What (not) to eat in Nebraska

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Scottsbluff, NE

When I told people I was headed to western Nebraska, first came a chorus of raised eyebrows followed by the deduction that it must be to sample those unbeatably succulent Omaha Steaks. While the nations largest family-owned distributor of the best cuts of farm-raised Nebraska beef all across the US, the medium-rare irony is that none of them get left behind for local enjoyment. No matter where I sat, the grill-striped puck in front of me was either a gnarly maze of uncuttable, unchewable gristle, or a flavorless mush of sawdust.

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Rib-eye, Sizzlin’ Sirloin

Instead, the locals get to pick from an abundance of highly processed foods and practically anything fried. One quick glance at a restaurant menu in western Nebraska looks pretty much like the kids’ menu everywhere else. It’s burgers, dogs, fingers and fries from the bluffs to the prairies and back. Although rare to stumble upon a salad, but if you do, it’s bound to be doused in Dorothy Lynch, the all-time favorite apricot-pink French dressing, with tomato soup and sugar as its top two ingredients.

If southern cooking is considered “comfort food”, would it be fair to assume that all one could find out here is “dis-comfort food”? Not entirely.

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Laura Lee’s Double L Country Cafe, Harrisburg, NE

Laura Lee’s Double L Country Café in Harrisburg is a charming road-side diner in an out-of-the-way sort of way, serving fresh, home-made pies to die for, and avocado, jalapeno, whiskey cheddar, blue cheese burgers to die from. But at every whip-stitch, Nebraskans clamor for their beloved Cabbage burger, which is a fistful of minced-meat and shredded cabbage baked deep in the heart of a soft, white bun.

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Cheese Runza

Fast-food chain Runza still churns these out with drive-thru regularity, but were it not for the taste of a dribble of processed cheese, you might as well chow down on a bushel of laundry.

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Chicken-fried steak, Laura Lee’s Double L Country Cafe

Another Laura Lee favorite (although not exclusive to these parts) is Chicken fried Steak. For those unfamiliar, this is not a steak that was fried by a chicken, but rather a pounded beef schnitzel, which (when I ordered it) was snugly wedged into a sesame bun. Flawlessly crisp, tart and delicious, but also size-appropriate for the hands.

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Union Bar, Gering, NE

Gering’s Union Bar on the other hand, prefers to push the envelope on human dining abilities. They offer a Diet Burger, which is equally impossible to handle, bite or survive. A tower of 3 patties and a full pound of bacon are somehow stacked between 2 grilled cheese sandwich buns!

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Grebel, Mixing Bowl, Gering, NE

On the sweeter side, it is a safe assumption that no matter where you are, donuts will be donuts. They generally show up glistening under multi-colored frostings or with the occasional jam filling, but are all largely loyal to the formula of fried dough with a hole in the middle. (The hole being a 19th century addition to remedy the often uncooked center). In this part of the world however, local pasty-shops like Gering Bakery seem to have opened a can of worms  with a litany of oddly delectable interpretations and variations.

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Hog on a Log, Gering Bakery

There’s the Long John (stretched-out sausage-shaped with crème fillings), the Hog on a Log (a Long John covered with maple glaze and a strip of bacon), the Bear Claw (baseball-mitt-shaped and stuffed with cinnamon), the Apple Fritter (bits of grated apple baked in with the dough), the Grebel (if a beignet and a donut were to have a baby and bury it in crystallized sugar) and the list goes on.

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Beef Tacos, Taco de Oro, Scottsbluff, NE

It’s relatively easy to find the things you’d expect to be deep-fried as well as the one’s you don’t: (Snickers, Twinkies, Ho-Ho’s, Ding-dongs), but Nebraskans also keep their oil hot for ground Beef Tacos, which go down astoundingly well with pepper sauce and root beer at Taco de Oro in Scottsbluff.

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Cherry-dipped Cone, Dairy King

Another popular sugar-rush comes from a Cherry-dipped Cone – a hard-shelled, soft-served ice-cream from Dairy King. It emerges from the molten goo, gleaming like a new Ferrari, but getting beyond the hairspray and nail-polish aftertaste probably takes a lifetime.

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Minatare, NE

Back in the day, farmers would physically “work” the land and eat fresh, seasonal, locally grown and hand-raised produce. But thanks to automation, fast-food chains, feed lots, corn-syrup, big food consortiums and unpronounceable preservatives, eating has become the most affordable Olympic games of recreational activities in the mid-west. Not surprisingly the outcome has led to endless fleets of motorized wheelchairs straining under their cargo of the most extraordinary calorie collections imaginable.

And so, after noticing the rather curious state tourism slogan that actually reads: “Nebraska. Honestly, it isn’t for everyone!” I couldn’t help considering the appendage: “…and neither is the food.”

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Cherry, Rhubarb and Strawberry Pies, Laura Lee’s Double L Country Cafe

https://www.lauraleescountrystore.com/

https://www.runza.com/

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Eating my way through Copenhagen

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Amass herb garden

Ok, so I couldn’t get a table at Noma. I tried multiple times under multiple pseudonyms, using any number of different email addresses at ridiculously inconvenient times of the day – but all I got was older. So instead, I made do with a handful of Rene Redzepi’s many talented proteges who have all crisscrossed the Danish capital to create their own successful versions of New-Nordic cuisine.

 

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Turbot with toasted barley and lemon peel oil, Amass

For the unfamiliar, New Nordic principles include: Foraged or home-grown ultra-local, seasonal, organic ingredients that are sustainably raised by the chef’s own hands (or by the hands of those they trust). Gallons of bottling, pickling, fermenting, curing, smoking and preserving from bountiful seasons past, plus any number of animal, vegetable or mineral oils, not to mention a very staunch stance on repurposing any left-overs – even burned wood and coffee grinds. The good news: there’s no trash for anyone to throw out. The bad news: it’s up to the chefs to figure out how to repurpose it over and over.

 

And so, the main difference between the 4 restaurants below, is the extent to which their toques applied unique twists and turns to re-spin and re-jigger the identical ingredients in outrageously different ways. So, prepare yourself for a Danish version of Iron Chef played in very slow motion.

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Amass

Californian-born Matt Orlando spent 2 1/2 years as chef de cuisine at Noma before opening Amass in 2013. It took him less than an hour to catapult the mural adorned, cinder-block loft onto the World’s Best 50 list. The 20 tables are luxuriously scattered yards apart with views of the open kitchen below the staircase, and the prolific herb and vegetable garden out back. Thanks to the generous spring harvest, the majority of the staggering 13-course Amass Menu was green forward with a couple of seafood photo-bombs. Instead of waiters, each dish is presented by a different member of the cooking staff who sported accents that ranged from Sicily to Sydney to Singapore.

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Flame grilled green asparagus, Amass

The highlights included a flame grilled green asparagus in a deliciously creamy, salted lemon-skin sauce with lobster oil, which was covered by a what looked like a giant mushroom. As we smashed our way through, it turned out to be a cracker made from fermented “left-over herbs”. There was somewhat of a lengthy pause before we received a chilled, salty and savory curry-oil broth with magnificently crunchy young peas and sea snails, and without saying a word, the kitchen seamlessly adapted to our embarrassingly unbeatable pace, and shifted their prep and cooking into roaring high gear for the rest of the evening.

 

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Fermented potato bread with rocket lettuce spread, Amass

I lost count after we received the umteenth serving of untouchably hot, yet astonishingly morish fermented potato bread, paired with the most scrumptious onion, sunflower seed and rocket lettuce spread in the north.

 

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Danish mackerel, Amass

A fragrant slither of torched Danish mackerel arrived on a crisp cracker (yesterday’s potato bread, I’m told) with pickled borage flowers, yeasted citrus and a mere hint of heat from clementine chilies. Not just pretty – but pretty amazing too. There must have been at least 3 different twists on the turbot, but the one I still can’t quite get over, was a show-stoppingly flavorful horseradish-spiked turbot and mushroom broth. And what did they do with the fish bones, you might ask? Chef Orlando cooks them down for hours and hours, blends them into a mush and then somehow magically transforms them into ramen noodles. Same taste. Same texture. Brilliant execution.

 

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Milk ice-cream with rhubarb juice, Amass

Equally mystifying was how they candied the slimy “mother” from their home made kombucha into a sort of chewy, sweet-and-sour gummy-bear buried inside an almond sorbet with smoked malt. And a special mention for the ubiquitous and refreshing rhubarb juice which was infused into milk ice-cream, topped with a yummy crumble made from acidic yogurt and yesterday’s coffee grounds.

 

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108

32-year old Kristian Baumann worked his way up the Noma ladder from intern to business partner. And in 2016 the Korean-born protege opened a Michelin star winning kitchen at 108, sporting a surprisingly short menu in a design-ery casual-chic room with bulbous light fittings suspended from a concrete ceiling. One of many interesting aspects of the Copenhagen food scene is how each restaurateur dispenses silverware for each course. Baumann commissioned a gorgeous custom-leather pouch from one of Denmark’s foremost design schools – just snug enough to hold a couple of knives, forks and spoons, but just too large to become a pocketable souvenir.

 

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Monkfish with elderflower, 108

I came close to making an entire meal of their house-made crispy, fluffy, brown sourdough bread with salted cream – which has to be the frothiest, smoothest, most magnificently whipped butter you could ever stab a designer knife into. Being mid-season for white asparagus, Baumann served his 2 ways: thinly shaved and raw, covering a cooked version with a delectable sturgeon cream, pickled fennel and pumpkin seeds. More asparagus showed up with monkfish in a sumptuous sauce of elderflower, garlic and fennel.

 

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Lobster claw, 108

The only major miss for me was the highly recommended lobster claw, which despite having its subtle flavors bolstered with lobster oil and lobster sauce, was completely out-punched by a disc of Instagram-ably beautiful, but pungent raspberry vesicles, which felt a bit like trying to hear a violin solo during a hurricane.

 

 

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Ralae

Two Noma acolytes who decided to look further afield than Copenhagen’s backyard to augment their supply chain are Christian Puglisi and Jonathan Tam. Relae, their 9-year old team endeavor with its heavy “lean into green” tasting menus, incorporates Italian olive oils and other bespoke items from foreign soils, is also on the World’s 50 best list.

 

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Relae

Their unique utensil-dispensing system via a secret under-counter drawer within reach of each diner, snugly houses a napkin, menu and bottomless supply of silverware in adorably carved-out cubby’s. The slightly-below-street-level corner bistro space feels intimate and charming with brick and dark wooden accents and picturesque views of an inner courtyard garden. Perched at one end of the prep area, we had a good vista of the goings-on (and off) of the young, energetic and international line crew.

 

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Raw Kohlrabi, Ralae

First over the serving hatch was a deceptively tasty, crunchy, salty and refreshing raw kohlrabi, very simply marinated in lemon balm and olive oil.

 

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Lemon Soles marinated in Coriander oil, Relae

After staring at the raw food assembly line as countless lemon soles marinated in coriander oil were plated, we had a pretty good idea of what each savory and delicate layer would taste like, but the combination of just these few ingredients was where acidity meets sweetness in a heavenly marriage.

 

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New Potatoes with barley and coffee oil, Relae

Other magnificent highlights included a miniature cannonball stack of new potatoes cooked with barley and then topped with a yummy, creamy barley sauce, spiked with a highly unexpected (yet thoroughly sapid) dribble of coffee oil.

 

 

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Rhubarb compote, Relae

Rhubarb made a couple of anticipated appearances. First as a compote with a delectable mousse concocted from an almost hay-tasting woodruff and then topped with a rhubarb gelée. And in a Nordic twist on the Lisbon classic Pasteis de nata, it sat on top of the tartlet made with choux pastry for an extra flaky crunch and a splash of balsamic vinegar, which sent it into another dimension of the deliciousphere.

 

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Kadeau

Unlike his fellow Danish toques, Nicolai Nørregaard did not fall from the Noma family tree. In fact, he opened his first version of the now legendary and 2-star Michelin Kadeau on Borhnholm Island, about 100 miles off Copenhagen’s coastline. Having already set up a sustainable supply-chain of fresh and foraged ingredients on the island, he now ships them in to his very understated 10-table bistro in Christianshavn.

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Kadeau

The 2 ½ hour, 18-course tasting menu was as surprising as it was entertaining, where (once again) an attractive and cosmopolitan team of fastidious chefs presented bite after bite from the mundane to the exotic, mixing and matching seasonal meats, fruits and vegetables of the land and sea – a tribute to the smells, tastes and textures of his island heritage. To say that everything was perfection on a plate is an understatement (but at $325 a seat, it probably better be!)

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Danish squid and Lardo, Kadeau

Standout servings include two skewers of Danish squid and lardo, a duet I would never have matched on the same plate – let alone on the same twig.

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Porridge Pancake, Kadeau

Equally heavenly was something called a porridge pancake (think – Danish taco), smeared with beef fat and splinters of steamed king crab, sprinkled with aged goat cheese, toasted flowers and herbs which had to be rolled up and then gulped down.

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Horse mussel, Kadeau

In retrospect I wish I would have taken even more time to savor the monumentally flavorful 2-year old Horse mussel from Faroe Island, that had been brined in salt for 2 days, then smoked and fried in brown butter with cider vinegar before being decorated with dollops of preserved beets and pine fir. Both Michelin stars, right there.

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Roasted pork loin, Kadeau

Can’t not mention the 4-week aged slow-roasted pork loin with a magical pesto of black garlic and pumpkin and the most staggeringly delicate sauce from roasted chicken wings.

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Smoked wood-oil créme fraiche and raspberries, Kadeau

Of the 5 desserts, a thunderous applause for the smoked wood-oil crème-fraiche and raspberries laced with golden raspberry and gooseberry juices plus a few splashes of walnut Akvavit for the back of the throat, but a standing ovation for every crumbly bite of the warm honey cake served with acculturated butter. OK, and maybe the milk ice-cream in brown butter toffee too. So, don’t cry for me, Noma.

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Warm honey cake with acculturated butter, Kadeau

 

 

https://amassrestaurant.com/

https://www.restaurant-relae.dk/en/manifest/

https://108.dk/en/home/

https://www.kadeau.dk/