LIED LODGE AND CONFERENCE CENTER:
Where: 2700 Sylvan Road, Nebraska City
Information: 402-873-8733; liedlodge.org
Timber Dining Room hours:
Breakfast — Monday through Friday 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., Saturday 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Lunch — Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dinner — Monday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Sunday — breakfast buffet 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., brunch buffet 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
About: If you visit the Lied Lodge during pleasant weather, try to get a seat on the lovely patio. The wooden deck overlooks a peaceful, tree-lined vista, and a sunset dinner is worth experiencing.
Chef Matthew Taylor doesn't just cook for dinner guests in the restaurant. Because the lodge is also a hotel, a conference center and a special events venue, he cooks for lots of other types of customers. The lodge plays host to about 75 weddings a year, which Taylor caters; conservation groups from all over the country come to the lodge for conferences, and Taylor handles their meals and food for breaks; and many regional corporate groups visit the hotel for meetings. Taylor said he tries to have fun with the food he serves during conferences and meetings. He's served make-your-own-sundae bars and charcuterie and cheese tastings.
Because the Lodge has such a large and diverse group of people to feed, Taylor is able to buy more produce and meat from local producers. He also makes the point, when he can, to visit the farmers on their land to see how they operate. “The more I use, the more the costs come down,” he said. “We're going to keep making this work, because it's the right thing to do.” Taylor said he knows not every diner is interested in knowing where his or her food comes from. “But there is an experience,” he said, “when the food turns them on and there's a level of inspiration or a memory or an emotional connection. There's a seed planted, and that's the win.”
If Matthew Taylor were cooking in Omaha, he'd be one of the city's most popular chefs.
Instead, he's cooking a mere hour away, in Nebraska City, and Omahans should be filling his restaurant every weekend.
What Taylor is doing as head chef at Nebraska City's Lied Lodge is sustainable, local and, most of all, incredibly delicious.
After my recent visits to the Lied Lodge's Timber Dining Room, I started to think the 45-minute drive down a two-way, crowded Highway 75 might become a regular thing.
Taylor's cuisine is made with high-end ingredients, but it's still approachable. There's nothing unnecessarily fussy or flouncy; no ingredient that requires an at-the-table smartphone search to define before ordering.
It's honest, good food, and most of it comes from either small Nebraska farmers raising heritage meat and heirloom produce or the orchards and gardens on site at the lodge.
It's impressive not just because of how it tastes, but because of what it stands for.
Taylor, 35, came to Nebraska in 2010. The Illinois native's career began in Raymond Timpone's kitchen at Timpone's Restaurant in Urbana, Ill. He apprenticed at Cyrus in Sonoma County, Calif., a Michelin two-star restaurant.
In Grand Rapids, Minn., he was the owner and partner at Rivers Italian Restaurant for three years. He left Minnesota to come to Nebraska.
Taylor will tell you that he doesn't have a “cooking style.” Instead, he has a food philosophy.
“I go into the country and get the best ingredients as close to home as I can,” he said.
His relationship with the person who grows the food, he said, is as important as the food itself.
“I am always going to try and make good food,” Taylor said. “But I am also going to try and get you food that will nourish you, not just please your senses.”
His approach fits in with the environmental stewardship that's front and center at the Arbor Day Foundation, the organization that recruited Taylor to the state.
Local ingredients — pork from TD Niche in Elk Creek, bison from the Perfect 10 Ranch in Rose, vegetables from Shadowbrook Farm in Lincoln and Rhizosphere Farm in Waterloo and chicken from Plum Creek Farm in Burchard, among others — are the building blocks of the Lodge's menu.
Farm to Fork dinner features are an ever-changing list of dishes driven by whatever Taylor has fresh in the kitchen.
One recent Farm to Fork special, Plum Creek chicken with toasted quinoa and beet sauce, was mouth-watering. Chicken normally is last on the list of proteins I order, but I wouldn't hesitate to get this again. The tender slices of flavorful meat were crisp on the outside and juicy inside.
Taylor told me later the meat is cooked sous vide — vacuum-packed in individual pouches, cooked under a vacuum and then chilled — then finished on the grill.
He likes to play with color in his dishes, and this plate was maybe the brightest I had: white and brown chicken over a pool of hot pink, deeply flavored beet sauce with a swirl of neon yellow around the edges. The pop of yellow turned out to be oil infused with lemongrass, tarragon and mustard seed.
Over the top of the chicken, a scattering of toasted quinoa reminded me in texture and flavor of freshly popped popcorn. I'd never had anything quite like it.
Taylor cooks the quinoa until it's soft, drains it and fries it to-order in duck fat. He finishes the crispy bits with a sprinkle of truffle salt.
No wonder I liked it.
The quinoa comes from Grain Place Foods in Marquette, the beets from Shadowbrook Farm and the tarragon from Rhizosphere Farm.
Another Farm to Fork dish, sliced bison with a house-made tater tot, was my husband's favorite. The Perfect 10 Ranch meat tasted fresh and lean, with a grassy flavor and chewier texture like that of grass-fed beef.
The oversized tater tot, filled with creamy mashed potatoes and coated with crispy bits of pretzel, hit both of us on an emotional level: Who doesn't love a big old tater tot? This one is better than any you can get frozen.
Taylor told me he coats the bison with a thin layer of sauce made from huckleberries and Arbor Day Farm Chambourcin wine. It's also cooked sous vide, which prevents it from becoming tough.
I asked Taylor about his creative garnishes and colorful plating.
“I really disagree with the notion that garnish is there just to look at,” he said. “I've gone further away from garnish and I think more about the canvas of the plate, and painting with the food. The experience of each component of the dish is part of the overall effect.”
On another visit, we ordered straight off the menu, which is succinct, well-priced and full of protein. Only one entree, a risotto, is meat-free.
I encountered my only disappointment during this dinner: a tart with locally raised tomatoes, white balsamic vinegar and Dutch Girl creamery cheese.
The pastry was too sweet and too crunchy, and the dish, served cold, wasn't at all what my friend or I expected. We couldn't taste strong flavors in either the jelly-like tomato or creamy cheese and we expected different textures altogether. Though we didn't care for the tart, we did like the small arugula salad that accompanied it, lightly dressed with vinegar, pickled cherries and fennel.
Taylor said the dish is supposed to be sweet and cool, and he said the cheese is a yogurt cheese. He said there should have been more basil flavor.
After that stumble, our dinner sailed on smoothly without complaint. I again ordered off the Farm to Fork menu, this time choosing TD Niche Pork with house-made peach barbecue sauce, served with green beans and duck fat potato chips.
The red wattle loin chop was cooked to perfection — tender and juicy — with the flavor of the grill. Both my friend and I agreed that the green beans on the side weren't throwaways: A hint of nuttiness enhanced the bean flavor.
Taylor brines the pork in tandem with how he's going to serve it: These chops were brined in peach, brown sugar, cinnamon, clove and cayenne to match the flavors in the homemade peach barbecue sauce it was served with that night.
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The green beans, Taylor told me, are sauteed in organic coconut oil, which adds the hint of nuttiness.
My friend ordered the fried chicken and she loved the thin, crispy panko crust and juiciness of the meat, though she said it could have used a dash more salt. The creamy buttermilk potatoes were chunky, hot and totally old-fashioned.
“I've never had a fried chicken dish on a menu in my life,” Taylor told me when I asked him about it. “But it's been a pleasure to do something like that. It's classic American and classic Midwest.”
He brines whole chickens from either Plum Creek or Hutchinson's Organic of Rose, Neb., for three hours, then removes them and packages them again with buttermilk and sriracha hot sauce.
The homey nature of the dinner continued through dessert: apple cobbler and doughnuts with coffee.
The doughnuts, with a hint of apple and covered in cinnamon and sugar, were just a bit crisp on the outside and hot and tender inside. The cobbler was just like your grandma might have made: perfectly textured apples and a crisp top. Taylor elevated it with a dollop of cream studded with port wine-simmered currants, a slightly savory touch in an otherwise sweet experience.
I asked Taylor how many people he sees from Omaha in his restaurant. The answer: some.
“I constantly hear ‘Oh, I didn't know you were here,' or ‘Oh, I didn't know the Lied Lodge had a restaurant,'” he said. “I want the restaurant to be a dining destination.”
So do I. What Taylor is doing — supporting local farmers in a real way and using those fresh ingredients to create comforting, surprising food — is an experience.
Don't worry about the drive. It's worth it.
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