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The Dock asks for a second date

Kristen and John Ahlf opened the Dock restaurant at 101 Windflower Ln., in June, and have revamped the menu and decor after getting feedback from the community. (photo by Lori Lindner)

SOLON– The owners of the Dock want you to take a second look.
John and Kristen Ahlf opened the restaurant at 101 Windflower Ln., in June with the intent of providing a dining experience to satisfy the most refined tastes.
“The reviews were about 60-40,” said John Ahlf, referring to the comments several early customers posted online; sixty percent being positive, and the rest, not so much. “We read every single comment, good and bad.”
That’s what inspired the Ahlfs to make changes to the restaurant’s décor, menu and staff.
“We knew we were missing the mark with some people. People were a little… critical,” John said. “We want those people to give us another chance.”
To start, Kristen Ahlf took over as the restaurant’s manager.
“We have to get the food quality up and the speed up. Instead of having an outside person be the general manager, who better to do that than an owner? Because we care,” said John. “Since she took the reins, the food quality, service and speed has improved dramatically.”
Secondly, the owners brought new items to the menu; spinach artichoke dip and bruschetta are a couple of favorite new appetizers.
“We’ve also added some seafood like seared sea scallops,” said Kristen. “We buy the freshest, highest-quality seafood available in this area.” That includes the teriyaki grilled salmon, crispy southern catfish and the steamed snow crab legs– now an all-you-can-eat special on Wednesdays.
The desserts are all made in house, with a slightly different dessert menu each week. More recent offerings include homemade apple pie, carrot cake and a tiramisu that John described as amazing.
And the final big difference was the person behind the menu changes; chef Jason Smith.
Smith has been a chef at Tyler and Downing in Anamosa, Vino’s in Cedar Rapids and in the kitchen at Full Throttle Saloon in South Dakota, where thousands of bikers converge at the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally.
Smith has remade several of the Dock’s recipes to make them signature dishes for the Dock.
“In less than four weeks, we’ve changed almost the entire staff, and the menu has changed significantly,” said Smith. “We still have seafood, steaks and pasta, and we’ve brought in the scallops, seafood stuffed mushrooms and other great dishes.”
Smith said he “basically tore apart the kitchen and put it together in a whole new way. We are taking what we started with and making it a lot more local-friendly.”
“People may not realize that at a lot of the chain restaurants, the food comes in bags, frozen and ready to cook,” said John. “We cut our own steaks, make our sauces from scratch, and smoke our own ribs right out back, to where they just fall off the bone. It takes more time and preparation, so it’s not fast food, but that’s not our main thing.”
Another addition was to the Dock’s beverage menu. With 11 new specialty drinks- including the Solon Spartan and one called Pineapple Cake– a concoction of vanilla vodka, pineapple juice and grenadine– and 37 wines in a range of price points to choose from, happy hour became much happier.
From 4 until 6 p.m. every day, pints of domestic beer are just 50 cents and patrons get 15 percent off any dine-in food order.
Even the ambiance has changed. The Ahlfs hope people will find the bar in the expanded seating area the hottest new place to grab a drink with grown-up friends. Subtle changes to the main dining area have made the restaurant a bit more upscale and private, while the bar seating area is still a lively place to catch a game or enjoy an informal evening.
“We already have a lot of bars in the area,” said John. “We want this to be a place where you can have a nice, quiet, intimate dinner or a relaxed dining experience with friends and family. It’s a blend of fine dining and casual dining. I like dishes that are fresh and have a unique taste and are well-made, but I also don’t want the small portions like fine dining tends to be.”
In mid-December, the Dock will be adding a Sunday brunch as well.
Probably the most popular changes will be in the Dock’s service itself. Lunch is now served Dock Express-style.
From 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., customers have a list of menu items, like sandwiches, wraps and flatbreads, with a side included, just $6 and served in 10 minutes or less– or it’s free.
“Sometimes you don’t have a whole hour for lunch, and you want something quick that’s not fast food,” said John.
Nightly dinner specials, available 6 to 9 p.m., have also added more affordability to the menu. Monday’s tenderloin– “we did that as a courtesy for the people of this area who love the tenderloins,” said John– is a huge portion served on a buttered bun with a mound of fries on the side for $10. Tuesday brings a never-ending bowl of pasta with a meat sauce for $9, or you can try one, two or all three of the Dock’s signature sauces and as many servings as you like for $10 more. Wednesday is the all-you-can-eat snow crab legs, Thursday’s special is top choice rib eye steak, and Friday’s is the fried catfish filet. On Saturday night, a full rack of ribs, smoked on site, is just $15, and Sunday’s comfort food is Maine lobster macaroni and cheese, at a comfortable $13 a plate.
The expanded seating area, which has a stepped-up stage, can be closed off for special events, such as holiday office parties, receptions, birthdays or anniversaries. There is no fee to rent the room, other than a refundable deposit, and users will get their own private wait staff and bartender. Even the event menu can be customized to fit the wishes of the patron, with two to three weeks’ notice.
“We really listened to what people were saying they wanted,” said John. “We’ve had return customers who say they are very glad they came back.”
John and Kristen Ahlf hope you will come back, too.
“My job is to ask what else we can do to have this community embrace us,” said John. “Our goal is to bring people in for a second look. We want Solon people to be proud of this place.”
All the new features of the Dock can be found at the restaurant’s website, including the Dock Express lunch menu and the nightly dinner specials, at www.thedockfood.com.