Last year on our Summer Food Drive 2011, I was super excited to visit Gorat’s Steakhouse in Omaha. We were writing our Beef Topic (it ended up running 800 pages in doc format) and Gorat’s was voted one of the Top 10 Steakhouses in America by Saveur Magazine and they had a reputation for a great dry aging program and it was one of Warren Buffet’s favorite places. Wouldn’t a man who can buy everything, (I mean anything) get the best steak in town?
One would think, but the problem was that whenever I mentioned my excitement to Nebraska based foodies, they invariably said “oh,” like they were talking to their slow cousin Norman. An “oh” wasn’t promising for a once-in-a-lifetime, steak- visit to Omaha, NE the home of the nation’s feed-lots.
If you can believe it, the 3 Nebraska folks I spoke to before the trip were not raging fans of Gorat’s. They all spoke of this other place in Omaha: The Drover.
Even While visiting cattleman Dan Morgan who runs Morgan Ranch in Burwell, Nebraska, which is one of the leading Wagyu Beef operations in the country (Kobe Beef is made from Wagyu Cattle), The Drover came up. Dan was gracious enough to show us around his ranching operation and to cook some steaks with us in 2011. Dan’s favorite steakhouse in Omaha, NE was The Drover. In fact, everyone I bumped into and spoke to about Omaha steaks mentioned The Drover as their favorite for corn-fed Nebraska Beef. They felt that Gorat’s had passed its prime (no pun intended) and was a bit long in the tooth.
In 2011, I was booked and still excited for Gorat’s (had a great visit) but had to footnote The Drover so it could on the agenda for another Summer Food Drive. This year, 2012 was the year.
From my earlier conversations, I imagined The Drover as a sprawling, country-style ranch property near the stockyards. All of the pictures of the Drover on the Internet (even ours) seemed to confirm the ranch motif. I fantasized about big burly butchers in their spattered white coats and construction helmets, just walking over with the best cuts; a Filet here, some Sirloin there. “Oh you say there was run on Porterhouse? Just pop over next door and re-load the larder.” It was some fun imagery and I have to contain myself to stop from going on and on.
As I headed down Mercy Road with its malls and strip centers in Omaha in the ‘Smart Kitchen’-mobile I wondered where they were going to hide a ranch amid the urban landscape. My “Culinary Sense” wasn’t tingling that a stockyard was near.
It turns out that they do sprawl but not on a spread. The Drover is a wide-open, sprawling ranch house on about a half a block of land surrounded by office buildings and very near a hospital. The Internet illusions, seen above is really just a fortuitous real estate development history and a bit of photographic framing. No stockyards, no butchers rushing to and fro. I was a bit disappointed after all of the raves from first hand, knowledgeable, sources. I bucked up though when I saw a major hospital across the auspiciously named “Mercy Road,” in case my set-to with so much beefy cholesterol went horribly wrong. In this day and age, beef eaters probably need mercy more than they need proximity to a stockyard.
Entering The Drover, is like entering a “speak-easy” for “beef-a-holics.” One step into the dark entry way and I forgot all about the warm summer day outside or anything else. I gave myself over to the cool, dark, Vegas-like home of grain fed beef. The Drover may be the bad boy, newcomer in Omaha, NE (according to my sources) but it still feels like your parent’s restaurant (in a good way). The salad bar (and presumably the whole place) has been there serving customers since 1968 with those magical ice-cold metal plates. I can’t recall exactly what I was eating in 1968 but it was probably made by the Gerber’s Company.
The Drover’s layout and feel is pretty basic by today’s standard but it isn’t tired or played out. Instead it felt like a restored CLASSIC, sort of like the ’57 T-Bird or ’72 Eldorado of steak houses. And it is getting current media attention. It turns out I missed Man vs. Food’s Adam Richman’s visit by only a week. I had met Adam in Scottsdale this past spring and few culinary people are as current as Adam. After my visit, I am looking forward to watching The Drover episode of Man vs. Food Nation to get his take.
To place my order, I had a choice to make. Whiskey Steak or the Grilled Prime Rib. The Drover is famous for its Whiskey Steak (a secret whiskey based marainade), and I had been thinking of an Omaha, corn-fed Steak for over a year, yet I had always thought of Prime Rib as a Roast. I had never considered cooking a big cut of Prime Rib like a hefty steak. Where they on to something here? When you are just passing through it is hard to come back and try both. What to do? I used a lifeline and conferred with Mike “Spike” Sabin (managing The Drover for 38 years) about my options. His years of restaurant experience came into play. He told me that the Wednesday lunch special was the $17.49 Prime Rib Steak, Whiskey Style. I am not sure if he was pulling my leg and artfully bending the rules, but my problem was solved. There is nothing like a true restaurant professional. Thanks Spike.
The Prime Grade, corn-fed, Nebraska Prime rib is Roasted at 225° F for 4 hours and then Held Warm until it is Sliced as needed. The steak-cut slice is then Marinated in The Drover’s secret whiskey-soy sauce a few minutes before hitting the char-broiler and being Finish Cooked like a steak. The Prime Rib is available until they run out.
As I waited for the my order, I observed the lunch crowd. They ranged from an unlikely table of 4 college girls to business men to the old couples that had been frequenting The Drover since 1968. All sorts of business discussions were taking place. I overheard words like “designated agent” and “ROI” along with foreign place names like “Shanghai” and “Frankfurt.” There was a vibrancy and sense of youthful energy here that I did not see at Gorat’s. It feels like The Drover is replacing their aging customer base and actually they are doing better than ever.
The Drover’s Prime Rib, “Whiskey-Steak-Style” was a dream. All the buttery goodness of Prime Rib with the Browning and Caramelization of a perfect steak. This is not a “Classic” preparation of Prime Rib, but a classic example of good old fashion American ingenuity. I didn’t ask Spike how it came about but I imagined a re-enactment of the argument.
Chef 1: “Why can’t you cook Prime Rib like a terrific Steak?”
Chef 2: “You just can’t.”
Chef 1: “Yeah?”
Chef 2: “Yeah!”
Chef 1: “I’ll show you.”
The Prime Rib masquerading as a steak falls to the char-broiler. “Sssssssszzzzzzzz.”
Chef 2: “Hey its looking pretty good.”
Chef 1: “Just wait until its ready, Sucker.”
Chef 1 pulls the thick, beautifully marked steak from the grill.
Chef 1: “OMG”
Chef 2, his mouth watering, “Can I get a little of that.”
I also imagined a Reese’s Peanut Butter scenario where two chefs bump into one another and one chef’s roast landed on the grill and they decide that 2 great tastes can go together. OK, maybe I was a little punchy after such a long drive, but all I am going to say by way of explanation, is that sitting by yourself, 1500 miles from home, you have some time to day dream about different scenarios.
However, they came upon it, Grilling the Prime Rib struck me as a stroke of genius. They were not trying too hard, or loading the steak/prime rib up with bells and whistles, like some places. It was just a simple, epic, eye-opening dining / cooking experience. The sides (thick cut toast, cinnamon apple and cottage cheese) were supporting members of the plate. The dated, but welcome, sides also served to confirm that I was still, after all, in the Heartland of Nebraska.
With my visit to Fiorella’s Jack Stack in KC just a few hours down the road, I did not even risk a look at the dessert menu.
Writing up my visit, has me almost ready to point the Smart Kitchen mobile towards Nebraska and drive as far as I need to go. If you are a beef eater and you have a chance to drop in, do. And do say “hi” to Spike.
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