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When the Prairie Plate Restaurant opened on Branched Oak Road, Doug and Krista Dittman were happy and bummed at the same time.

They liked Renee Cornett and her husband, Jerry, and their farm-to-table concept. But the Dittmans had hoped to do it at their place, Branched Oak Farm.

“We thought it would be kind of confusing to have two restaurants like that on Branched Oak Road,” Krista Dittman said.

So the Dittmans went to plan B, which is proving to be a big, big plus for Lincoln diners. They opened the Hub Cafe in January at the city's Jayne Snyder Trails Center at 21st and Q streets.

Featuring breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Hub Cafe has incorporated the farm-to-table concept, with locally sourced vegetables, meats, cheeses and more.

“We’re trying to do a mix of things,” Krista Dittman said, beginning with the casual, counter service for breakfast and lunch. “At night, we try to dress it up a bit. Provide a nice wine list and a dinner menu.”

They hired Abigael Birrell as their chef. Trained at a culinary school in New York City, Birrell worked at restaurants in the Big Apple and Seattle before coming to Lincoln.

“I met Doug and Krista, and the timing for this was just perfect,” Birrell said.

She’s created a menu that’s both bold on flavors and healthy. Many of the items are vegetarian, vegan and/or gluten-free.

“We really want to feature the bounty of Nebraska farms and make it accessible at the same time,” Birrell said.

Food

Birrell’s menu -- which she changes according to foods of the season -- is as good as any you will find in Lincoln. Her dinner menu is a mix of meat and vegetarian/vegan options, leaning more to the vegetarian side. Her menu also is innovative.

She dresses up a simple butter lettuce salad ($10), for instance, with fried capers -- something I plan to try at home -- a soft-boiled egg and a creamy buttermilk-chive dressing. She adds sliced radishes to give it some color and more flavor.

Color and presentation is a major theme. The beet-pickled eggs ($4.50) were striking, set against the white plate, and my wife’s red and golden beet risotto looked as if it came right from a magazine page.

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We also enjoyed Birrell’s flavor combinations. My crispy potato and smoked trout latkes ($12), for example, featured a trout salad atop the crunchy latke. But what made the dish for me was the apple-quince sauce -- an unexpected and welcoming sweet surprise to counter the fish and potato.

My wife’s beet risotto ($11) included a lemon thyme and feta cheese to contrast the earthiness of the beets. We finished with a rhubarb upside down cake with fennel ice cream ($7). Again, the tart rhubarb offered a nice contrast to the fennel in the ice cream.

We recommend pairing the meal with one of the restaurant’s wine, microbrew or gourmet coffee selections. Glasses of wine and beer range from $5 to $8. Grade: A

Atmosphere

The Hub Cafe is casual, contemporary and even kind of hip. Tables and chairs are light-colored wood (pine, maybe), the floors are cement and windows are many, with several of them looking out over Antelope Valley Trail. Of course, with all the hard surfaces and an open kitchen, it can get noisy when it’s crowded.

The most striking feature is the large light fixture hanging in the main dining area made from a wagon wheel Krista Dittman inherited from her grandfather’s homestead and wine bottles. The wagon wheel is representative of the farm-to-table theme and a perfect accent as is the long, communal table found in the second dining area. Grade: B+

Service

The Dittmans and Birrell know they’re getting knocked here because when they asked about my experience I told them the “food was wonderful, but …”

The service didn’t make a good first or second impression. Three weeks ago my wife, our friends and I tried to dine there for a Saturday lunch. We took our place in a line that extended to the door. Not seeing the sign by the counter, we couldn’t tell if it was table or counter service. When the line didn’t move after 10 minutes, we bailed. I discovered later breakfast and lunch are counter service and dinner, beginning at 5 p.m., is table service. I would place a second sign at the entrance.

Last Friday, my wife and I visited for dinner. We were promptly seated and then forgotten. We didn’t see a server for almost 15 minutes, a mix-up, we were told, in table assignments. Normally, I would have gone to the bar to say something, but I wanted to see how it was going to play out.

Later, my main entree either was forgotten or delivered elsewhere. A different server brought my wife’s meal, and we assumed mine would follow shortly. I nibbled off my wife’s plate, waiting patiently. When our server finally returned to ask about dessert, I told her I was still waiting for my entree. To her credit, she didn’t charge us for several things on our bill.

But here’s the point: Service is as important as food quality and atmosphere. Screwing up any one of the three can cost you a customer. Having a host/hostess or a bartender monitoring the floor, keeping an eye on tables, would have gone a long way to prevent the problems we had that night. Grade: D.

Specialty diets

The Hub Cafe soars to a top grade in this area. With its emphasis on farm-to-table, it comes as no surprise the menu is filled with vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. My wife’s beet risotto, for instance, was vegan and gluten-free. Our butter lettuce salad also was gluten-free. I was intrigued by the roasted king oyster mushrooms ($10), featuring a winter squash-coconut curry and shaved watermelon radishes, which is vegan and gluten-free. Hopefully, that won’t cycle out before my next visit. Grade: A+

Reach the writer at 402-473-7213 or jkorbelik@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSjeffkorbelik.

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Features editor

Jeff Korbelik is the features editor and covers dining, performing arts, TV and local media. Follow him at @LJSjeffkorbelik.

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