November: Eggs Benedict
Our favorite: Dixie Quicks Public House
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Hollandaise is one of the French “Mother Sauces” for a reason.
It's fattening. It's temperamental. It's decadent.
I learned on this month's Food Prowl for eggs Benedict that hollandaise can teeter somewhere between good and bad or go horribly wrong. When its perfectly made and slathered over a soft poached egg and a crisp English muffin, as it was in our tightly contested winning breakfast, it's simply sublime.
I'd been wanting to prowl all year with Derek Eskens, creator of the food blog Gastronomic Fight Club. His Facebook page is one of my favorite local food reads. And when a chef-friend suggested Michael Rhoades, executive catering chef at Creighton University, as another judge and mentioned his hollandaise expertise, I knew I had a panel qualified to judge such a specific and complicated dish.
I met Rhoades on a Sunday morning at the bustling Taxi's in west Omaha to sample the restaurant's eggs Benedict, served during its popular weekend brunch.
Before we began, our panel decided to stick with the classic Benedict: English muffin, ham, soft-poached egg and hollandaise, though some of our contenders offered variations as well.
Michael immediately went into education mode: Hollandaise is one of the five French Mother Sauces. The others are Béchamel, the classic creamy white sauce; Velouté, a stock-based white sauce; Espagnole, or brown sauce; Vinaigrette; and Mayonnaise, which people often place in the same category as Hollandaise because it's also made with an emulsion of egg yolks and fat.
Hollandaise has a simple ingredient list: butter, egg yolks and lemon juice.
But if it's held too hot, it will break and the fats will separate. If it's held too cool, the butter will turn back into a solid. Tricky.
Michael has eaten and made his fair share of Benedict. In Omaha, he's worked at the former French Café, the Flatiron, Omaha Country Club, Champion's Club, the Doubletree Hotel and Liberty Tavern in the downtown Omaha Hilton hotel.
The hollandaise at Taxi's was more pale than the rich yellow of the egg yolk. The sauce was matte and slippery when it should have been shiny and creamy. It slid off the smooth egg into a somewhat grainy, underseasoned mass, and we both had to resist the allure of the salt shaker.
“Maybe they were relying on the saltiness of the ham,” Michael said. “But it didn't work.”
Though neither of us cared for the hollandaise, the poached egg at Taxi's — another tricky component of eggs Benedict — was near perfect, creamy and runny inside and made free-form in hot water instead of in a poached egg cup. It impressed us both.
The team met again on a weekday at Bailey's, off 120th and Pacific Streets, for a late-morning breakfast, a meal I don't often eat on any day but Sunday.
Bailey's serves breakfast daily and advertises its Benedict as the best in town. The waitress asked us how we wanted our eggs cooked, and we all requested runny. I also appreciated that the restaurant offers a half order.
We brought the average age level down about 15 years that fall morning; most everyone there seemed retired and ate and talked with tablemates at a leisurely pace. We quickly adapted, sipping coffee and waiting patiently for our breakfasts.
When our plates arrived, Michael studied his, pulling his fork through the hollandaise before tasting. The flavor was on but the thickness was off, and the sauce was just shy of separating. It didn't blanket the egg the way it should have. But the flavor was good, and Derek said he liked the touch of acidity in the sauce, a must-have in hollandaise.
The Canadian bacon wasn't flavorful enough, and seemed to disappear between the egg and bread.
The English muffin on Bailey's Benedict, different from others, surprised us. It was a hit around the table.
“The bread is there for a purpose,” Derek mused between bites. “It's there to add texture and tang and chewiness, and this one is delicious.”
The muffin had been buttered and grilled, and it kept its subtle crispness in spite of the sauce and runny eggs. It was unusual enough that we asked the waitress about it, and she told us it's from Wolferman's. The company, founded in Kansas City, is known for its English muffins and crumpets.
We encountered those same English muffins when we met again, at Tommy Colina's Kitchen in midtown, but this time they didn't have the distinctive buttery crunch they did at Bailey's. Instead, they were almost doughy in the middle.
Michael liked Tommy Colina's hollandaise, which was thicker and golden yellow, with just a touch of lemony acid. He also tasted a spice we hadn't seen before, possibly paprika, he said.
“Bailey's tasted good,” he said of the sauce, “but this one is better.”
Two pieces of ham were thin and easy to cut but not bold enough in flavor.
At both Bailey's and Tommy Colina's we found eggs made using a mold. Though they don't taste any different, I'm a sucker for the free-form egg because I think it shows style and technique.
We met on our final day in Council Bluffs at Dixie Quicks Public House, an Omaha favorite reborn in Iowa. The restaurant was busy during its popular Sunday brunch. We'd all eaten there, but probably never with such a discerning eye.
The ham was the first difference we noted. It was more like a griddled ham steak than a slice of lunch meat — thicker and saltier. And the hollandaise, maybe the thickest we'd seen, was bold with acidity. Here we saw another free-form poached egg with a perfectly runny center.
“Alone, the hollandaise might be too acidic,” Derek said. “But if you get everything in one bite, it balances out.”
The English muffin was dry toasted and crunchier than any we'd had. It stayed crisp under the sauces and yolk.
I knew my favorite after just a few bites: Dixie Quicks. I loved the lemony, thick sauce, the free-form egg and the classic and crunchy English muffin.
“This is proving to be harder than I thought,” he said. “There are components of all of them that I liked. But the most well-rounded for me was Tommy Colina's. The sauce had a great consistency and sheen, and the flavor was balanced between acid and butter.”
Derek smiled when it was his turn.
“I'm going with Bailey's,” he said. “I think it was more homestyle, and I like that.”
The vote marked the first time a prowl ended in a three-way tie, but none of us were satisfied with that. We decided to each rank our top three and assign a point scale: three for first, two for second, one for third.
Derek voted for Bailey's, then Dixie Quicks, then Tommy Colina's.
I voted for Dixie Quicks, then Bailey's, then Tommy Colina's.
And Michael voted Tommy Colina's, Dixie Quicks and then Bailey's.
Under our nonscientific poll, Dixie Quicks came out on top, with seven points. Bailey's won second, and Tommy Colina's, third.
It turned out that eggs Benedict was even more difficult than any of us realized, requiring a three-way tie-breaking vote in its French persnicketiness.
“The key,” Michael said, between sips of after-breakfast coffee, “is the sauce. And we each chose one of three very different sauces.”
Indeed. A sauce with just three ingredients and a dish with just four resulted in the tightest race we've had.
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