Don’t go to the Cornhusker Club expecting chandeliers, maitres d’, or even a printed wine list. Do, however, expect warm mid-western hospitality and a tasty meal, though it may not include anything I ate as the menu changes daily.
The restaurant is somewhat tough to find, down a country road into Oxford, Nebraska (pop. 876). It has a bit of the feel of a church social hall or the basement of the Elks club that has been dressed up for a fancy occasion (tablecloths and cloth napkins accompany the orange upholstered bingo hall chairs),but when combined with the hearty welcome of Cornhusker Club owner Gary Barile, this somehow works to create cozy charm. The day’s menu is written on several white boards posted on easels, one of which will be placed by your table as you arrive so that you can see what the day’s options are: a creative, paper-wasteless way to offer an array of dining options throughout the week.
This is the NEW Cornhusker Club, as the restaurant’s business card proclaims. Ask Mr. Barile what brought him and his New Orleanian chef Carlos to rural Nebraska and he may quip, “Witness protection,” but he’ll follow up quickly with a tale about Carlos being displaced to Mobile by Hurrican Katrina, where he worked in a restaurant called La Pizzeria. “We used to do some catering down there, and we got to know Carlos that way,” he explains. Then, some friends offered him the chance to buy a house in Oxford Nebraska. “We saw a business opportunity in the restaurant, so we bought it, too, and after that it was a done deal.” They lured Carlos from Mobile with the opportunity to set his own menus and cook his style of food, and they’ve been in operation since Father’s Day of this year.
This is not straight New Orleans cooking; it’s more of a creole-corhusker fusion (think 12-ounce ribeye served over jambalaya and topped with shrimp creole; the jambalaya features shrimp, chicken, and kielbasa). For being housed in such a small, rural setting, though, it’s surprising (to me anyway) to find food that draws from such a wide range of influences. They make their own, tasty rolls in house every day. Many of the dishes are served in baskets formed from deep-fried flatbreads. The authenticity of the New Orleans-inspired dishes is unquestionable.
As I am wont to do, I wore a jacket and tie to the restaurant. As it turns out, I had something in common with the Caesar salad: we were both overdressed. Several of the diners were sporting baseball caps and/or sweatshirts; the romaine lettuce leaves were wet with a thick layer of tangy sauce.
The shrimp napoleon appetizer was outstanding, though: an artfully arrayed stack of puff pastry accompanied by several shrimp cooked just right: neither under nor over done and dressed with a succulently spicy bernaise.
Mr. Barile prompted us to also order the deep fried farfalle pasta, promising us that if we didn’t enjoy it, he’d buy it for us. I’ve never heard of deep-fried pasta before, but I was pleasantly surprised. Cooked pasta was breaded and fried and the result was very hearty; it would make a great vegetarian substitute for chicken nuggets. I was somewhat disapointed by the salmon-white cheese sauce that accompanied the pasta. The cheese flavor was a bit strong for the salmon, and the pedigree of the cheese was uncertain. The sharp flavor suggested some cheddar; though Aurora thinks she detected some velveeta-like consistency, a claim that I believe may hold some water based on the fact that there was no oily film atop the sauce. The sauce having been listed only as “white cheese salmon sauce” on the menu provides no evidence either way. As a whole, though, the pasta with the cheese sauce was an enjoyable appetizer.
The entrees were tasty and well-prepared. My ribeye was cooked to a perfect medium rare; and though I am not a huge fan of kielbasa, I did like the jambalaya that the steak was served atop. Aurora’s seafood-stuffed deep fried catfish was tasty, though it’s uncertain what seafood was in the stuffing. My inkling is that the seafood stuffing was composed of scraps leftover from trimming other fish; perhaps some crab meat; and a healthy portion of bread crumbs. It worked well with the fish and if it is a method of using seafood scraps, it’s a great way to make use of what some less disciplined chefs would allow to go out in the trash.
The grilled blackened salmon was grilled, not blackened, and not as spicy as we would have expected. It was also cooked a bit more done than I prefer my salmon; I think salmon ought to be served cooked to a medium doneness. The gentleman ordering the salmon is among those who prefer their salmon more done than that, though; so I expect that he had no issues with its being well-done.
Other diners in our party enjoyed the shrimp creole served atop the jambalaya (my entree minus the steak). The several variations on the theme of jambalaya and shrimp creole on the menu provided for a range of options depending on one’s appetite and tastes; plus allows the kitchen to get three entrees out of two preparations (jambalaya alone; with creole; or with steak and creole). I wish more restaurants would think in terms of menus for a day or for a week rather than for a season or a year. It allows the kitchen to be more flexible in their ordering, thereby achieving (with any skill) a lower food cost and more seasonally-inspired dishes.
The portions were generous and our party was too full to sample any of the desserts. I hope to return to the Cornhusker Club on my next trip to Nebraska so that I can find out if their pastry creations are as skillfully prepared as the rest of their menu.
Rating: 3 Oranges (Though as compared to other dining experiences I’ve had in other low-population rural areas, this definitely ranks somewhere between 3 1/2 to 3 3/4 oranges as compared with other restaurants in similar locales–a cut above your average country road dining experience).