch. The problem we encountered was the waitress wadding it up at the next table over; she even kept looking apologetically over at us as she made this prolonged racket. I wonder if she maybe could have just folded the paper in half a couple three times instead. I don’t imagine many people around here being too upset by having a young local girl/boy as their waitress/-er, even if s/he isn’t entirely proficient at it – at least if there appears to be more experienced staff helping her/him to learn.

    I’m delighted to learn that you make your grits yourself. I’m not sure I like them any better, but it confirms my suspicions about the integrity of your restaurant. I think you have a challenge in writing your menu to provide patrons enough information that they know what to expect while at the same time leaving them the opportunity to discover something new, which is something we all love about trying new food and new places. Too much information ruins the surprise, but too little can make the surprises unwanted.

    I also want to say that I entirely agree with you about the value of supporting small businesses in our small towns. I’m glad Slim’s is still around and glad Augusta has come along, because I want the sorts of variety and experimentation and personal concern that comes along with local businesses. To these ends I wish you every success.