DODGE, Neb. — If you’ve dined in a Nebraska small town, you’ve surely had the pleasure of the munch basket.
Also called the combo basket or just “the basket full of fried stuff,” it comes piled high with onion rings, mozzarella sticks and french fries. There might be cheese balls, fried mushrooms, fried cauliflower and even, in very special cases, fried pickles. Don’t forget the ranch dressing in a plastic cup on the side.
When you sit down at Eat Restaurant in Dodge, about 90 minutes northwest of Omaha, you’ll see that small-town staple right there on the appetizer list. But it’s a bit twisted.
At Eat, the fried platter is called the “country inspired, city influenced” combo basket. Its green beans — or whatever vegetable is in season at the moment — and portobello mushrooms are hand-breaded in a pale tempura batter with an airy crunch. The onion rings, homemade and hand-battered, taste brightly of onions. There’s fried garlic and homemade, creamy buttermilk ranch with just enough tang to offset the tempura’s savory crispness.
That upscale-downscale basket perfectly illustrates Chef Michael Glissman’s approach at his version of a small-town cafe: He understands his audience, but he wants them to have an experience that’s just slightly off-kilter from what they expect.
It doesn’t quite make sense, at first, why this chef who spent most of his career cooking in Napa Valley and Sonoma, California, is running a restaurant in a Nebraska town of about 600. But once you eat that basket, and sample the rest of the menu, it starts to become a bit more clear. And once you talk to Michael and his mother, Eat’s co-owner Lin Schwanebeck, and his sister, Tamara VanDerslice, the restaurant’s manager, it becomes a Nebraska family business story that sounds more familiar than not.
It started in 2011, when Glissman came back to Nebraska from California.
“I was the only one that flew the coop of the family,” he said. “It was time to check in.”
He was working at 801 Chophouse as a server in Omaha; Lin was working for the housing authority in Fremont after working at her mother’s restaurant, Mou’s Place, in Bancroft, Nebraska, for 20 years. Michael worked there, too, starting at around age 7 until he graduated from high school.
The two started thinking: Now what should we do?
“I told Michael that if he was going to look for something, I was in,” she said.
So they started looking at buildings. Michael spent time cruising the Internet, looking at even more buildings. He found a picture of one he liked, and picked up the phone.
“I said, ‘Mom, where is Dodge?’ ” he remembers, laughing. “ ‘I want to look at a building in Dodge, Nebraska.’ ”
“You are crazy,” his mother answered.
Nonetheless, one winter afternoon, Lin and Michael drove to Dodge. The building Michael saw online dated to 1910 and was originally a bank; the bank closed with the 1929 stock market crash. It sat mostly empty for decades. In the early 2000s, a woman came to Dodge, added a kitchen to the building and opened a tea room. It closed around 2012, and another restaurant opened there, but lasted less than a year. Then another year went by until the day Michael and Lin walked through the door.
“I knew I didn’t want go into a strip mall with aluminum framing,” Michael said. “I wanted something that had some character. Something that had some appeal.”
This building had it. Two big columns out front, and a bank of windows that fill the space with light. Original wood details and fixtures. A big bank vault on the back wall.
“I wanted a building that had its own story that we could add ours into,” Michael said.
His heart was set on this old bank in Dodge, so they bought it and started construction and planning. The town started talking. People would poke their head through the door with curious expressions. “What are you guys doing?” they’d ask.
“The scuttlebutt was there,” Michael chuckles. “The fact that I was coming from California. They knew I was working in Omaha. And we weren’t from Dodge. They kind of didn’t know what to expect.”
Lin was as nervous as the townspeople might have been.
“I’d drive down the big hill over here and come inside,” she remembers, referring to Dodge’s long slope of brick street on which the building sits. “I’d say ‘Michael, we are opening a restaurant here and there’s not even a car on main street!’ ”
But Michael persisted. He started to form his menu. He came up with a $6.50 lunch special that included a cup of coffee — a special he still runs — to make locals feel comfortable. He added a hot beef sandwich and a burger.
Then, he started searching out local producers to work with. He decided to serve more obscure proteins, things like rabbit, duck and lamb. He turned back toward Napa Valley to create a wine list.
The family decorated the restaurant with family heirlooms and vintage furniture and decor. Michael pulled the paper off the windows, and Eat Restaurant opened for business in June 2015.
Sheer curiosity brought locals through the door because, like it or not, a new restaurant doesn’t open in a town like Dodge every day.
“People wanted to check it out, to say ‘We went to Eat,’ ” Michael said. “We were walking a fine line of being a main street cafe with a couple of menu items that showed that we could be more.”
The restaurant’s menu full of fresh produce excited the people in the town, so much so that soon after Eat opened, locals would drop boxes of garden fresh veggies at the back door, saying: We raised too much. Can you use this?
“It made us feel welcome,” Michael said. “People understood that we were doing a different style of restaurant for a rural area.”
Locals still fill Eat at lunchtime — there’s a regular group of women that Michael calls “the dames of Dodge.”
“The people of Dodge are proud to have taken ownership of this restaurant,” Michael said. “We have hit a lot of chords with those people.”
Dodge gets dressed up for Eat. They call and make a reservation. They introduce their out-of-town friends to “Chef Michael.”
“And next to them is a table of farmers wanting a burger,” Michael says. “That’s the line we have to walk.”
Those Dodge residents are often chockablock at dinner with people from Omaha and Lincoln who heard about this little restaurant and came to try it. The evening I visited, it was filled with three big groups each from Fremont, David City and Rising City.
The menu morphs too, into less of a small-town cafe lineup and more of a big-city setup.
We tried morel mushrooms in bucatini topped with a runny quail egg, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and pine nuts. A cheese fondue with the flavors of a Reuben, with toasted dark rye bread for dipping.
There’s stewed rabbit fricassee served in a thick wine and mushroom cream sauce. Michael serves it with savory lamb meatballs and places the rabbit’s rich organ meat, kidney and liver, right in the dish.
His version of a pâté board comes with a tiny jar of liver spread served with dill-pickled green beans and bread-and-butter pickles, toasted bread, sliced boiled eggs and salty radishes. A giant slab of prime rib — a small-town cafe staple — comes bloody red-rare and perfectly seasoned.
Don’t forget dessert: Lin’s German chocolate cake is on the menu and comes served with espresso ice cream and chocolate sauce. That night’s seasonal pie, apple rhubarb strawberry, had an amazing caramelized crust on top and, like in any good cafe, arrived warm and a la mode.
Michael says nothing is “too precious” to stay on the menu forever, so he changes it seasonally, or more often. Eat has become the restaurant that Michael envisioned, a mix of small town and city.
“We are in the middle of nowhere and the middle of everywhere, near Wayne and Omaha and Norfolk and Lincoln,” he said.
And he’s right. There’s his version of a munch basket next to morels. Prime rib next to pâté. Small-town locals next to city visitors.
“Our food can put you in the south of France or in Benson,” he said. “But we are in Dodge.”
327 Second St., Dodge, Neb.
Hours: Monday through Wednesday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Thursday, closed; Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Scheduled closings: May 6-7, and Memorial Day weekend (after lunch May 26 and reopening for lunch on May 30)
Reservations are strongly encouraged: 402-693-2292
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Food critic Sarah Baker Hansen is from Omaha. Columnist Matthew Hansen grew up in Red Cloud. As a married couple they travel Nebraska to share with each other little-known people, unexpected stops and memorable foods. Come along and discover more of what the state has to offer in "The Better Half," an occasional series prepared with support from the Nebraska Community Foundation.