Lincoln, Nebraska is a quarter the size of its big sister, Omaha, and its new food scene is just starting to coalesce. Their newly renovated Haymark District, site of the city’s former railyards and brick warehouses, is encouraging new, young chefs and brewers to start businesses in this exciting part of the city.
One of these is Bread and Cup, a casual café with exposed brick walls and a hip, modern vibe. Bread and Cup serves salads, soups and sandwiches, and full entrees (scallops, pork chop, meatloaf). But the real stand outs are their bread boards piled high with house made bread, dips, house cured sausages and cheeses making it a fun place to go for appetizers and wine.
We enjoy their bread sampler platter with creamy hummus and a lively olive tempanade, but it’s their cheesy toasted ciabatta with house made marinara I can’t stop eating. The cheese board comes with a selection of Astra catta, a super creamy cow’s quarx, and fresh ricotta. We also sample their deliciously smoky sausage–roasted red pepper and currywurst—with two mustards and more bread.
The only miss for me is their roast cauliflower salad with grapes and jalapenos and a too-sweet strawberry sauce. The cauliflower is nicely smoky, but the other flavors battle with one another.
It’s obvious that Bread and Cup takes great care with their food. Visitors can take home a taste with house made foods, including crunchy granola, available on the way out.
Not all the best eateries in Lincoln are new or in the trendy Haymarket District. An iconic restaurant foodies can count on is the Parthenon Greek Grill & Taverna, located in a suburb shopping mall. They serve wonderful, family-style Greek dishes from tried-and-true family recipes.
Everything about the Parthenon from its replica Greek columns and neon signs out front to its big portions of classic Greek dishes is delightfully retro.
We start our meal with flaming goat cheese, always an impressive show. The tangy, melty cheese served with wedges of warm pita bread is the perfect beginning and portends more good things to come.
Next comes a giant bowl of calamari, lightly battered and fried up satisfyingly light and crisp. The baby octopus served over caramelized onions offers a nice chewy smokiness. The dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves), perfectly stuffed with spiced rice and ground beef with a light lemony sauce, are juicy and slightly salty.
The Greek salad, thick slices of crisp cucumber, tomatoes and thinly sliced green pepper and red onion, salty Greek olives and tangy, fluffy feta cheese, is the perfect complement to the previous dishes. These flavors are so fresh, I find myself dipping into the salad bowl more than once.
Next comes moussaka, an eggplant/zucchini/potato casserole with seasoned ground beef and swimming in cheese, and pastitsio, another cheesy-beefy casserole sans the eggplant. Then there’s orzo in tomato sauce—a giant bowl of pasta in a simple tomato sauce. The potatoes, cooked whole with lemon, olive oil and Greek seasonings are tender and delicious. The chicken kabobs (souvlaki) are moist and smoky with just the right amount of herby seasoning.
The lamb shank, a giant, bone-in piece of lamb awash in tomato wine sauce with bell pepper, onions, and tomatoes is a Kazas family recipe, one developed by the father. While the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender, the lamb is too tomatoey for my taste. However, the stuffed salmon, not a traditional Greek dish, is fabulous. It’s stuffed with crabmeat and crumbs and topped with a creamy lobster sauce.
Even though we’re sated, we can’t resist the spread of desserts, some house made, others made by an area Greek bakery. There’s baklava, delicate layers of honey, nuts, and phyllo; creamy Greek custard pie; kataifi, the dessert made with shredded wheat; walnut cake (karythopita); and more. There is even phyllo cheese cake. And we happily down it all with thick, sweet Greek coffee.
Another great ethnic culinary offering in Lincoln’s suburbs is Le Quartier Bakery and Cafe, a French bakery and eatery specializing in French breads and pastries. Back in 2006, electrical engineer-turned-baker John Quiring, who studied French baking in Paris and Montreal, Quebec, opened this little French bakery in a Meridian Park shopping mall in Lincoln. Today, John and his brother, Seth, operate three Le Quetarier locations (Lincoln, Omaha, and Dundee) where they offer soups, sandwiches, and quiche along with freshly baked European-style breads, pastries, and desserts.
Le Quartier’s quiche is something not to miss. The crust is flaky and melts in the mouth, but it’s the silky eggy custard that makes their quiche something special.
Their breads are handmade using French Montreal recipes with no oils, preservatives, or dough conditioners–just flour, water and yeast. The sour dough starter they use is 158 years old! We sample two breads: French sourdough and blue cheese sourdough. The sourdough is fine textured, appropriately chewy with a good, tart flavor. The blue cheese bread, which is light violet in color, has an assertive blue cheese taste that, despite being a blue cheese fan, I find too overpowering.
Their buttery pain au chocolate, however, offers uber-flaky dough and a thick piece of good-quality dark chocolate tucked inside. The French macaroon is perfectly soft with a satisfying almond flavor.
If I lived in Lincoln, I could envision myself stopping in nearly every morning for a fresh croissant and coffee or maybe a slice of that quiche. Viva Le Quartier!
Le Quartier isn’t the only hot spot in town for breakfast. Cultiva is part coffee roaster, part neighborhood breakfast hangout. Judging from the crowds in this tiny café, they’re doing plenty of things right, especially when it comes to pancakes. Now I’m a pancake kind of gal, but I’m plenty picky about my pancakes. They’ve got to be light-as-air and Cultiva’s plate-sized versions are just that. They add cornmeal, a Southern twist, that gives these Johnny cakes just the right chewy texture. Delicious!
Cultiva is also known for giant, fold-over omelets and crepes the size of basketballs. While I enjoy the omelet, the crepes are too thick and too eggy with a slightly rubbery texture. However, judging from the tables filled with customers enjoying the crepes—filled with everything from bananas, strawberries and chocolate to salad (complete with Thousand Island dressing!)—my opinion is the minority.
Cultiva’s coffee is roasted often and their bags of coffee list roast dates. They roast lightly to to avoid over-roasted, bitter notes and retain the unique flavor of each type of bean. The result is smooth coffee, so smooth I purchase two bags to take home.
Onto Lunch and Dinner
It’s hard to believe after having breakfast at Cultiva that I’d be hungry for lunch, but the little French Bistro, The Normandy, calls my name. This little bistro is run by very French owner Lawrence De Villiers, a French immigrant who missed the dishes of his homeland. Lawrence previously sold French pastries at area farmer’s markets and worked as a personal chef, but his dream has always been to open a neighborhood French bistro. Ever the French romantic, Lawrence and his wife, Renee, opened The Normandy in Lincoln’s largely residential Indian Village neighborhood on Valentine’s Day in 2014.
The café serves classic French bistro fare—for lunch quiche, ratatouille, crepes, croc madame and croc monsieur; for dinner, dishes like cassoulet, beef bourguignon, sautéed pork, duck breast, lamb, risotto, and salmon. To get a better sense of the range of food, we enjoy a tasting menu ably prepared by Le Courdon Bleu graduate and chef Caleb Heston.
We start with fine-textured bread with a slightly soury flavor sweetened by creamy butter. The chicken wild rice soup is perfect—rich creamy broth with crunchy chewiness from the rice. It’s so good, I dip in my spoon again and again.
The salmon ratatouille isn’t quite as successful. While it’s a flavorful melding of veggies and salmon, the fish is a bit overcooked (I’m from the Northwest and discerning about how salmon is cooked!). The duck rillette, which comes in a small mason jar topped with a rim of rich duck fat and served with crisp bread, hits all the right notes. It offers just the right chewy richness and a grainy mustard adds a note of acidity that balances the fat.
We also try the classic French sandwich, the ham and cheese croc madame, and a ham and cheese crepe, all runny egg yolk and creamy béchamel sauce. There’s also a crisp, light-as-air puff pastry with béchamel sauce—France’s version of biscuits and gravy. The cheese plate is filled with several flavorful cheeses, red grapes, and candied walnuts and a finely shaved horseradish that provides the perfect foil.
We check out some of the dinner entrees too: a rich chicken ala crème with mushrooms; tender braised rack of lamb served with tiny, chewy lentils; perfectly cooked, juicy duck breast; a rich and porky pinto bean cassoulet topped with crispy onions; and bright yellow saffron mussels and spinach in a flavorful broth of white wine, shallots and butter. It’s all delicious and satisfying.
After all this goodness, how can I turn down dessert, especially when the chef brings out a sweet bounty: chocolate fondant with a lovely brownie-like texture; a silky dark chocolate tart; a tangy lemon tart with a flaky crust; and an uber-silky crème brulee with a crispy sugar top.
I leave The Normandy thinking, “My God this chef can cook ,” and vowing to return soon.
By evening, all the great food from The Normandy has worn off so I head for The Venue Restaurant and Lounge, one of Lincoln’s fine dining restaurants located a couple of miles from downtown in a suburban shopping mall. This beautiful and spacious restaurant is headed by 25-year-old Executive Chef and Lincoln native John Benton. While John is young, his resume is long–he’s worked in kitchens since he was a teen, he’s a level 1 sommelier, he’s a graduate of the prestigious Johnson and Wales Culinary School, and he’s worked at top-end places like the Renaissance Waterfront in Boston. Taking the top chef job at The Venue was a homecoming for John, a return to his family and mid-west roots after gallivanting around the world for a decade and it’s a good fit.
We start our meal with an unusual amuse bouche—duck fat popcorn with thyme infused butter. While I don’t think of popcorn as fine dining, it’s a fun introduction to this young, innovative chef.
Next comes house smoked salmon spread, served in individual Mason jars with rye bread. (See large photo.) The salmon is salty and deliciously unctuous, but the serving is so generous I leave at least a half jar. When the waiter comes to clear my plate, I want to protest and tell him to put my jar in a doggie bag to take home!
The shaved asparagus salad with caper vinaigrette is as pretty as it is delicious. The chef shaves the asparagus and keeps them in ice water to ensure they’re crisp. Served with greens, shaved Parmesan, and capers, it’s a refreshing gateway to richer dishes to come.
And rich it they are. The diver scallops are served with creamy spinach risotto, crisp onion straws, and sprinkled with smoked paprika. The New York Angus beef steak comes perfectly cooked with silky mashed gold potatoes, grilled asparagus, a spicy green peppercorn sauce, and a richly fatty half marrow bone.
You’d think we wouldn’t have room for dessert, but who can turn down a New York Peanut Butter Cheese cake? Not me. It comes with a dark chocolate cookie crust, cocoa nibs, and a creamy dolce de leche. And because John is 25 and has a sense of fun, he’s topped this dessert with popping sugar, little crystals of sugar that explode in your mouth like the old Pop Rocks. It’s an experience that leaves us smiling—just like the rest of Lincoln’s new food scene. – Story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
If You Go
Bread and Cup www.breadandcup.com
The Parthenon Greek Grill & Taverna www.theparthenon.net
Le Quartier Baking Company www.lequartierbakingco.com
Cultiva Coffee Roasting Company www.cultivacoffee.com
The Normandy www.restaurantnormandy.com
Venue Restaurant www.yourvenue.net