Saturday, August 23, 2008

Wyoming at Last

Heading west out of Rapid City, the Black Hills served notice that we were leaving the high plains behind. The Rockies called six hours ahead.

To open the theme of radical elevation increases, we stopped in to see Devils Tower National Monument. I could feel JB jonesing to join the climbers working up the 1300 foot face.

From Devils Tower we headed across Wyoming hoping to make Lander. JB lived & worked there for a while and still has a number of good friends in the area. The etiquette of the region being what it is, this meant that we had to sneak into town to avoid being avalanched with invitations to crash for the night in guestrooms or on spare couches all over town.

By sunset, we were installed on the deck of JB’s friend D while he “mowed the lawn,” which is Lander-speak for drinking cheap beer while the horses graze the grass. We enjoyed a lovely sundowner with views of the Wind River range. D’s girlfriend had just returned from a long work trip, but insisted that we join them for what looked to be a beautiful dinner (organic greens, buffalo ribeyes, great company). Wyoming hospitality being what it is, it took significant work to extract ourselves and avoid ruining their romantic reunion dinner.

We ended up at the Gannett Grill tucked into two enormous comforting salads and a tasty shared pizza topped with sliced grilled chicken, pesto, marinara, garlic, & sundried tomatoes.

Sitting outside in the cooling evening, this was a great end to another great day.

Devils Tower National Monument

Gannett Grill
126 Main St.
Lander, WY 82520

Boomtime in Big Sky Country

As the talking heads debate slow-down vs. recession in the media, oil and mineral demand means boom times for places like Wyoming.

Paralleling our path along I-90, we spy train after train snaking east bringing coal to hungry power plants.

Just off the freeway, massive coal mines work round the clock.

Long-abandoned small oil wells pump once again in roadside fields. Dusty towns brim with brand new trucks and signs for $15/hour fast food jobs.

Lots of reminders that the one side's energy crisis is a heck of an opportunity for some others.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Corn Exchange 2

OK, stop laughing. The hotel room was cheap and we wanted to see Mount Rushmore anyway.

We had a great day and wanted to top it off with a great meal. We called for an early reservation. When I gave the hostess my name, she said, “It’ll be good to see you guys again.”

Walking into the place, we tried not to show our disappointment that our server from the previous night was working other tables. Imagine our surprise when our server for the evening said, “I’ll just tell you guys about the stuff you didn’t eat last night.” Ah . . . sure. The servers brief each other on the guests' previous meals? Sure. Why not? They’re getting everything else right after all.

This meal included:

  • Bottle of Adelsheim Elizabeth’s Reserve 2006 Willamette Valley pinot noir

  • Tiger shrimp sautéed with a leek & sundried tomato crème

  • Roasted duck dumplings with dipping sauce


  • Heirloom tomatoes, basil oil, & goat cheese (so good we had to order it again)

  • Romaine hearts with croutons, anchovy dressing, & grated manchego


  • Bolognaise of 777 Buffalo Ranch buffalo & dried porcini over rigatoni

  • New York strip from Hogen Beef pan seared and oven-finished. Mushroom cream pan glaze. Perfect roasted potatoes & harcourt verte. (In a region full of good beef, this dish stood out. Flawless.)


  • Peach tart w/vanilla ice cream

  • Orange & 62% cacao Valrhona chocolate cake w/raspberry

It’s difficult to express how much this place is getting right. A direct flight into Rapid City is tempting.

The Corn Exchange
727 Main Street,
Rapid City, SD 57701
(605) 343-5070

JB said, "We don't need rope."

What he meant was, "We don't have any rope".

Rushmore was beautiful, but I let myself get talked into a bit much. You'd think I'd have learned by now.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Corn Exchange

Once we realized we’d be spending the night in scenic Rapid City, South Dakota, we enquired of a business contact, “Where do we have to eat?” Given our limited pickings so far in other parts of the Dakotas, we really wanted some input. Without hesitation, our guy replied, “The Corn Exchange”.

The Corn Exchange? Great. Fine. A good steak, nice people, cold beer. No problem.

Yea. That ignorant assumption did NOT survive first contact with reality at the understated bistro on Rapid City’s (dare I say it?) hip Main Street. The fact that the only reservation I could get was for the bar at 8pm should have been a clue.

It turns out that the Corn Exchange is run by a cool local-food crazy young chef. She's making AMAZING food in an area filled with $20 steak dinners.

Our meal included:

  • Half bottle of Elk Cove Pino Noir from Willamette Valley


  • Local beets, Valencia orange, & sheep's cheese

  • Prosciutto w/California figs, & feta (the chef brought the figs back from San Francisco the day before)


  • Heirloom tomatoes, basil oil, & goat cheese (why do I have to go to South Dakota to get exquisite tomatoes? Marvelous!)

  • Smithwick Garden Greens-Watercress w/a 15-year old aged sherry vinaigrette and feta


  • Savory buttermilk, white corn and scallion pancake topped with house-smoked salmon, sprouts, and a cucumber-crème fraiche and horseradish compote

  • Pan roasted quail in olive tapanade on bed of tomato & zucchini (we were fighting over the last bits of the veggies from this dish)


  • Butterscotch pot du crème (Yea. Just think about that for a minute and tell me you're not jealous)

  • Local miniature strawberries w/crème fresh

Add to all of this outstanding service – attentive, knowledgeable, easy-going – and I will never look at South Dakota the same way again. Mind you, this is in a place where you can eat in shorts or jeans. We might stay an extra night just to eat there again.

The Corn Exchange
727 Main Street,
Rapid City, SD 57701
(605) 343-5070

JB said there would be stairs

The Badlands National Park, South Dakota:

"It's a national park," he said. "There'll be stairs and stuff. We'll be back at the car in an hour."

It's important to note that my buddy JB's outdoor experience dwarfs mine. Given that my idea of "roughing it" is walking barefoot on the carpet at the Four Seasons, that may not be saying much. However, JB's experience includes instructing at the continent's only technical mountaineering school, climbing things I'd think twice about flying over, and running distances I'd hesitate to drive. He knows what he's doing.

Unfortunately, sometimes that means it's hard for him to translate from outdoor-guy-ese into the vernacular of the office-bound city-dweller. This might be an illustrative example.

Badlands National Park

Charging (or rather “Chasing”) Windmills

Thin Blades

We departed Aberdeen aiming to head over the border into North Dakota. On a site about 30 miles west of Ellendale, 120 of the massive turbines we saw under construction two days ago in West Branch, IA harness the never-ending gusts of the high plains. The 180 megawatts of no-emission electrical power they produce is enough to power ~ 50,000 homes. We had a date for a tour from the site manager.

Our progress, however, was not completely smooth; as you may be able to tell from this video.

It turns out we were still on the SOUTH Dakota side of the border where there exists an unpaved state road with the exact same name as the one we were supposed to use on the NORTH side of the border. Being highly educated and experienced travelers, we eventually realized our error after the dirt road turned to a narrow track through high grass and the track petered out all together. We're quick like that.

The good news for us was that 262 foot tall turbines spinning 122 foot blades are relatively easy to see from a distance. So we followed our noses and arrived only a bit late.

Thin Crust

Suitably impressed by the site and, moreover, the crew, we made for the state capital at Pierre. Unfortunately, Pierre’s size and culinary selections are . . . modest. But we lucked out and found La Minestra slotted in among $1 draft joints and all-you-can-eat buffets.

The quiet little place was winding down from a weeknight dinning service, knocking out casual Italian. Pizzas start to order from a ball of dough, and freshly sauced pastas jump through the hot pass. The crew behind the counter was getting ready to call it a night, but turned out a couple of quite good salads and a more than serviceable pie. Most places 1000 miles closer to Brooklyn have trouble turning out a thin crust NY style this good.

La Minestra
106 E Dakota Ave
Pierre, SD 57501


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

High Plains Risotto

We made sure to stop in at the Omaha Whole Foods Market for a healthy brunch and to stock up on reasonable road food before pushing off for a little town in northern South Dakota called Aberdeen. We had a feeling that this might be the last non-corporate food we’d see for a while.

Thus imagine our surprise when, after driving for hours through a landscape of chain-food, we found ourselves dinning well at the Ward Hotel on Aberdeen’s main drag. The Ward is a granddame in the midst of a significant renovation. We ended up at their bar working our way through some nicely done salads, a lovely rich saffron risotto with tiger prawns, and a fine flatiron steak.

Given that this town or 25,000 lives on agriculture and a couple of small colleges, you’ve got to wonder if this place is a start of something cool or a flash in the pan. Either way, it’s a treat.

Whole Foods Market Omaha
10020 Regency Cir
Omaha, NE 68114

Ward Hotel
104 S Main St
Aberdeen, SD 57401

An Outstanding Night’s Sleep

Hotel note: The lower end hotel-in-a-box of the Marriot mega-chain, Fairfield Inn, has come through for me a couple times in the last few months.

We stayed at their location in Council Bluffs, Iowa (a suburb of Omaha, NE) on 18 AUG and were struck by the comfort of their pillows and mattresses. In the day and age of “pillow menus” in higher end hotels, it’s nice to know you can get similar choice and quality at the $100/night end of the scale.

Fairfield Inn Council Bluffs
520 30th Avenue
Council Bluffs, IA 51501

Monday, August 18, 2008

Omaha, Oh My

After a breakfast of leftovers and some last minute packing of the vehicle, we departed Chicago and headed west out I-88.

Stopping off in West Branch, Iowa to see how they build wind turbines (these suckers are BIG!) put us within striking distance of Omaha, Nebraska.

And apparently that means beef. Specifically, big beautiful USDA Prime grade steaks hand cut from house-aged beef at Omaha Prime in the Old Market district.

In all honesty, Omaha Prime underwhelmed at first. The place may have been there forever, but it has all the ambiance of a conference room at the Holiday Inn – complete with hotel banquet room folding tables and chairs camouflaged with slip covers. Still, the service is kind and knowledgeable and the bar is speedy.

Now let’s be clear, this is not “New American” cuisine. There is no subtlety here (as you can tell from the harshly handled vegetables). This is the food that comes from a surplus of high quality ingredients that can be treated simply and shine. If you have god’s supply of beautiful beef, a grill and an oven, you don’t need a tapenade of anything. Similarly, their simplest salads - with surprisingly flavorful tomatoes – and sides – potato anything worked well – provide nice accompaniment to the steaks.

And oh what steaks.

We were already mentally preparing ourselves for a “just OK” meal due to the surroundings and such when the 14 ounce New York strips arrived. They looked competently done and we cut into them with a rather laissez-faire attitude. It took about two bites for us to realize what we were dealing with. JB glanced over at me without putting down his cutlery and mumbled softly, “This is a REALLY good steak.”

That was the last bit of conversation for a while. These steaks compelled concentration. The rate of consumption slowed. An occasional affirmative grunt received a head nod in reply. Cuts were made with care. Chewing became deliberate as each bite was savored – an exploration of texture and flavor and fat. These were REALLY good steaks.

Deserts were steakhouse portions of perfectly good sweets. Coffee and tea helped close out the night. But the steaks were still at the forefront of our minds as we happily strolled back to the car.

In a world filled with chain steakhouses on every corner, smaller finer venues from Peter Luger’s to Ray’s the Steaks, is this worth a trip to Omaha, Nebraska? I’m not sure. But if you’re anywhere nearby, Omaha Prime is a treat to remind us what all the fuss is about in the first place. Theirs is a REALLY good steak.

Omaha Prime
415 S 11th St
Omaha, NE 68102