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Michael C. Berch
Thu, 17 May 2007
Looking forward to another trip to Nebraska next week reminds me to put together a roundup of my last trip in February and early March. No, I didn't cook another turducken, but we did cook up some tasty stuff -- most of it beef -- and try a few new places and return to some favorites.
Needless to say, we headed right from the airport to The Oven -- where we ran into online friends Sean and Marla and talked about the local restaurant and theatre scene. This time around I vowed to try something different as a main course, and I ended up with the Madras lamb, which as it turned out was even spicier than the lamb shank vindaloo. It's a full-bodied, flavorful curry, but I think I like the lamb shank better. Maggie switched to the lamb shank this time and loved it. We drank a bottle of Stag's Leap Syrah, which is slightly less subtle than their Petite Syrah -- the two are unrelated grapes, actually -- but bolder, spicier, and to my mind an equal or better fit for the Madras lamb. I'd eaten dim sum on the plane -- siu mai and har gow packed for carry-aboard by Fung Lum at SFO -- so we skipped the keema masala.
The next day we got takeout lunch from Runza -- my first actual Runza in over a year, though I'd eaten a bunch of their burgers in the meantime. It occurs to me that I've never actually detailed the oblong goodness that is the Runza Ovenstuff'd Sandwich®: while Lincoln is, overall, a pretty good eatin' town, the Runza is probably its most notable culinary claim to fame.
Eastern Nebraska is one of the largest concentrations of Volga Germans, usually called Germans from Russia, who brought their traditional cuisine to America in the 19th century, including the bierock (pronounced somewhere between "brock" and "brook"), an etymological cousin of the Slavic pierogi or piroshki -- a dough stuffed with chopped meat, usually with cabbage and onions, formed into a bun and baked in the oven. It's not clear how the bierock became a Runza -- whether the name is traditional or invented -- but that's the name that caught on.
Sally Everett and Alex Brening opened the first Runza Drive Inn in 1949, near Pioneers Park in Lincoln, with a second location opening in 1966. Franchising started in 1979, and as of 2006, there were over 70 Runza locations in Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, and Iowa. They also serve a reasonably typical fast-food menu (their burgers are much better than the global chains) plus chili, salads, wraps, and soups.
Runzas are terrifically filling -- they're not a light food by any means, but thankfully they're not too large, and I've learned not to have more than one at a time. There are all sorts of specialty Runzas on the menu, including cheese, Swiss cheese and mushroom, BBQ bacon, and BLT Runzas, but I think the original is probably the best, with an occasional cheese Runza for variety.
For dinner we cooked some New York strip steaks on the grill, and tried a bottle of Honig cabernet sauvignon. Most people, myself included, know Honig for its white wines, most notably sauvignon blanc, and their cabernet was solid, if not a home run hitter. The next couple of days -- Maggie made Japanese Golden Curry, and we returned to Paul's BBQ for ribs -- were a run-up to Maggie's birthday dinner. Since that comes on Valentine's Day, we ususally stay home and have something special.
This year I roasted a prime rib of beef, using the fiery hot and quick Berch on Food method. While the result was highly satisfactory, there were some moments of consternation, when about halfway through the process the smoke detectors went off and the kitchen filled with smoke. These are fancy networked some detectors, mind you, and you can't just tell them "never mind" -- they only give up if the smoke goes away, so we opened all the doors and windows, even though the temperature outside was around 10F with a stiff wind. (Thankfully, the cats did not try to make run for it.) What had happened is that the so-called "standing" rib roast had flopped over on its side, just a tiny bit over the edge of the roasting pan, and juices started dripping on the floor of the 500-degree oven. After evacuating the smoke (brrr!) we wiped up the oven, restored the roast to a secure and upright position, and let it finish. The timing was a bit off but it still turned out a delicious medium rare.
In the meantime we'd enjoyed some Taittinger brut Champagne with canapes, then Maggie whipped up some hash browned potatoes to go with the beef and we dug on in. With the main course we had a nice 2001 Medoc from Chateau Greysac, and finished with a cheese course.
The prime rib furnished a second dinner the next night, and after that it was time for a respite from beef, so I cooked us some Moroccan-style sea bass from a recipe from Cooks.com. It's pretty easy, and doesn't require any particularly exotic ingredients, and this time it came out just fine. We ate it with a Kris 2005 pinot grigio delle Venezie.
By the weekend we had a hankering for some more restaurant food, and on Sunday night decided to head over to Venue, which I've mentioned before, and is holding its own as one of Lincoln's best restaurants, and where I'd been for lunch a couple of times, but not yet for dinner. So we ventured out on a chilly night, and found... an empty parking lot. Venue is closed on Sundays. Well, I'd been lobbying for a chance to try Vincenzo's, an Italian restaurant in the Haymarket, so we decided to check it out.
Vincenzo's was sort of a mild disappointment, but I'd like to eat there again a couple of times before giving up on it. (I desperately want it to be good, since Lincoln inexplicably lacks consistently great Italian food.) It was a Sunday, few tables were occupied, and it seemed like the "B" team was in the kitchen and the front of the house. Things were oddly paced, and neither of our main courses -- Maggie had the veal Franco, and I had a pork chop stuffed with sun-dried tomato, sausage, and cheese -- were especially well-executed. The veal was dry and overcooked, with little sauce, and the pork chop was overdone as well. (Our appetizer, escargot with butter, garlic, and cheese, was a bright spot, though.) I'd like to go back on a Friday or Saturday, with a live crowd and a little "heat" in the kitchen, and maybe try the veal again, or the special of the day.
By the middle of the next week we were back in the groove, with dinner reservations for Venue (finally!) and lunch from Grateful Bread, which makes the best soup in town. Their most popular -- and our favorite -- is Moroccan tomato, which is simply delicious, and consistently so. I couldn't begin to name all the ingredients, which are surely numerous, but cumin, coriander, and peanut are definitely among them. I got one of their rotating daily soups, Tibetan Curry Noodle, as a counterpoint, and it was indeed spicy, but is no match for the Moroccan.
Maggie's sister and her family joined us at Venue, and after some negotiation we ended up at a round 6-top in the center of the dining room, with a pleasant and patient server. We started with crab cakes, which were moist and flavorful, and I also ordered the most interesting-sounding appetizer on the menu as well, which was a seafood terrine with smoked salmon, crab, asparagus, and roasted red pepper. The terrine was tasty but seemed somewhat overproduced, and would have been better if they had dropped one or two of the constituents.
My main course was exceptional -- a plump duck breast smoked, and then finished in the oven with a brown sugar crust. It was juicy, smoky, and sweet, all at once, and was perfectly complemented by its accompaniment, gnocchi with wild mushroom cream sauce, truffles, and parmesan. I won't deny that this was an uncommonly rich plate, but perfect for a chilly winter night. We drank a Hans Fahden cabernet (Sonoma County, 2000) which was full-bodied and a good partner to the duck.
On the weekend Maggie made a nice baked chicken breast with lemon, garlic, and rosemary, with roasted asparagus topped with parmesan, and we managed to find another bottle of Taittinger to drink with it. The snows came mightily again, and I decided to re-schedule my flight back to California, giving us time for a few more favorites -- takeout from Tandoor, Jade Rivers, Cafe de Mai, and finally a trip into Omaha to visit the zoo and return with enough La Casa pizza to see us through the next set of snowstorms. With the pizza we drank a rustic sangiovese, La Carraia 2004, from Umbria.
On my last night in Lincoln we finished the last of the La Casa pizza, a tiny bit of banh xeo from Cafe de Mai, and I set off for California the next day, stopping in for my customary bowl of French onion soup and a cheese plate at Pour la France! in Denver Airport.
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