by Charles Schlussel | February 1, 2013 2:51 pm
Many of my most cherished food memories all come together at a restaurant situated in the heart of the Old Market. Most, if not all, of my involvement in the Omaha area culinary landscape emanates from a fortuitous job opportunity many years ago while I was attending the Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metro. I was working at a local grocery store deli when someone mentioned that there might be an opening at VMertz. I immediately headed down to the Old Market with my portfolio in tow and within a few days was pinching myself to make sure it was for real.
I had dined at VMertz a couple times over the years and to say it was one of my favorite restaurants is an understatement. Who can resist the romantically-lit, step-back-in-time charming atmosphere of this grande dame of the Omaha restaurant scene? Here I was as the main assistant to the head chef in the restaurant of my dreams – I was awestruck. Because of this and many other delicious experiences there, to this day VMertz remains one of my favorite places to eat.
Just one walk down the Old Market passage way and the mists magically start to swirl round my feet and all the memories come flooding back down the corridors of time, and suddenly there I am in the late 80’s. I’m eating lunch with my mother. Mom was one of the main influences that set me on a path to seeking out the exotic flavors of cuisines that were a rarity for a boy growing up in small town Nebraska. I treasure this memory as one of the few and rare times of just the two of us sharing a wonderful meal dining at a fabulous restaurant in Omaha.
My heart is full as I see mom’s smiling countenance as she waves goodbye, the mists start to swirl again as the years flash by to the late 90’s and another dinner at VMertz, once I had started working there. I had been touting the ecstasies and raptures of eating truly great food at a fine dining restaurant to one of my best friends. He had no reference point for the type of dining experience I was trying to illumine upon his psyche. He couldn’t comprehend that the enjoyment/cost ratio factor could be exponentially increased beyond the $8.95 he paid for the incredibly tasty nachos supreme he enjoyed at his favorite Mexican restaurant.
Little did he know his proverbial mind was about to blown and his culinary world about to be rocked. Using my coveted fifty percent dining discount for food and wine we walked into the ancient passage way and descended the cobbled stairs to VMertz with a purpose – he to prove me wrong and I he. We sat down in the simple yet elegant surroundings and before long the appetizers arrived. He skeptically took a first bite and began to chew. Soon, although it seemed like ages the adjectives began to flow, “amazing, incredible, unbelievable, ethereal” and then “I had no idea food could taste this wonderful!” He had on many previous occasions also told me he had tried many varieties and styles of wine and did not see what all the fuss was about and had never really enjoyed any of them. He took a first sip of the wine our server had recommended to compliment our appetizers and sat there with a strange expression on his face.
A new foodie was born that evening and soon he was telling me of the new restaurants he had discovered. Over the years he has often impressed me with the recipes he was fine-tuning at home and recently has regaled me with tales of delectable meals at romantic bistros that he and his lovely wife dined at while honeymooning in Paris this summer. Of course there was only one recipe I could share for this article. A dish that still causes me to instantly drool merely by thinking of it – the classic VMertz peppersteak with brandy cream sauce. The following is my version inspired by that iconic recipe. Enjoy!
Pepper Crusted New York Strips with Cognac Morel Cream Sauce
Recipe yields 4 servings
4 – 12-16oz New York Strip Steaks (trim any fat or gristle)
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
4 Tbsp coarsely crushed peppercorns (crush with bottom of heavy pan)
1 oz dried morel mushrooms
1 Tbsp reserved mushroom jus
1/2 cup shallots finely diced
1/2 cup cognac or brandy
1 cup heavy cream
Fresh chives chopped
Place morels in a bowl, pour 1 1/2 cups boiling water over mushrooms and cover with plastic wrap and let stand at least 30 min. Season both sides of the steaks with Kosher salt and peppercorns, pressing firmly to adhere the peppercorns.
Drain water from morels and slice the larger mushrooms in half, reserve mushroom jus.
Melt butter and add olive oil to a heavy bottomed sauté pan or cast iron skillet over medium high heat until butter and oil just start to smoke. Add steaks and do not move for 3-4 minutes, then flip steaks and cook for another 3-4 minutes for medium rare.
Remove steaks and place on a platter loosely tented with foil. Drain all but approximately two tablespoons of the oil from the pan add shallots and mushrooms sautéing over medium heat, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from stove add cognac, return to stove and carefully ignite cognac, cook over medium heat for a couple minutes scraping up caramelized bits from pan bottom add cream and 1 Tbsp reserved mushroom jus cooking over medium heat till sauce thickens. Add kosher salt to taste. Spoon sauce over steaks and garnish with fresh chopped chives.
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