The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

New Orleans flair from an unlikely location

By Jordan Scheibel

In the shadow of Iowa City to the east, sitting between the popular tourist destinations of the Amana Colonies to the west and Kalona, an Amish and Mennonite enclave, to the south, Oxford does not appear to be a destination for many people.
Driving into town on a Saturday night, the single main street lined with buildings on both sides appeared to be closed down, save for the local bar and the only sit-down restaurant in Oxford, the Augusta Restaurant.

While the town may be best known for The Oxford Project—a book of stories and photographs of 100 Oxford residents (1/7 of the current population of the town) taken 20 years apart, by Oxford native Peter Feldstein—it was Augusta that brought us to Oxford on this particular night.

Augusta was at first hard to find, since its sign is placed on a side street wall facing away from the interstate to the south, looking north up the main street toward Route 6. If this is indicative of Augusta’s attitude—in contrast to the tourist hungry Amana Colonies and Kalona, which make good use of signs on the nearby interstate—it’s hard to tell.

Entering the restaurant through the ring of curtains that protect the interior from cold drafts as people enter and leave, you might think that you have walked into a trendy restaurant in downtown Iowa City. The room was small but high ceilinged, covered in wood paneling, dimly lit and crowded with well-dressed middle age diners. We were ushered to the bar and then quickly seated.

Augusta is a Cajun restaurant, co-owned and operated by Jeri and Ben Halperin, who were driven from New Orleans in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. They came to Oxford via Chicago, opening Augusta in this unlikely place in 2008. Unlike places with more dubious connections to New Orleans—e.g. Bourbon Street—Augusta does not try to overwhelm you with its Big Easy connection.

The name comes from the street it sits on in Oxford, spelled with the “T” replaced by a traditional fleur-de-lis symbol. Jazz from New Orleans is played softly over speakers in the restaurant. Some Mardi Gras beads adorn the light fixtures along the wall. Art and photographs from local artists and town history decorate the walls. What Augusta does try to do is serve all fresh, homemade food, down to the salad dressing, mayonnaise and pickles, from as many local sources as possible.

It’s not cheap, but Augusta was still awarded the Best Affordable Meal by the Iowa Source in 2009— a testament to the fact that the quality is equal to the price. Augusta has also won an award for the Best Breaded Pork Tenderloins from whom else but the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

We ordered sautéed oyster mushrooms as a split entrée, salads and four sides—sweet potato chips, sugar carrots, stewed greens and fried grit cake. The fried grit cake, the least familiar of the four, in particular was very good, as were the sweet potato chips.

The mushrooms were not only the most delicious mushrooms we’ve ever tasted but one of the best foods I’ve ever had. The only problem was that there were so few to eat. We finished dinner with chocolate filled beignets, cherry bread pudding and chicory coffee, which is made of chicory root and tastes mostly like coffee.

All the food was very memorable and the whole atmosphere of the restaurant—which included five Happy Birthday songs while we were there—was congenial and relaxed. It is easy to understand why people are flocking to Oxford to visit Augusta—a Cajun restaurant that has found a niche in a small Midwestern town.

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