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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Old Castle 8383 Birchwood Court, Johnston 270-1425 Bar opens at 7 a.m., kitchen is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Old Castle

Expectations often mess with our sense of taste. A drop of red food coloring can drastically alter the way a taster describes the flavor of a white wine. Tests show that most people prefer the taste of a generic coffee if it’s poured in a Starbucks cup. That’s why branding works. When people see golden arches, they expect clean bathrooms and cheap burgers. When they see a trailer-shaped building with black and white checkerboard patterns, they expect malts and around-the-clock breakfasts. Except in Johnston.

Inhabiting a former diner, Old Castle Restaurant defies many expectations. Its breakfast fare is mostly just espresso drinks. At night it resembles an East European club, with live Balkan music, dim, red lights and a lively bar scene. Its remodeling has an authentic Old European style. Rather than tearing functional things down to build something new from scratch, the “make-do” architects just added what was needed to accommodate new functions — dramatic lighting, a stage, a full bar and a custom made rotisserie big enough to simultaneously roast three whole sheep. Old Castle’s menu is written in Cyrillic script, with English descriptions, but the food resembles that of Des Moines’ best bistros as much as that of other Bosnian restaurants. I’m not making this up.

The present kitchen evolved. Old Castle opened last winter as a Bosnian café and has since been through three changes of management and menu. Like the remodeled ambiance, new foods found a niche on the menu without totally reconstructing it. In short, it’s quite inconsistent but it can accommodate many types of diners. Rotisserie-roasted Iowa lamb headlines the high end of this eclectic menu. Available only on weekends, it’s sold by the pound ($15) and diners can specify which part of the sheep’s anatomy they prefer. I tried skin, leg, ribs, shoulder and middlings. All were testimonials to the value of both whole animal cooking and rotisserie roasting — there was not a single dried out morsel of meat. Two other dishes — hazel-encrusted salmon ($13) and lamb chops ($12) — made an even stronger impression on a pair of local foodies. They wrote Food Dude that these dishes reminded them of the moment in “Babette’s Feast” when Gen. Löwenhielm declares he had tasted a certain dish once before and had dreamed about it ever since. Old Castle inspired that comparison by reviving recipes from the old Chat Noir café. The moist salmon was served with a divine Frangelico cream sauce; the lamb chops in a Chardonnay and orange zest reduction, with sage mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.

More ethnic delights included several forms of charcuterie. Smoked beef and cured beef sausages, available on a meza tray ($10) with cheeses, should please any love of hard salami and jerky. Two kinds of fresh beef sausage, cevapi and sudzukica, could be ordered in degrees of spiciness as sandwiches. Hearty daily specials ($6 - $7.50) included stuffed sweet peppers, cabbage rolls and a bean stew with sausage. A Bosnian version of homemade pork tenderloin was much better than its accompanying onion rings or French fries. Kebabs were moist and gyros had good sear.

Breadbaskets contained fresh home made white breads one day, but stale ones two days later. Service was more consistent. Explanations about ethnic dishes were expertly presented. One time an acceptable order of roasted red potatoes was replaced a few minutes later with one that was much fresher. A full bar carries several Balkan beers and soft drinks, including the hard to find sugar cola Cockta. Coffee drinks were marvelously different, uniquely presented and made with a strong Turkish-type coffee and perfect crema. Desserts like carob cake and hazelnut crepes were marvelous bargains at $3.50. CV

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